When will Disney Plus stream Black Widow? We still don't know

Marvel's movie streaming dates are still a mystery, even though Disney skipped theaters with Mulan and will stream animated Raya and the Last Dragon the same day it arrives in theaters in March.

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Joan E. Solsman
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In the pandemic, Disney has been leaning into streaming and its Disney Plus service to release movies originally planned for the big screen. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Disney's plan for streaming Marvel's Black Widow after it hits theaters May 7 remained a mystery Thursday, as the company completed its investor day without detailing any adjusted release plans for the movie or other Marvel flicks next year, like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals

The fogginess around Marvel releases means Disney, which has racked up more epic blockbusters than any other in the past five years, is still uncertain about aggressively bringing its biggest-budget movies to streaming while the pandemic continues to keep film fans out of cinema seats. 

"Over the 100 titles that we announced today, 80% of them are going first to Disney Plus, which I think says something about our pivot over to Disney Plus," Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Thursday. "But at the same time, we had $13 billion of box office last year. That's obviously not something to sneeze at... We build [Disney] franchises through the theatrical-exhibition window."

"So for us, it's about balance," he added. 

During Disney's investor presentation, Disney did announce that some big-screen flicks to stream on Disney Plus instead. Disney said it was flipping several of its live-action feature films into Disney Plus original movies, including: Cruella, which was supposed to hit cinemas in May; Pinocchio, a live-action remake starring Tom Hanks; its Peter Pan reboot; Disenchanted, a sequel to Enchanted that will have Amy Adams reprise her princess role; and Sister Act 3, reviving the comedy franchise about nuns.

And Raya and the Last Dragon, an animated fantasy, will be released on Disney Plus on March 5, the same day it hits theaters; to stream it on Disney Plus, the title will have an extra fee on top of the service's regular subscription price. This so-called Premiere Access model is how Disney Plus released Mulan in September, when it charged an extra $30 to unlock the title. 

Disney isn't the only Hollywood giant leaning into streaming as a pandemic strategy for movies originally planned for the big screen. Last week, in a move that shocked many and outraged some, AT&T's WarnerMedia said all new movies from its Warner Bros. studio -- including Wonder Woman 1984Dune and The Matrix 4 -- would be available to stream on its own streaming service HBO Max the same day flicks hit theaters, at no added cost to subscribers. 

But Thursday's news -- or, rather, the lack of news about Marvel's streaming release dates -- indicates Disney isn't ready to commit to such a dramatic overhaul of traditional "windows" for movie releases yet. 

Until the pandemic, Disney had been loyal to the theatrical-release norms that kept movies exclusively in cinemas for 75 days or longer, helping it rack up more top box-office blockbusters in the last five years than any other studio.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic started seriously disrupting movie-going, Disney has been evolving Disney Plus' role, making the service an outlet for its big-budget theatrical films. At first, Disney Plus simply started streaming already-released movies months earlier than planned. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker began streaming three months early on the May the Fourth fan day. Before that, Disney released animated hit Frozen 2 three months early as well, and Pixar's Onward landed on Disney Plus just weeks after it premiered in theaters. 

Then Disney started ratcheting up the streaming releases of new movies too. In July, Disney Plus released the film version of award-winning musical Hamilton, recorded as a live stage capture of the original Broadway cast. The Hamilton film arrived on Disney Plus more than a year earlier than its originally planned theatrical debut for October 2021. 

Read more: Star Wars shows, movies we might see at Thursday's preview event
Read more: Every Marvel show and movie we hope to hear about Thursday

But the biggest change was Disney's release of its live-action remake of Mulan in September. The mega-budget film was released on Disney Plus as a $30 add-on to the service's regular subscription price, essentially skipping most theaters. It was a move that that would've been unthinkable six months earlier, an unprecedented approach to releasing a movie that had been destined to be a blockbuster back when theaters were open worldwide -- and it's a dramatic departure from the rigid windows that have for decades have kept new movies only in theaters for months.  

At first, Mulan's release on Disney Plus didn't seem to pave the way for more live-action, big-budget movies to follow the same route. Less than three weeks after Mulan's release, Disney delayed Marvel's Black Widow from Nov. 6 until May 7 -- a sign that the rest of its biggest movies will wait until cinemas reopen and audiences may be ready to return to theaters again. But then, Pixar's latest animated film, Soul, was announced it would skip theaters entirely and stream on Disney Plus on Dec. 25 without any added fee.

CNET's full coverage includes all the news from Disney's event.

Watch this: What's new to stream for December 2020