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How Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Going to Maintain Continuity?

With COVID-19 disrupting production of Marvel movies and television series, will the studio’s carefully planned cross-project story lines be thrown out of whack?

Marvel/Ringer illustration

It’s tempting to think about an alternate timeline for 2020—one without a global pandemic disrupting our lives. Personally, I can’t help but think of that Alternate 2020 through the lens of a pop culture blogger: At this point in the year, we would’ve had a definitive answer to whether the Fast & Furious franchise entered outer space, and whether Tom Cruise once again felt the need for speed. October should’ve been the month of Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the cinematic event of a lifetime.

And, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would’ve kept chugging along—beginning with the stand-alone Black Widow movie, and followed by Eternals and the first of several forthcoming MCU series on Disney+, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. At the beginning of 2020, with the MCU entering a new “phase” after the meticulously planned, decade-long buildup to Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like business would be proceeding as usual. (As in, movies making hundreds of millions at the box office and a TV series or two having a sustained level of popularity similar to that of The Mandalorian.)

But instead, the pandemic has created a rare and unexpected MCU content vacuum. With Black Widow officially being pushed back from November 2020 to May 2021—shuffling other films, like Eternals, to their own later dates—2020 will mark the first calendar year without an MCU theatrical release since 2009. (Somewhere, Martin Scorsese breathes a sigh of relief.) The only thing stopping the MCU from being totally shut out this year is a Disney+ series, and not the one that the streamer planned to release first. Because of production delays caused by COVID-19, Falcon and the Winter Soldier won’t be coming out until 2021. In its stead is WandaVision—a bizarre torchbearer, at least by MCU standards. The first trailer is set in some type of I Love Lucy–inspired purgatory, featuring a spectacularly random supporting cast that includes Kathryn Hahn, Fred Melamed, and That ’70s Show’s Kitty Forman (Debra Jo Rupp).

WandaVision looks like it is extremely my shit—if they drop the strange sitcom shtick after one episode I will be pissed!—but under normal circumstances the show would’ve been more of a quirky offshoot than the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar superhero enterprise. There’s no guarantee that theaters will be any more safe at the start of 2021 than they are now, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Black Widow and the rest of the MCU’s movie slate was delayed yet again. What’s likely to happen, then, is that at least one other Disney+ series—Falcon and the Winter Soldier is back in production—will come out before Black Widow, and there’s still the Hawkeye and Loki stand-alone shows that were initially going to come out in 2021. (It was also announced last week that Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury will be getting his own stand-alone series as well.)

While Disney has stressed that the streaming shows will be inextricably linked to the events that happen on the big screen, this chain reaction of movie rescheduling probably won’t have serious implications for Marvel’s carefully planned out storytelling. (The ones who might struggle from all these delays are the clickbait-y comic book sites feeding off content crumbs: some are already ranking deaths.) The unanswerable question is whether this pandemic-induced hiatus will build up more anticipation for the MCU when it’s finally (hopefully) safe to return to theaters, or stall its momentum enough that some people will lose interest. After all, if you were to compare the MCU to serialized storytelling on television, Endgame already felt a lot like a series finale.

Taking an extended break between films has been the secret sauce of Star Wars’ decades-long appeal, especially before Lucasfilm was acquired by Disney after the George Lucas–directed prequel trilogy. (And after the disaster that was The Rise of Skywalker, Disney should really take its time before trying to make another Star Wars movie.) But the MCU has been more focused on quantity than quality: The fact that there are typically multiple Marvel releases in a calendar year makes it easier to forget about duds like Thor: The Dark World. With the exception of Black Panther, even the best Marvel films are akin to a sugar rush (or perhaps a theme park): fun in a vacuum but not substantial enough to resonate with you in any meaningful way.

Much more concerning than what happens with the MCU—don’t spend a second worrying about Disney—is the future of the theatrical experience. The fate of theaters still hangs in the balance: It remains to be seen how, or if, the pandemic affects people’s moviegoing habits. It does appear that the VOD route is not a sensible move for blockbusters, as Disney’s Mulan remake seems to have been enough of a financial failure that the company hasn’t considered dropping Black Widow or any of the other new MCU movies on its streaming service. While Disney has been vague about how Mulan has performed on demand, taking after Netflix in keeping its streaming data shrouded in secrecy, the company not flexing its financial performance speaks for itself. Blockbusters need theaters as much as theaters need blockbusters.

In theory, whenever the MCU can return to the big screen, it will attract the same kind of audience that’s been responsible for making Marvel movies some of the highest-grossing films of all time. But the longer the MCU’s Phase 4 keeps getting pushed back, the more a temporary pause in programming will begin to feel like a full-on stop—especially if the Disney+ shows become hindered by all the delays because they’re setting up events that would be fed into movies that are much further down the pipeline. (WandaVision, for example, is supposed to inform the Doctor Strange sequel, which is slated for 2022 and could always get delayed.)

It’s probably foolish to doubt the staying power of the MCU, the undisputed blockbuster king of the past decade that’s shown no non-pandemic signs of slowing down. Marvel is still the biggest game in town, and compared to the recent high-profile failures of The Rise of Skywalker and Game of Thrones’ final season, Endgame was actually quite good and satisfied its fan base. Hell, I’m not that big on everything Marvel, and I’m pretty excited for WandaVision! But with so much uncertainty facing studios and movie theaters as we continue to navigate a new entertainment landscape, things can always change as quickly as they did after Thanos snapped his fingers.