The MCU looked unstoppable. Yes, Avengers: Endgame wrapped up the decade long plotline that the series had been building towards but the studio had a plan for the next run and it was all going to kick off with Black Widow releasing on May 1. The film was great choice to carry them into the next “saga” as it was a prequel using an already established and beloved character and could pull people back in, while introducing a possible new Black Widow.
Then coronavirus hit and now its unclear when Black Widow, let alone a slew of other MCU projects, will land. It may seem trivial at first but the release and production delays could have a massive impact on the MCU and, when we look back on it in the future, be the reason that Marvel and Disney’s cinematic empire finally stopped.
As it stands now it looks like nothing can stop the MCU. The films in the series all make a ton of money and often their box offices are only failures when compared to the massive success of other films in the universe. Three of the top ten films of all time are MCU movies. The culmination of the Infinity Saga is one of the cultural touchpoints of a generation and the idea of a cinematic universe has changed how Hollywood operates (even if no one else can seem to pull it off). Not to mention that under Kevin Feige the creation of these films is somewhat of an established science, consistently kicking out movies that are enjoyable, and more importantly, never truly bad. It is hard to imagine a world where a series this successful could fail.
However, the MCU is at an important turning point and the coronavirus couldn’t have come at a worse time for it. For years the MCU had something it was building towards and people were both enraptured by the story and the sheer spectacle of it all. While many fans tuned in for each film’s individual stories, many more were simply along for the bigger ride only. A ride that has now ended with Avengers: Endgame and the conclusion of the Phase 3 (Marvel broke their movie releases up into phases) films in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Phase 4, which was supposed to kick off with Black Widow was possibly the biggest risk Marvel has taken since throwing all their chips in on a drug addict actor and B-tier hero. They needed to grab people from the start here to move more casuals audiences into their newest storyline.
Pulling that transition off is seriously at risk now. With Black Widow‘s release date now delayed indefinitely Disney is loosing serious momentum for the MCU. Every month that passes without an MCU film landing is another month more casual fans lose interest and that could really hurt. One of the reasons that the MCU has been so wildly successful is its ability to put out movies on a regular basis, keeping die hard fans happy and the MCU in the zeitgeist of society even if only a fraction of fans showed up for the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Keeping a universe going is hard work and it takes smart timing of the right releases at the right time.
It isn’t just Black Widow that’s hurt here either. Marvel has had to delay production on not only future films, screwing up their carefully curated schedule of release dates, but also on their Disney+ efforts, which bring the integrated MCU to the small screen in a real way for the first time (A blow to Disney+’s subscription audience as well). This means that even when Black Widow does finally land we’re going to have even more of gap in releases, shedding more audience as we go. The Eternals may still be on schedule but after that its a mess. The plots and characters of a lot of these movies and shows are intertwined and delaying one could topple the release dates for all the others. Time and audience atrophy are the MCU’s worst enemies and the coronavirus is delivering both in spades. The question of audiences returning is real and daunting for Disney.
To be clear, we’re talking about a kind of long-term relative hurt here. Black Widow is going to make money whenever it comes out but probably not as much as it could. The Eternals is probably going to make money too but everything is going to shift and it could lead to the gradual descent of Marvel’s movies. If this comes, it will be a slow death, not a spectacular crash. Disney will make as much money out of this as they can, of course. It will be years before the MCU actually peters out with one last ditch Wolverine attempt or something but this is where it will all start. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, this is the way the universe ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
This may all be quarantine inspired doom gloom (I’ve been locked in a house with a five-year-old for two weeks), of course. It will only really take one mega-hit to draw people back in and then the MCU can start rebuilding. What will that mega-hit be, though? Black Widow is already shot and it wasn’t going to be one of the MCU’s biggest winners anyway for a variety reasons. That next three films scheduled – The Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – are brand new properties that most people know little about. That’s followed by Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, a sequel to a MCU movie that didn’t exactly attract the largest audience. There’s not a big name hitting our screens until the next Spider-Man movie comes out. Phase 4 wasn’t the strongest phase to begin with and the delay is making it look even weaker.
Now, Guardians of the Galaxy was also a no-name movie with a bunch of no-name heroes and Marvel converted that into some of their most popular content. If they can pull that off with The Eternals, which had finished filming before the coronovirus hit and is still on schedule for a November release, maybe they can draw people back in. That film does have quite the cast and could capture casual eyes but it is still a big gamble without the momentum that would have been building with the release of Black Widow. Not to mention the fact that the marketing campaign won’t be getting underway as early as usual either and that Disney will probably have to be pushing both Black Widow and The Eternals at the same time.
Disney and Marvel find themselves in a very precarious situation. There is absolutely no doubt that the MCU will not make as much money as it was going to over the coming years. The movie industry in general isn’t going to make as much money, of course, but Marvel’s films will have lost a lot of momentum on top of that. The question is do they recover. Will the third Spider-Man movie deliver a return to form or will it be too little too late? Is there a surprise massive hit in the next few movies? Will the drought last all the way to Phase 5 and Black Panther 2 as audiences ignore Thor: Love and Thunder? We will have to wait and see but there’s a very real chance that the MCU will never recover and that the time of comic book movies may come to an end.