How Marvel Studios has sold a long-awaited – on multiple levels – super hero solo film.
Over a decade after being first introduced in Iron Man 2 and following several supporting appearances in other MCU movies, Scarlett Johansson strikes out on her own in this week’s Black Widow.
Set in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, which gets around the fact that Natasha Romanoff sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame, the story follows Natasha as she’s on the run from the authorities. A series of events lead her to reunite with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a fellow agent of Russia’s Red Room who shares a sister-like bond with Natasha, as well as former Black Widow Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian (David Harbour), the Russian equivalent of Captain America. All four, a surrogate family of sorts, face off against Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), a villain who can copy anyone’s movements and who is after the same MacGuffin sought by Natasha and Yelena.
Originally scheduled for May of last year but delayed multiple times because of Covid, the movie hits both theaters and Disney+ Premier Access this week. It’s notable for a number of reasons:
- It is, of course, the first solo movie Marvel Studios has released with a female lead character, the only founding Avenger other than Hawkeye to not get a standalone story (and his turn is coming via a Disney+ series later this year).
- It’s the first MCU release in two years, the longest the franchise has been absent from audiences since the gap between the first two Iron Man movies.
- It’s the first MCU feature film to be released on Disney+ day-and-date with theatrical, a circumstance brought on because plans made during the worst of the pandemic were hard to adjust on short notice.
First reactions have been largely positive, with critics calling out the movie’s spy genre heritage as well as the strong performances, particularly Pugh’s. That’s resulted in an 81% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a film that’s received a full court press campaign from Disney that’s focused on Johansson finally getting her own turn in the spotlight. This confluence of events has led to speculation the movie could score a pandemic-high opening weekend box office of $80 million or more.
In November 2019 the first teaser poster (by artist Andy Park) came out offering a look at Natasha as she stands at the forefront of an arrangement of the other characters, the red “X” that will dominate the film’s branding from here on out in the background.
The second poster (by marketing agency LA) from December of that year brings that branding even more to the surface as the solid red “X” dominates the design, Natasha shown at the bottom walking toward the camera ready for action. It’s inspired by a cover from the character’s 2016 comics series.
An exclusive poster handed out at CCXP in early December 2019 features an artistic drawing of Natasha’s face looking weary and tired, as if she’s come through a difficult battle.
Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year.
The four major heroes received character posters released in February 2020, each standing in front of a background made up of heavily-redacted documents, the kind a bunch of spies would be very interested in.
Everyone’s brought together on the initial theatrical poster, which came out in March of last year, including a handful of faceless women at the bottom who look very much Black Widow and are walking away from the Kremlin, establishing them as part of the same program that trained Natasha.
Here's your look at the new poster for Marvel Studios' #BlackWidow! See it in theaters May 1. https://t.co/W061YyDgoD—
Black Widow (@theblackwidow) March 09, 2020
Another poster came out in March of this year that shows Natasha in her white uniform.
More character posters, including ones for Taskmaster and the agent played by O-T Fagbenle, came out in May.
A similar approach from the character posters is taken on the final one-sheet, with Natasha at the center of her surrogate family, with other supporting characters scattered around as well.
The first trailer, released in early December 2019, opens with Natasha’s lines from Endgame about how the Avengers gave her a home and a family. At this point she’s ready to confront her past and so heads home, leading to an interesting reunion with her sister. The two set out to investigate the organization that made them what they are, but why is unclear. What is shown are brief looks at Taskmaster and his goons along with an extended introduction to Natasha’s father, who can still fit into his Red Guardian costume.
One thing that’s not clear is the movie’s time period. Natasha’s comments and narration are vague, so you have to have some foreknowledge that the story takes place before the events of Infinity War.
A “Special Look” trailer came out in mid-January 2020 that introduced a key premise of the film, that there is a new generation of Widows being trained that Natasha and her family must confront before they’re loosed upon the world.
The bond between Natasha and her chosen family is the focus of the next trailer, released in early March. It starts with her and her sister reconnecting and sharing the lies they’ve told and ends with everyone gathered around the table as we see the same kind of dynamic that might be found in any family. In between we’re shown Natasha has found some of the mistakes she made before becoming an Avenger have caught up with her. The Taskmaster is introduced as the new head of the Russian training facility she came out of, but he’s more cruel and so she sets out to stop him and free the girls that have been sent to kill her.
