Disney’s decision on Tuesday to pull the theatrical release of Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” is the latest — and biggest — sign that the most lucrative and successful film franchise in Hollywood history is also uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus epidemic’s widespread effect on the entertainment economy.
Along with “Black Widow,” Marvel Studios already suspended production of its upcoming theatrical film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” as well as its upcoming Disney Plus shows “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “WandaVision” and “Loki.”
Of course, the entire entertainment industry has been postponing releases and halting production for many of the most anticipated titles of 2020 and 2021. But unlike virtually every other creative franchise in Hollywood, all of these Marvel Studios titles are supposed to be creatively interconnected within a larger meta-narrative known by fans as Phase Four.
Without 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” the inciting event of “Black Panther” — the death of T’Challa’s father — would’ve felt rushed and confusing. If audiences hadn’t had a chance to see “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Spidey’s indelible line “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” wouldn’t have carried nearly the same weight in “Avengers: Infinity War.” And had “Captain Marvel” missed its debut, then the titular superhero’s appearance in “Avengers: Endgame” would’ve felt totally random (and not a little bit convenient).
“Black Widow” appears to be an anomaly within the MCU, in that it’s something of a prequel, set between the events of “Civil War” and “Infinity War.” And (spoiler alert for the highest grossing film of all time), Scarlett Johansson’s title hero dies in “Endgame,” so we already know where her story ultimately leads.
However, like “Captain Marvel,” which was set in the 1990s, there are sure to be characters and events in “Black Widow” that resonate within the larger MCU. Meanwhile, Marvel chief Kevin Feige explicitly stated at San Diego Comic-Con last July that Marvel’s Disney Plus shows are creatively interwoven with the studio’s theatrical films — for example, the events of “WandaVision” will directly play into the upcoming feature film “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
Disney declined to comment for this story, so how the company plans to deal with rescheduling all of these titles remains unclear. “Black Widow” was due to debut on May 1, followed by “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney Plus in August, then “Eternals” in theaters on Nov. 6, then “WandaVision” on Disney Plus in December, then “Shang-Chi” in theaters on Feb. 12, 2021, and then “Doctor Strange 2” in theaters on May 7, 2021.
Pushing “Black Widow” affects nothing on the MCU timeline, said one individual close to Marvel Studios. It was not clear if the implication was that “Widow” will see the light of day before August, or that the film is inconsequential to Phase Four, or if the source has a tesseract.
But if “Black Widow” opens after “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” debuts, does that begin to break down the carefully calibrated sequence of events? Will “Eternals” be like the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies and stand more apart from the rest of the MCU, or was “Black Widow” and “Falcon” supposed to feed into that film? Will “Eternals” even make its November release date if post-production also gets halted? And if production of “Doctor Strange 2” gets postponed, how will that affect the planned “Spider-Man” sequel for 2021 co-produced by Sony and Marvel?
Would the creative weaving of the the MCU properties need to be rewritten or re-framed? Or would the entire release sequence for the MCU’s upcoming titles have to be pushed to keep the order intact?
These questions remain, for now, unanswered — and probably unanswerable. It’s true that there are much bigger issues in the world at the moment than the continuity of a series of superhero movies. But it’s also true that the interconnected nature of the MCU — getting to watch Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark evolve over multiple films spanning the better part of a decade — is what has made those movies so meaningful and beloved on an unprecedentedly global scale. If the tapestry of those storylines begins to untangle, something essential to the MCU’s success, creatively and commercially, will be lost.