For a film once thought to set records, and which is all but guaranteed to pass $1 billion in worldwide grosses for Disney (DIS 0.36%) before exiting theaters, Avengers: Age of Ultron is suffering uncommon criticism. Most of it is centered on Marvel Studios' treatment of Black Widow, the assassin-turned-Avenger played by Scarlett Johansson.
I'll not replay the various breakdowns, but the crux of it is this: Marvel played into every awful female stereotype in Ultron, so fans shouldn't hold out hope of seeing Johansson in a Black Widow movie worth seeing.
Director Joss Whedon has since quit Twitter in what initially seemed to be a response to the criticism -- he's since denied that's the case -- while SNL weighed in with a brilliant spoof I've included at the end of this article.
That it's come to this is disappointing to me as both a fan and as a business analyst. The data makes a good financial case for a Black Widow movie:
|Movies Featuring Black Widow||Domestic Gross||Worldwide Gross||Estimated Box Office Profit %|
|Iron Man 2||$312,433,331||$623,933,331||9.13%|
|Marvel's The Avengers||$623,357,910||$1,518,594,910||30.24%|
|Captain America: The Winter Soldier||$259,766,572||$714,766,572||17.12%|
|Avengers: Age of Ultron||$227,042,314||$686,542,314||0.48%|
Skeptics will point out Johansson's Black Widow had limited screen time due to her supporting role in these films. I'd counter that she's grown with each successive film. From handling Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 to playing mind games with Tom Hiddleston's Loki in The Avengers to teaming up with Cap in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to developing a close relationship with The Hulk in Age of Ultron, Black Widow has become one of the key figures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Next year, she'll appear onscreen again in Captain America: Civil War, months after Jennifer Lawrence puts to bed Katniss Everdeen in the final installment of The Hunger Games series. The market for female-lead action films has blossomed since her 2012 debut:
|Movies Starring Action Heroines||Domestic Gross||Worldwide Gross||Estimated Box Office Profit %|
|The Hunger Games: Catching Fire||$424,668,047||$864,912,963||28.6%|
|The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1||$337,135,885||$752,100,229||26.1%|
|The Hunger Games||$408,010,692||$691,247,768||31.2%|
|Lara Croft: Tomb Raider||$131,168,070||$274,703,340||0.9%|
Can we use this data to project a potential return for a Black Widow movie? Not exactly. Johansson's Agent Romanov is different from Lawrence's Katniss, Shailene Woodley's Tris, and Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft.
The good news is that we have a lot of data on Marvel movies. We know what the average film yields -- i.e., $195.5 million domestically, $467.9 million worldwide. We also know what the worst performer looks like -- i.e., 2008's Punisher: War Zone with just $10.1 million worldwide. And we know how the lone female-led Marvel film to this point, Elektra, did when it debuted 10 years ago -- i.e., $24.4 million domestic, $56.7 million worldwide, and an estimated $49.7 million in box office losses.
Add it all up, and I conclude three things:
- Black Widow is an additive property. Two of the four movies in which Johansson has appeared are among Marvel Studios' top grossers. Age of Ultron will be the third when it finishes its run in theaters. Black Widow is an important part of that winning formula.
- Female leads can carry action franchises. The Hunger Games changed everything by making Katniss' various relationships subservient to her journey as a genuine action hero. Audiences don't just like the concept; they love it. Why can't we can't have Black Widow movies that take us down a similar path?
- The Marvel brand is strong enough to lift even obscure properties. And it's getting stronger. According to my estimates, MCU films average a 15.4% box office profit margin -- i.e., gross profit after accounting for production, distribution, and a 50% cut for screening theaters. MCU films in the post-Avengers era -- as in, all MCU films from Avengers onward -- average a 20.9% margin. A Black Widow movie would benefit from this same tailwind.
Now, as promised, here's the SNL trailer that had the Internet abuzz for how it skewers Marvel's handling of female characters. Do you agree with the take? Would you see a Black Widow movie? Sound off in the comments area below.