Black Widow Is a Step Back for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Is the biggest brand in movies better off on the small screen?


For more than a decade now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has ruled the box office and the big screen with a core promise: Always, always, there will be more.

The franchise's serialized, spinoff-propelled storytelling was the cinematic equivalent of a perpetual motion machine for both viewers and the studio behind it. Individual movies would come and go, but if one was not so great, well, just wait a few months. Each one was pitched as its own mega-movie event. But if it didn't deliver, well, there's always another—and another and another and another, wash, rinse, repeat.

Until 2020, that is, when the pandemic shut down both theatrical exhibitions and most TV and movie production, resulting in the first Marvel-less year in over a decade. Instead of Black Widow, Eternals, and a straight-to-streaming series or two, viewers primed to show up for two or three billion-dollar big-screen events every year got a whole lot of nothing.

And when the MCU did return, it did so on the small screen, with Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and, over the last several weeks, a limited series devoted to reforming the franchise's charming trickster quasi-villain, Loki.

Each of these series expanded on the franchise's promise—offering longer, more plot- and character-driven pieces that enlarged and enlivened the Marvel formula even if they did not fully depart from it. The results were not entirely successful: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier got bogged down by clumsy attempts at pseudo-political relevance, and WandaVision was perhaps a little too enamored with its formal cleverness. But WandaVision also offered a striking merge of dislocated superhero psychology with TV-comedy history, and Loki has thrown its loveable villain-hero into a deliriously haywire multiversal blender that's part Rick and Morty, part Doctor Who, part Jack Kirby-esque cosmic fantasia. It's not without flaw, but it's invigorating and artful and overflowing with amusing ideas; it might be the single best product the MCU has ever produced.

On the small screen, then, the MCU has adapted and thrived, in part because its comic book–style storytelling has always felt more than a little like TV on the big screen. The streaming series rollout this year has felt, in some ways, like the franchise finally finding its natural home.

As of this weekend, though, the franchise is back in theaters, this time with Black Widow, the long-delayed solo film for one of the MCU's most prominent supporting characters. The movie gives Scarlett Johansson's Russian superagent Natasha Romanoff a much-deserved individual showcase, and per the Marvel movie formula, there are on-the-regular laughs and heartwarming personal moments interspersed with the sort of epic action set pieces only $200 million studio budgets can buy.

Black Widow is bigger and louder in almost every way than the streaming series that the MCU has subsisted on recently—and yet somehow it feels diminished, even inessential. Yes, the action scenes are more elaborately staged and the effects work is noticeably a cut above even the best that Disney+ has to offer. Director Cate Shortland has put together a Hollywood spectacle that looks more distinctive and more textured, and has more coherently staged action, than many of the film's bland-and-samey MCU predecessors.

But the story takes the character backward—something of a necessity given that (spoilers for a 2-year-old film to follow) Romanoff died in 2019's Avengers: Endgame. As a result, the stakes for her first solo outing are relatively low: Even more than usual, we know she'll live through whatever the film throws at her, and then die years later—or years earlier, depending on what order you watch the movies—on a starry cosmic cliff as part of a quest to defeat a Giant Purple Bad Guy with a glove full of costume jewelry MacGuffins.

And that, in turn, means the movie needs to deliver something else, something more meaningful—or at least a little more human, the kind of character-driven drama that the streaming series have, by necessity, typically managed better than their big-screen counterparts. But while the movie's found-family storyline tries to ground Black Widow's experience in something more relatable, it feels rushed and formulaic, like a Reader's Digest version of something richer and more patiently paced.

Black Widow, in other words, is not much better than a rote look back at a character with no likely future. Sure, there's an obvious successor waiting in the wings in the form of Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova, but a long-overdue film titled Black Widow needs, above all, to service the title character. Instead, it offers little more than a fleshing out of a backstory we already more or less knew.

The MCU has always borrowed from the tropes of television, and its movies have always, in some sense, just been episodes and installments in some grand, big-screen series. But now that the franchise has spread out on streaming, it's less clear what role the big tentpole films play. Black Widow was only delayed by a little more than a year; it was supposed to arrive before the first Disney+ series debuted. But it already feels like a relic from another age, when the masses went to the movies, and Marvel owned the multiplex. It's a nostalgic reminiscence, back to when times were great and Marvel movies ruled the world.

Indeed, if anything, in the context of the streaming series, Black Widow makes a case that the franchise's natural home is on streaming, and that Marvel might be better off fully embracing the serial-TV model it has always implicitly mimicked. A feature film inherently promises not just a beginning but also a middle and an end, a finish or completion of some sort. But Marvel's real strength is in keeping the story going, like a comic book or a soap opera, letting viewers live and grow up with the characters along the way.

The MCU has been Hollywood's biggest franchise for long enough that it's unlikely to give up the glory—which is to say the outsized box office returns—of the silver screen. But there's more reason than ever to think the small screen is where it's really meant to be.