Coronavirus Could Bend the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Timeline

How the carefully plotted MCU survives a rash of delays.

Marvel Release Schedule Black Widow
Will the coroanvirus derail the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Marvel Studios

On Tuesday, Marvel Studios reluctantly pulled Scarlett Johansson’s May 1 blockbuster Black Widow from the release schedule over coronavirus concerns. Both AMC and Regal, the two largest theater chains in the U.S., will close their theaters for up to 12 weeks while citizens around the world self-isolate. Financially, postponing the highly anticipated MCU feature is the right call. But organizationally, it throws the rest of the Marvel’s carefully plotted schedule into chaos.

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Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige created an interconnected shared cinematic universe that relies on perfectly timed sequential events. At SDCC 2019, Feige unveiled ambitious plans for Phase IV of the MCU. But with the Infinity Saga concluded and many of the MCU’s foundational actors moving on, there has been concern that Marvel and its fans may have to reset critical and commercial expectations a bit. Not every entry can be a $1 billion Oscar-nominated blockbuster, after all.

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Still, the studio laid claim to seven release dates dating from 2020 to 2022. For a franchise that relies heavily on crossover narratives, Easter eggs and post-credits teases that lead into the next adventure, a disruption in the schedule is a significant challenge. What’s more, the coronavirus has already prevented November’s star-studded Eternals from completing its re-shoots while production on 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been halted as well. As a result, MCU fans can expect further delays on the release schedule and a rejiggering of Marvel’s rollout strategy.

“It’s not even May 1st and Disney is in daily meetings to figure out how to stop losing revenue from movies collecting dust,” Jeremy Conrad, founder and editor-in-chief of MCU Cosmic, told Observer. “I think they might be going to VOD. Not just for Black Widow but for all the movies they delayed.”

Disney likely won’t pass up the opportunity for a theatrical blockbuster release—there’s simply too much money to be made—despite Universal’s recent decision to make smaller new films available via at-home platforms. But given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, contingencies are likely in the works.

Black Widow ironically launches Phase IV of the MCU as a prequel that takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity WarEternals is believed to begin shortly after Avengers: Endgame but potentially stretch thousands of years into the past. Given their places in the MCU timeline, things could have been worse.

Black Widow needs to be released in new window that’s clear and free from competition,” Rodrigo Perez, founder of The Playlist, told Observer. “That could mean, it grabs a late summer or early fall date and it affects Eternals and that gets pushed to the next window, and the one after that gets pushed, etc. etc., domino effect.”

In this instance, Marvel’s aggressiveness of reserving multiple release dates into the future provides them with a modicum of flexibility for rescheduling delayed blockbusters. Hypothetically, Black Widow could slot into Eternals‘ November release date while Eternals moves into Shang-Chi‘s February 2021 debut space. Any further disruption to the schedule, though, and the studio will need to get creative. As production hiatuses continue to stretch on, Marvel’s schedule will only become less certain.

The real question is whether or not this global pandemic will affect Marvel’s planned storylines.

“Marvel certainly does respond to the real world—think the fake news, deception and trust issues that are part of Spider Man: Far From Home’s DNA, or Black Panther’s timely political issues of isolation and globalism,” Perez said. “That said, this is a pretty sensitive one since there’s deaths involved, so if Marvel is going to address this kind of thing, it probably wouldn’t be for a few years.”

Coronavirus Could Bend the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Timeline