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'Black Widow' didn't bomb. Why it's time to stop screaming about streaming

·4 min read

The movie business is still crawling back from the effects of COVID-19, but at least one bit of normalcy has returned: whining about box office.

The latest object of disaffection is “Black Widow,” which has managed to make some decent cash as both a theatrical and streaming release. Still, the highly anticipated Marvel movie has been met with hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth by the mere fact people might rather watch Scarlett Johansson kick posterior at home than masked up in a movie theater.

"Black Widow" racked up $80 million when it debuted in domestic theaters this month, a pandemic record (after breaking the $70 million mark set by "F9" in June) and the highest opening since “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in December 2019. Pretty impressive after the absolute dumpster fire of 2020. Disney also had the audacity, though, to concurrently release its latest blockbuster as a premium rental on its Disney+ streaming service and it was a hit there, too, making an additional $60 million globally.

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Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) tussles with Taskmaster in "Black Widow."
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) tussles with Taskmaster in "Black Widow."

The second weekend wasn't all that: With a haul of $26.3 million (a 67% drop from opening), "Black Widow" watched LeBron James’ debuting family sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy" (which also was available the same day for HBO Max streaming subscribers) race by with $31.7 million.

However, what was a fairly logical situation for summer blockbusters even during the Normal Times – new big movie upends other big movie – was seen as a sign of the apocalypse by the National Association of Theatre Owners. A press release taking aim at Disney decried it as a “stunning second weekend collapse,” flagged piracy threats from streaming and argued that the "simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself.”

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Let’s unpack that. First off, yes, it was a stunning collapse – in an alternate world where COVID-19 never happened, maybe. With coronavirus case numbers spiking again across the USA due to the delta variant and just under half the country fully vaccinated, it’s clear that nothing is back to normal, including moviegoing. This past weekend, M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller “Old” and the G.I. Joe martial-arts adventure “Snake Eyes” opened with $16.5 million and $13.4 million, respectively – both only arriving in theaters, with no streaming option yet – while “Black Widow” made another $11.6 million to become the fastest movie to reach $150 million in the pandemic era. (And for the record, the new "Space Jam" also dropped almost 70% in its second weekend, managing only $9.6 million.)

Henry Golding plays the title ninja of "Snake Eyes."
Henry Golding plays the title ninja of "Snake Eyes."

Even though a lot of folks might like to pretend the pandemic is over, it’s not. At all. Although movie theaters are open, crowds are not flocking back to the big screen, whether the Olympics are to blame, or rising COVID-19 concerns, or people just wanting to spend time with loved ones they haven’t seen in a year.

It’s obvious with films like “F9” (which has made $163.4 million in theaters since its June debut), “A Quiet Place Part II” ($157.5 million since Memorial Day weekend) and, yep, that disappointing “Black Widow,” there is still a hunger for the big-screen experience. The industry needs to be patient as people come back, even if it is slowly – all of these films were delayed a year due to COVID-19 and could have sat out longer.

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And everybody also needs to realize that streaming and video-on-demand aren't going anywhere. NATO’s statement took a shot at the day-and-date model (aka, releasing new movies in theaters and at home concurrently) it took studios most of last year to implement, and they're up in arms not only due to that, but also because of tightening theatrical windows. (For example, the "Quiet Place" sequel was available on demand 45 days after its cinema release, rather than the usual three months wait time pre-pandemic.)

What’s unfair is these same studios finally figured out they should meet audiences wherever they are during this treacherous time, when young kids aren’t vaccinated and others are uneasy about returning to theaters. What movies will and won’t end up in a theater is a hard conversation the entire industry will need to have again sooner rather than later, especially with major films like "No Time to Die," "Halloween Kills" and "Dune" all scheduled to arrive in theaters in October, when another COVID-19 spike is expected.

It’s been a crazy time, guys. Having a Marvel movie to watch again – be it on a cinema screen or an HDTV at home – was the comfort food a lot of movie fans sorely needed. In that sense, even if “Black Widow” isn’t doing “Avengers” numbers, it’s not a bomb, no matter how you look at it. Actually, amid a pandemic that’s been hard to shake, it’s downright heroic.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Black Widow': Marvel's latest movie didn't bomb by streaming too

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