The final trailer, released in early April, is all about secrets and dealing with the sins of the past. It’s the same basic message being sold here about family and such, but with a few new shots and the promise of a lot of action and a lot of drama.
Online and Social
Marvel’s page for the film featured some videos, posters and other background information, but not much details on other aspects of the marketing campaign. There were also social profiles that offered a bit more.
Advertising, Press and Publicity
After years of speculation, rumors, comments by Marvel Studios execs about how they’d “love to” make a Black Widow movie (as if they were subject to someone else’s whims), it finally moved into the realm of reality when Cate Shortland was hired to direct the feature. Many people pointed out as the synopsis was released that the story sounded more or less just like 2018’s Jennifer Lawrence-starring Red Sparrow about a female Russian agent trained to seduce and spy at all costs in the service of the Motherland.
The topic of the movie’s existence came up during the Avengers: Endgame press tour, but Johansson remained mum on whether it was happening or not, part of Marvel’s strategy of not officially announcing any future projects.
Plans became much more official when the movie was part of Marvel’s Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2019. That event featured revelations about the cast, characters and story, including Johansson commenting on her desire to keep playing Natasha over the last decade. Marvel put out a video of footage from the panel that included insights from the cast.
In addition to the trailer shown, attendees of Disney’s D23 Fan Expo in August of 2019 were able to see costumes from the movie on the show floor.
The first paid promotion came via a commercial aired during the College Football Playoffs on ESPN in January, 2020, when the movie was still expected to be just a few months away.
A featurette released in mid-January 2020 had Johansson talking about the potential for future stories the character has while also reflecting on the fact she’s been playing Natasha for 10 years now, with this movie offering audiences something new as well.
Marvel had three Black Widow comics already on the schedule for May, all of them focusing on characters that would be seen in the movie, when it announced in January the launch – also in May – of a new ongoing series for the character. Later on the publisher showed off movie-themed variant covers for some issues of those titles.
Widow has unfinished family business in the Super Bowl commercial that shows the drama and action of the story, including some of the threats she’ll face off against.
An explanation of who Red Guardian is was the subject of a video released by Marvel in mid-February.
The movie was a major part of Marvel’s promotional presence at two major conventions earlier this year. Toys based on the film were shown off at ToyFair in February, while C2E2 in March included Black Widow merchandise for sale.
A profile of Johansson had her talking about her long history with the character and what it means to finally have her stand on her own in a film. Another piece had her sharing what she felt were the character’s best scenes from over the years.
An Omaze campaign was launched in March with a video featuring Johansson telling people they could win a trip to the movie’s premiere. That was followed by an International Women’s Day greeting from Johansson and Pugh.
At that point – early April 2020, about a month after Disney pulled it from the schedule – the first date change happened as the movie was pushed to November, when we thought things would be back to normal again.
Harbor spoke about his character of Red Guardian and what it means in the context of the story.
In an interview from last July, Shortland revealed the film essentially puts a cap on Johansson’s time in the MCU and lets Pough’s character pick up the baton going forward. Another feature package in Empire came out in September that had more comments from Johansson and others along with exclusive new images. Shortland also commented on how the story, which mixes super heroics and family drama, evolved during development and production.
Another interview with Johansson and Pugh had the two talking about production of this movie, the pandemic-related delays and what future plans there might be for both of their characters.
In November Black Widow, sporting the same white uniform she’s wearing in many of the trailers, was added to Fortnite.
The question of release seemed to be settled in December of last year, when Disney made it clear during its investors presentation that the movie was still planned as a theatrical-only title. It reiterated that commitment in February during the company’s earnings announcement, which also included the news Disney+ had grown to 94 million subscribers.
A few months later, in March, that commitment was (unsurprisingly) called into question when Disney announced A) one last date shift – from May to July – as well as B) that the movie would get a simultaneous theatrical and Disney+ Premier Access release.
