In May, I suggested the possibility that Marvel Studios, since 2008 arguably the most successful film franchise today (and possibly ever), might have peaked, and that its success from here on out would begin to diminish even as some of its products continued to do well. I offered several reasons this might be the case: the pandemic interruption of moviegoing habits; the increasing complexity and investment required for movies given the addition of Disney+ TV shows; exhaustion of its best material; a leftward turn in storytelling; and difficulties penetrating the Chinese market.
Two weekends ago, Black Widow, the first Marvel theatrical release since the global smash Avengers: Endgame, was released (with Disney+ subscribers given the option to purchase it for viewing). The movie was supposed to come out last May, but had been delayed until the point when Marvel could reasonably hope for a big opening weekend. And its $80 million domestic opening was indeed the biggest of the pandemic period, if middling for Marvel. But this past weekend, its take collapsed by 67 percent, to under $26 million — very poor for a Marvel movie.
The Washington Post reports that the large drop has industry watchers attempting to figure out what went wrong. They mostly dismiss the explanation that Disney+ availability to purchase Black Widow for same-weekend home-viewing seriously reduced its box-office gross; they also reject lingering nervousness by audiences about returning to theaters, as, in fact, its Disney+ numbers weren’t that good, either. It seems, rather, that reducing the window to wait for the movie to be free to watch on Disney+, as opposed to available for purchase, has discouraged people from wanting to see it in theaters:
An MCU bounty has been available for free to the more than 100 million Disney Plus subscribers over the past six months, with shows such as “Loki,” “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” debuting. Disney leaders have aimed to attract as many people as possible to its service with high-value content. But in the process they may have done something else — conditioned consumers to the idea that Marvel material is not something to be paid extra for.
But Josh Spiegel, a close industry observer of Disney, warned against taking large-scale conclusions from Black Widow‘s relative failure, even if he thought it could indicate people are “a little tired” of Marvel. He thought its mediocre reviews, its taking place chronologically before Endgame, and its focus on a character we already know (spoiler) dies in that movie, make it hard to extrapolate overly from. (That latter bit is certainly a reason why I have no interest in seeing it, even with my well–established desire to return to theaters.) We’d have to wait for later releases this year to see for sure.
Maybe so. But it’s something to watch closely, as we have an early data point that I may be right about Marvel having peaked.