‘Black Widow’ and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Great Uncertain Transition

Marvel Black Widow Review Phase IV
Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Marvel’s Black Widow. Marvel Studios

There’s a popular philosophy in the NFL that good teams retool instead of rebuild. In other words, the best franchises don’t endure long and painful self-improvement processes. They don’t tear down their rosters in order to build them back up. Instead, consistently good teams such as the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers are known for readjusting on the fly with strategic tweaks and changes that keep them competitive without significant long-term drop off.

In Hollywood, it’s a bit different. With a few key exceptions, long-running franchises almost always need to reboot (i.e. rebuild) in order to maintain cultural cache. That’s what makes Black Widow and the Marvel Cinematic Universe so interesting right now. The Marvel franchise, which has now entered its teenage years, is attempting to pull off the delicate feat of passing the torch to a new generation of characters without losing any momentum. It’s a maneuver no other blockbuster series has cleanly accomplished.

Black Widow is a perfectly solid entry in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, capably utilizing found family dynamics for both humor and heart while delivering patented MCU action. (Director Cate Shortland hits audiences with Marvel’s most inventive action sequence in years and should be given another go-around in this series should she want). Perhaps most importantly though, the film—which takes place after Captain America: Civil War in the MCU timeline—serves as a creative bridge between past and future.

In addition to David Harbour, Florence Pugh particularly shines as Yelena Belova, Natasha’s surrogate sister and an elite badass in her own right. To no one’s surprise, the movie leaves you with a sense that Yelena could be the next Black Widow following Natasha’s death in Endgame. It’s already been reported that the character will be appearing in Disney+’s upcoming Hawkeye. This transition is indicative of the larger trend weaving through the MCU at the moment where we slowly bid adieu to the franchise’s founding characters in favor of new faces.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) proved that Marvel had garnered enough audience goodwill and trust that it could take even more obscure B-list characters from its roster and turn them into global moneymaking blockbuster A-listers. Now, in Phase IV, the MCU is attempting to maintain or even grow a rabid fanbase while setting up an unfamiliar future. It’s attempting to retool rather than rebuild, which doesn’t always have the best Hollywood track record.

Marvel Black Widow Phase IV Projects
Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson in Marvel’s Black Widow. Marvel Studios

Despite these films earning over $1 billion each, Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy petered out by Rise of Skywalker (2019) and concluded the main saga on a disappointing note. The long-running Fast & Furious franchise didn’t wave the white flag after Tokyo Drift (2006) disappointed, but it did retreat into the known and familiar safety of the original characters thereafter. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) attempted to set up Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams to assume the mantle, but fans rejected that notion. Similarly, Marvel’s own Jeremy Renner was once rumored to be the next hero of the Mission: Impossible series and even received his own Bourne Identity. Neither achieved the desired results.

Throughout film history, James Bond and Batman may very well be the only truly enduring blockbuster heroes, though both franchises are constantly rebooting themselves. Marvel is attempting to extend its reign of dominance while staying on the same track.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wrestled with race and legacy as Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) eventually became the next Captain America after Steve Rogers. Hawkeye will introduce Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), who replaces the older archer in the comics, and ECHO, a deaf hero. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder will see Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster assume the mantle of “Mighty Thor.” Disney+ is developing an Ironheart series about teenager Riri Williams who invents her own Iron Man suit to protect her Chicago neighborhood. And through tragic circumstance, the Black Panther franchise will also have to fill the void left by Chadwick Boseman’s passing. There are also new characters to be introduced with little connection to the MCU’s origins ranging from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals to Moon Knight, to say nothing of the looming arrival of the Fantastic Four and X-Men.

It’s a massive retooling effort that spans film and television, multiple properties, and hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a clever move to have Marvel mainstays gracefully bow out of the franchise before overstaying their welcome. But continuing Marvel’s unprecedented Hollywood success following the decade-long buildup to the Infinity Saga while introducing mostly new characters is the biggest risk Marvel Studios has taken since its inception.

So far, these transitions away from the old and toward the new have been more-or-less successful. If Marvel manages to pull off its retooling while maintaining its consistent billion-dollar prowess and high floor of quality, it may be the single-most impressive accomplishment in tentpole studio moviemaking history. But despite what audiences may claim they want, viewers are a fickle bunch who don’t always embrace change. As a result, much like Marvel Studios’ bankruptcy-defying origins, the future is once again excitedly uncertain for Hollywood’s biggest franchise. ‘Black Widow’ and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Great Uncertain Transition