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Marvel at crossroads with 'Black Widow' big-screen return

Published : 09 Jul 2021 08:39 PM | Updated : 09 Jul 2021 08:39 PM

Two years ago, after a blistering and unprecedented streak of billion-dollar-grossing movies, the Marvel superhero films took what was meant to be a short hiatus.

When that big-screen break -- involuntarily extended by the Covid-19 pandemic -- finally ends Friday with the release of ‘Black Widow,’ Hollywood will be watching closely to see if Marvel still has its mojo.

"I would say it is in flux, at a pretty crucial turning point," said Kendall Phillips, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in pop culture. "The key question is -- can Marvel do it again?"

‘Black Widow’ -- which finally gives Scarlett Johansson's Russian assassin-turned-superhero Natasha Romanoff her own spin-off -- has been sitting "in the can" since May 2020, as parent company Disney waited for theaters to reopen. 

It is now set to be the first of a jam-packed raft of new Marvel films, with 12 splashy good-versus-evil extravaganzas due in theaters by the end of 2023 -- not to mention various TV series that have premiered during the pandemic or are coming soon.

Even for a franchise that previously churned out three blockbusters per year -- including ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ which briefly passed ‘Avatar’ as the top-grossing film in history -- that is a frantic pace.

And the films' comeback is being launched at a time when the appetite of moviegoers for piling into theaters remains uncertain. Despite the recent successes of ‘A Quiet Place 2’ and ‘F9,’ only 80 percent of North American theaters are open, box office takes are far short of pre-pandemic times, and fears of Covid-19 variants are growing.

'Black Widow,' I'm certain, would make 10 to 15 percent more this weekend if all theaters were open and there was no such thing as Covid," said David A. Gross, who runs movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research. "But that's the world we live in."

The overall Marvel relaunch is also complicated by the loss of several stars. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have stepped back from key roles as ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Captain America’, while ‘Black Panther’ actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer last year.

His role will not be recast for next year's sequel, which will tread a difficult line between honoring Boseman's legacy and cashing in on the first film's nearly $1.4 billion worldwide gross.    -AFP