The threat of coronavirus COVID-19 has effectively shut Hollywood down. Productions have been suspended across the globe, new theatrical releases have been delayed or are being released straight-to-VOD, and the current TV season for most broadcast shows probably won’t be continuing. The world is fighting against a literal pandemic, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Right now, the focus is on saving actual lives by social distancing and limiting contact for as long as necessary. It’s unclear exactly how long this could stretch on, but entertainment-wise AMC Theaters is preparing for the worst—they’ve said they may keep their doors closed for the next three months.
And while the future of the many movies and shows in development is admittedly an extremely low priority in contrast to protecting the health of humans everywhere, the delay of Marvel’s long-awaited Black Widow does bring up a valid question: how will the complicated Marvel Cinematic Universe be affected by the coronavirus shutdown?
Marvel Studios didn’t always have a grand plan, but president Kevin Feige always had ideas. When making the first Iron Man, Feige and director Jon Favreau hatched the post-credits stinger that introduced Nick Fury, which then led to talk about an eventual Avengers movie. After Marvel Studios had successfully gotten two independently produced features—Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk—off the ground, Feige and his team began putting pen to paper, mapping out what a potential interconnected universe would look like. The overall story would be divided up into “phases” and each phase would end with a team-up Avengers movie. To recap, here’s the story so far:
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel’s The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Captain America: Civil War
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Avengers: Infinity War
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Spider-Man: Far from Home
Moving forward, Marvel had grand designs for a post-Avengers: Endgame future. That film marked a farewell for a number of beloved characters, paving the way for something of an MCU reset. Black Widow—which was supposed to hit theaters in May—was intended to be the beginning of Phase Four. The start of something new, if you will.
But Marvel also planned on significantly changing the design of the MCU by interconnecting the feature film storylines with new limited series on Disney+. The first of those, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, was supposed to be released on the streaming service this summer, followed by WandaVision in the fall and Loki in early 2021. Each one of these miniseries—running eight episodes or so in length—would be an essential piece of the MCU storytelling puzzle, moving forward in lockstep with the movies.
Now all of that is in doubt.
Black Widow has been yanked from the release calendar and a new date has not been set. The film is presumably complete, so that movie can be released at any time (Variety says its delay doesn’t affect the MCU timeline), but Marvel’s second 2020 movie Eternals no doubt has a lot of post-production work to do having just wrapped filming recently. And production on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, and Loki has been shut down, so depending on how long this self-quarantine lasts, it’s possible the Marvel Disney+ shows won’t launch this year after all.
And that could pose a problem. Marvel has kept quiet about future movies, but they do like to plan ahead. The idea for Infinity War was hatched back in 2014, and that movie didn’t hit theaters until 2018. Marvel has announced a few titles through 2022, but they were teasing grand plans for Phase 5 and beyond at San Diego Comic-Con last year with Feige name-dropping Blade, X-Men, and Fantastic Four.
Here’s how the release schedule was supposed to go, before the coronavirus shutdown:
Black Widow – May 2020
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – August 2020
Eternals – November 2020
WandaVision – December 2020
Loki – Early 2021
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – February 2021
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – May 2021
Untitled Spider-Man Sequel – July 2021
Thor: Love and Thunder – November 2021
Shang-Chi has halted filming in Australia, and while the Doctor Strange sequel was gearing up to start shooting in May or so, that’s likely no longer happening as pre-production has ground to a halt.
Marvel has pivoted before. For years, Feige wanted to make Captain Marvel and Black Panther, but Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter blocked the ideas (because he’s terrible). When Feige successfully reorganized his position at Marvel to report directly to Disney, he immediately greenlit those two films and encouraged Taika Waititi to make Thor: Ragnarok as weird and colorful as possible. And when Marvel surprisingly struck a deal to share the rights to Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming was slotted right into its Phase Four schedule as some other release dates were shuffled around.
So what happens now? What’s to become of Marvel’s Phase Five and beyond? It’s tough to say with any degree of confidence given that we just don’t know how long this shutdown will last. Black Widow will still hopefully come out this year, and maybe The Falcon and the Winter Soldier too depending on how much that show was lacking when it was shut down. But I would not be surprised if Eternals and WandaVision were shifted to 2021, and the rest of Marvel’s calendar subsequently moved as well.
Again, the MCU is pretty tightly constructed so it’s not like Marvel can just release all its completed movies and shows at once. They were purposefully threading the needle through these shows and movies, and launching the first Marvel Studios-led TV series on Disney+ was a big deal. In contrast to the Marvel Netflix shows, these TV series were developed to be an integral part of the MCU and had the direct involvement of Feige.
Whatever happens, though, we’ll be fine. Theatrical distribution will resume at some point, and Marvel will lead the way. The world may look different, but Marvel movies have consistently been some of the biggest box office successes over the last decade—heck, Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing film in history. I don’t expect Marvel’s status as a box office champ to change anytime soon, which is why it’s highly unlikely Black Widow gets a VOD release for a premium price like Universal is doing with Trolls: World Tour.
Movies will return to theaters. The world will go back to some semblance of normality, God willing. And when that happens, Marvel will be there to get butts back in seats. We may just have to wait a little while longer to see what the next phase of MCU storytelling has in store.