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Black Widow Is Delayed—But For Franchise Films, That’s Just the Beginning

6 minute read

Disney will delay the release of the Black Widow movie indefinitely due to the global coronavirus outbreak. The film was set to release May 1, almost 10 years after actor Scarlett Johansson made her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut as the character in Iron Man 2.

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters across the world for an indeterminate period of time, many of the year’s most anticipated films have already cancelled or postponed release dates: the James Bond movie No Time to Die moved to November; Mulan, A Quiet Place II and The Lovebirds have been postponed indefinitely; and Fast and Furious 9 shifted its release date an entire year into the future.

A few major cities in the U.S. including New York and Los Angeles have mandated that restaurants, bars and, yes, movie theaters close. But even in cities where theaters are open, it’s recommended that people practice social distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable populations. This change in behavior has taken its economic toll on the film industry. The box office dropped 60% year over year last weekend, the worst weekend for movie theaters in 22 years. More films will likely continue to delay their premieres in hopes of finding a better time to release their films to a wide audience.

In the midst of a global pandemic, when, exactly, we’ll see the various superheroes assemble is low on everyone’s priority list. But the stakes are very real for those work on this $22 billion global franchise — the most profitable movie series in the history of film. As goes Marvel, so goes the movie industry. Disney will likely be fine even if its profits do take a hit this year. And Disney-lovers have plenty of back catalogue content to watch. But the world is radically changing right now, and so is how movies are made and consumed. We were already on a trajectory to watch movies at home more and visit the theater less, and social distancing will likely rapidly accelerate that trend.

Fans have been waiting an entire decade for Black Widow — the only woman in the original Avengers team — to get her own movie. Now they’ll have to wait a little longer. Shuffling release schedules is a disappointment for those fans, but it’s a scheduling nightmare for companies like Disney that often nail down release dates years in the future in hopes of calculating the perfect time to launch their blockbusters. Finding a perfect movie date can be like picking a wedding date: Summer dates are most coveted, and you don’t want a scheduling conflict with a competitor. Many of the best dates the next several summers have already been snagged by studios.

Things are even more complicated when it comes to franchise fare, especially for films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The genius of the MCU is that each individual Marvel movie introduces a character who will eventually become a part of an ensemble. Audiences become invested in each member of the Avengers, which makes the eventual team-up movies all the more compelling. Imitators like Justice League or the last couple X-Men films with new cast members fail where the Avengers succeed because they have not taken the time to build the emotional foundation.

The strategy is also clever from a plot perspective: In order to truly understand the plot intricacies of the series, you need to have watched all the other Marvel movies. All the plot point in a “standalone” superhero movie can have a major impact on the biggest team-up films in the franchise, like how the concept of the “Quantum Realm” was introduced in Ant-Man 2 and played a pivotal role in Avengers: Endgame. Moving a single franchise film will likely create a domino effect for the rest of the movies and TV shows in that same cinematic universe.

Given the history of Marvel films, it’s probably safe to assume that there is a plot point in Black Widow — or in a post-credits scene for the movie — that will somehow tie into the story of The Eternals or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or Black Panther 2. It’s also possible that a new character like Yelena (played by rising star Florence Pugh) is being introduced in Black Widow so that she can appear in another future Marvel movie. Black Widow herself made her debut as a supporting character in Iron Man 2 in order to later be elevated to an Avengers team member in the first Avengers film.

Engaged fans need to see Black Widow before the other planned Marvel content, and Disney needs audiences to watch the movie en masse in order to keep this enormous, fine-tuned machine humming. So Black Widow moving release dates could have a domino effect on the rest of the MCU, including the the Marvel television series that are set to air on Disney+ and will tie into the movie franchise. (Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and WandaVision have all suspended filming due to the coronavirus outbreak.) As of now, Disney has the MCU movie calendar planned through 2022. Or will Disney shuffle the movies, with stories having to be rewritten in order to make sure the chronology holds together.

Right now, it’s hard to tell when we’ll get a substantial updates on the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with the Marvel TV shows, Shang-Chi hit pause on production after director Destin Daniel Cretton’s doctor advised him to isolate himself while he got the coronavirus test. (Thankfully, he tested negative.) It’s likely that Hollywood will stop production on nearly all its movies and TV shows in the coming weeks, and all releases will be delayed.

In a world where franchise fare is one of the few things that still lures people to the movie theater, Marvel is not alone in needing to solve this conundrum. Fast and Furious’ postponement means the delay of that entire series and any sequels to its Hobbs and Shaw spinoff films. If the next Bond movie contains any hint of who the next 007 will be, that news will have to wait. The same thing could happen to the DC Extended Universe if Wonder Woman 1984 gets delayed. The Ghostbusters universe, Spider-verse and even Minions-verse could all see major upheavals if the latest entries in those franchises (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Morbius and Minions: The Rise of Gru, respectively) have to shift their premiere dates.

When we emerge from this pandemic, having spent too many hours streaming content in an attempt to keep ourselves sane and healthy, our viewing habits may have changed and Hollywood will have to adapt. That may mean smaller movies go straight to VOD instead of movie theaters. Or that may mean that movies — particularly event movies like the MCU movies — will be even bigger, the one place where we can gather and feel a sense of normalcy after so much isolation.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com