With Wednesday’s news that “Black Widow” would be delayed once again — this time to May 7, 2021 — it will mean 22 months between Marvel Studios theatrical releases. The last movie appeared in July 2019 (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”), and even that was a Sony movie with the title character licensed out to the MCU.
Long breaks between sequels are not unheard of. But for a movie franchise like Marvel’s, which built its story arc across 23 movies and tens of billions of dollars in box office receipts, a gap like this can at least look to scuttle the ship.
As is the case with all of entertainment, the current delays aren’t Marvel’s fault. They just have a large lens on them given the brand’s importance to both the movie industry overall, and theater chain’s bottom lines. Of the top 10 grossing movies of 2019, seven were distributed by Marvel parent company Disney, and an eighth was the aforementioned Spider-Man film. Marvel having its hands in three of those titles — including top-grossing film of all-time “Avengers: Endgame” — underlines how much any release is going to be eagerly anticipated as a signal that our lives could be back to normal. Their absence is the biggest reminder for studios and theaters that they very much aren’t for the foreseeable future.
Even without theaters or theme parks, however, Disney still needs to make money. The return of sports helps there, as ESPN and ABC have aired numerous MLB, NBA and NFL games over the last couple months. Another life raft has been streaming service Disney+ and its encouraging growth nearly 11 months after its launch.
During a summer without TV tentpoles, it used its library of nostalgia and fan-favorite IP to keep viewers subscribed while they balanced childcare and working from home. It wound up scoring a hit with the early release “Hamilton.” And it even put a trial balloon out for a premium tier by airing once theater-bound “Mulan” for the price of a $29.99 rental. These one-off events are nice-to-haves. They’re not necessarily keeping subscribers on in perpetuity, however.
That was supposed to be the job of the Marvel- and Star Wars-related shows, at least to some extent. “The Mandalorian” debuted last year to much fanfare and season two is set to air in October 2020. Before the Disney+ launch last November, it seemed like TV would play a central role in the future of those lucrative franchises. Now, TV seems like the only game in town for fans pining for new content — especially on the Marvel front.
Marvel pushing back “Black Widow” didn’t just delay the movie slate again, but also lays bare how much is expected of the shows to keep fans engaged in the meantime — especially with three upcoming movies not necessarily featuring A-list names (“Black Widow” next May, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in July and “Eternals” in November).
It’s not as if those movies can’t succeed… Marvel turned little-known IP like “Guardians of the Galaxy” into household names last decade. But following the pomp and circumstance of the last phase of these movies, B-tier characters could lack excitement on their own.
However, that’s where the TV shows could help, or at least, are expected to. Marvel’s “WandaVision” trailer release during Sunday’s Emmy Awards has racked up 9.7 million views on Twitter to-date. According to Tubular Labs, “WandaVision”-related content alone has generated 45.1 million views on YouTube in September, while Marvel-related videos have accounted for 1.1 billion. The demand is clearly there for the content. Now Disney just has to hope expectations don’t crush what we actually get.
Despite the aforementioned excitement, the planned shows are also in the same boat in terms of character tiers. “WandaVision,” with Scarlet Witch and Vision, are not on Marvel’s A-list of characters. Same goes for the titular “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki,” which are supposed to be the next live-action shows headed to Disney+ next year. Marvel has “What If…” in the works too as an animated show featuring A-list characters like Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America. Still, after that, the next planned shows feature lesser-known characters for entry-level fans — “Hawkeye,” “Ms. Marvel,” “She-Hulk” and “Moon Knight” are either brand new characters to the screen or second-tier heroes.
On top of those challenges, Marvel’s also facing what could be “superhero fatigue” in the broader culture, more exciting upcoming films from chief rival DC, and of course, the erosion of in-theater audiences both during and immediately after a pandemic too.
Again, not saying this can’t work. And as a fan of the Marvel shows/movies/comics myself, I can tell you that I very much hope it does. Yet it’s tough to avoid just how much weight these shows are going to have to carry. At first, they seemed like entertaining window dressing to the movies and sidestory building that gave you greater glimpses into certain characters. Now? They’re arguably carrying the flag for Marvel for the foreseeable future. And with no A-list movie/show past the early development stage at current, that’s hammered home even further, whether these projects are up for it or not.