When Avengers: Endgame came to theaters in 2019, culminating a 20-plus movie arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it felt like the most successful franchise of the 21st century had finally reached a saturation point. After all, how could Marvel even go around upgrading something so intricate, self-referential and largely well-received as Playoffs? Is there anything left to accomplish after releasing the highest-grossing film ever? (This is probably why I’m not a study leader.) But any concern that the MCU had exhausted itself – and by extension of its audience ̵
After Far from home—Which served as an extended epilogue for Playoffs, who positioned Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as the heir to Tony Stark – MCU was set to take a relatively long break; at least by its standards. It should take almost a year in between Far from home and Black widow, the first film of the MCU’s so-called “Phase 4.” But for all the careful planning and continuous storytelling built into the MCU, there really is no way to prepare for a global pandemic.
Instead of calling in 2020 with several big screen releases and Marvel Studios’ first foray into television at Disney +, MCU took a mulligan all year. (This does not include the final season of ABC Agents for SHIELD and Hulu’s Full current, both produced by Marvel Television, now folded into Marvel Studios.) For the first time in more than a decade, zero MCU movies were released in theaters for an entire calendar year. And after Birds of prey debuted in a pre-pandemic in February, superhero fans were left with trash from Netflix (The old guard, Project power), Disney’s discard pile (lol, sorry The new mutants), and the loving silly nonsense that is Wonder Woman 1984. For some, a lack of Marvel in 2020 left a pop culture void; for others, it was a temporary salvo from a force more akin to theme parks than the actual cinema.
In any case, we will only have to wait until the end of the week for MCU to announce itself in 2021. On Friday, Disney + will debut the first two episodes of WandaVision, a limited series that borrows elements from the TV series’ past and focuses on MCU’s resident telepath and her late paprika-enthusiastic robot girlfriend. The first episode was reportedly filmed in front of a live studio audience. WandaVision is, to put it mildly, a strange torchbearer for the next phase of MCU. But it’s also the result of enough pandemic switching to excite Christopher Nolan.
In a normal timeline Black widow would have been the first MCU release out of the Phase 4 pipeline; meanwhile, on the small screen, the more conventional Falk and winter soldier should have preceded WandaVision. Instead, WandaVision will drop weekly episodes through March 5, Falk and winter soldier follows with its premiere on March 19, and if all goes according to plan, Black widow will finally be released in theaters on May 7 (US slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine may complicate matters, however.) The rest of MCU’s 2021 schedule – regardless of setbacks – will include the Disney + series Loki premiered in May, Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings arriving at theaters in July and Eternal do the same in November. There is also the possibility that Hawkeye and Mrs. MarvelTwo more Disney + series currently in production will debut by the end of the year, and Sony Pictures plans to release its next Spider-Man movie in December. Marvel may have been absent in 2020, but by 2021 it looks like the shark in Jaws—And we’re all Quint.
Regardless of the order in which these Marvel projects come out, there is a unifying ethos for the next phase of MCU, and I mean that kind of thing literally: For once, Marvel’s TV and movie ambitions will be tailored. As Marvel Studios manager Kevin Feige previously explained, the plot threads in the Disney + programs will soften in the big screen releases and (presumably) the other way around. For example: Whatever happens in WandaVision will apparently have consequences for Doctor Strange in the multiverse of madness, is expected to be released in 2022. And the Disney + series will also be a platform to bring new characters into the bigger MCU picture. Mrs. Marvel will introduce his eponymous hero, who will then apparently have a role to play in Captain Marvel successor; Hawkeye creates Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop, who takes over the Hawkeye cloak in the comics. (This may also free up Jeremy Renner to focus more time on his budding career as a mediocre rock star.)
Having already performed a complex, decade-long venture with the Infinity War saga, Marvel’s juggling of TV and movie history lines could continue the studio’s dominance in an era of emphasis on streaming. (Streaming is Disney’s top priority as a company going forward.) But because of this unprecedented level of integration across different media – a cross-platform movie universe, the seventh circle of hell, whatever you want to call it – MCU’s margin for faults become razor thin. With so much planning going into what happens on the big and small screen, MCU can not afford to have another Ed-Norton-as-the-incredible-Hulk situation. It could throw everything off course and collapse a large part of the company like a Jenga tower.
By and large, Marvel still has a better track record than, for example, the Disney era Star wars, but if the first three “phases” of the MCU already felt like many moving parts, phase 4 will test the limits of the studio’s own major designs. In addition to all the superheroes already introduced, MCU will eventually bring in as Fantastic Four, Blade and the R-rated antics from Deadpool – other, less violent X-Men will definitely follow. And I have not even come to the third Guardians of the Galaxy movies (there will also be one Guardians Christmas special), and fourth Thor movies that bring Natalie Portman back, a Black Panther succeeds without the big Chadwick Boseman as well as a host of MCU projects for the big screen and Disney + in various stages of development in 2022 and beyond.
If all this sounds overwhelming, then so be it. But MCU has functioned more like a long-running TV series than a movie franchise from the start, so the turnaround to the actual TV could be relatively hassle-free; Plus, it does not hurt that five of the last six Marvel movies (Black Panther, Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Playoffsand Far from home) crossed the trillion threshold in the box office. MCU knocks on its audience, not only returning to theaters, but also embracing the streaming wing in its ongoing quest to balance quantity with quality. (It’s a much easier compromise to accept Disney + of it all when we’m stuck at home waiting for the vaccine anyway.)
What the MCU ultimately plans with Phase 4 and above can make the setup defeat Thanos Playoffs feel relatively picturesque. There is no doubt about it WandaVisionwith its sitcom-like pretense and loop premise seems like a low-key affair – at least by Marvel’s standards. But the series rejects the studio’s massive ambitions to somehow improve when they release the highest-grossing film ever, while trying to copy its record-breaking success on the small screen. All in all, Disney hopes to integrate MCU’s dominance into the streaming world, beginning with WandaVision, will be a small price to pay for salvation.