Johannson presented the movie as being a chance for audiences to finally get to know Natasha’s true story in a video released on National Super Hero Day in early May.
Additional footage was included in the “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video also from early May. It’s not a lot, but it puts this film in the context of the previous MCU entries while also playing up the communal experience of theatrical viewing.
The first clip came in mid-May during the “MTV Movie & TV Awards” broadcast, where Johansson accepted the “Generation Award.”. It shows Natasha and Yelena bickering like the sisters they are while trying to get away from a bad guy.
A “special look” came out in early June telling fans the wait is over, though technically there was still another month or so to wait.
Tickets going on sale in early June unlocked a host of content, almost like a tide that’s been held back for a year and was suddenly unleashed. That included:
- An IMAX-specific spot with Pugh encouraging fans to choose IMAX to see 26% more of the action.
- Other spots that focused on the action of the movie and the family-centered drama of the story.
- A clip showing Natasha and Yelena defending their home from heavily-armed intruders,
- A featurette that took audiences behind the scenes of some of the big action sequences
Around that same time, Shortland was interviewed about what movies and other stories she drew inspiration from.
Harbour talked more about the movie when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” in June of last year
In a much-shared interview, Johansson talked about how her character has evolved since being introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2 where, she said, Natasha was overly-sexualized and objectified, underestimated because of that by almost all the other characters at some point or another.
Harbour had some fun speculating on his character’s backstory and what potential there might be in that unexplored territory while the rest of the cast talked about working with Shortland.
In a video released on Father’s Day Harbour read some corny “dad jokes” much to the embarrassment of his costars.
Johansson appeared on “The Tonight Show” to hype the movie, convince people to see it in theaters and tease some revelations.
A ton of commercials and other promo spots started running in early June, each taking a slightly different take on the story but all selling the movie as a fast-paced action romp with the Romanov family.
Weisz answered a handful of questions about the production like the person most likely to pull a prank on set in a video from mid-June. Later on Johansson, Harbour and Pugh answered their own sets of fan questions.
A joint interview with Johansson and Pugh had the two of them sharing anecdotes over how they bonded on set, particularly over the ridiculousness of some of the fighting poses they were expected to perform and more.
A fan screening event was held in Los Angeles recently with some of the cast in attendance and some appearing virtually. Similar events, each with some subset of the cast and crew, were held in major cities around the world.
Another interview with Shortland had her talking about the multiple times she declined taking on the project, only to eventually be worn down/won over by the persistence of her agent and Marvel.
Regal Cinemas shared an exclusive video interview with the cast.
More background on Taskmaster was shared by Marvel in a featurette released just a week or so ago. There was also a recap of Widow’s character journey through the 10+ years since her introduction to the MCU.
The last wave of commercials like this explicitly called out this being Marvel’s return to theater screens after a two year absence.
Natasha and Yelena are breaking Alexei out of prison in the last official clip released before the movie was made available.
One last featurette had the cast talking about the makeshift family the characters have formed.
Additional interviews with Shortland like this had her talking about the opportunity that exists for more female directors to be brought into the MCU. Meanwhile Feige talked about how this story takes place during the third phase of the MCU arc but sets the stage for things that will happen moving forward.
Disney+ released a movie-themed episode of the “Legends” series, offering more background on the character and her history.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
- Geico, which has the company’s spokesgecko imagining what it would be like to ride along with Natasha and Yelena.
- BMW, which released exclusive interviews with the cast in support of a campaign that shows the company’s cars executing some of the movie’s big driving stunts.
- Synchrony Bank, which launched a campaign encouraging people to learn about its savings tools.
This is probably the biggest campaign in terms of sheer volume of elements in quite a while, even bigger than F9 and other recent releases. As such it’s hard to judge on an objective level. But what’s impressive is how Marvel Studios has maintained a sense of brand consistency despite the unexpectedly long period of time the marketing has been forced to stretch over. Add to that a very professionally enthusiastic push from Johansson and a focus on Pugh that sets her up as the future of this part of the franchise’s future and you have a solid campaign that hopes audiences are ready for more of the series after a prolonged break.
Now we just see if it can stick the landing.