Marvel’s Future: How the Cinematic Universe Could Pivot to TV Storytelling in Today’s Uncertain World

Marvel's already-ambitious Phase Four has snagged new release dates, but with Disney+ bulking up its superhero series, could there be a different shift coming?
"Black Widow"
"Black Widow"

With release dates for some of Hollywood’s biggest tentpoles including “Black Widow,” the next entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe being shifted in the wake of a changing landscape, the future of theatrically released content suddenly seems tenuous. What’s to become of the world’s biggest films without a theater to release them in? And is the streaming world, suddenly as vital and rich as any other platform, going to become the go-to home for Earth’s mightiest moneymakers?

Ahead, IndieWire editors Kate Erbland and Ben Travers join forces across the crumbling aisles of film and television to envision a world where anything might be possible.

KATE ERBLAND: The coming months will continue to be a lesson in, well, less. Less of everything freedom, fresh air, easy answers, hand sanitizer, peace of mind and that’s to say nothing of the entertainment offerings that no longer have a place in a world without movie theaters (at least, and we can only hope, temporarily).

By the time we move into the heat of summer movie-going season, theaters will have been shuttered for weeks. Disney has kept some of its biggest money-makers) for theaters, but they’ve been seriously delayed. That includes a pair of 2020 MCU films, with Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow” prequel moving from early May to November, pushing back Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals” (which previously staked out that November date) to early 2021. Disney has also held on to theatrical berths for other biggies, including both “Mulan” and Pixar offering “Soul.”

For many movie fans, this means a season without a single Marvel Cinematic Universe film – the first summer like it in over a decade – and dwindling hopes that the multi-billion-dollar, game-changing franchise will return to the big screen any time soon.

Despite the Mouse House’s apparent disinterest in moving its most profitable series to the small screen, the studio is one of the few to already have a mechanism built in to do just that. Part and parcel of the still-fledgling Disney+ streaming service is its own suite of MCU series. As with anything and everything MCU related, each series ties directly into the film franchise and its series brethren.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” Ian Lightfoot, a newly 16-year-old elf, yearns for the father he lost back before he was born. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

So, with filmmaking on pause and the next stage in Marvel movie-dom shoved back many months, what could a TV-centric MCU look like? And, given that production on most television is also shut down, is shifting more to TV even a possibility at this point? Ben, given what we know about the current upcoming MCU TV selections, could Marvel stretch out its next “stage” with Disney+ series alone?

BEN TRAVERS: First off, I would be remiss not to mention our dear colleague Anne Thompson’s long-held and 100 percent correct position that the MCU needs theatrical releases if it wants to thrive financially. VOD prices (even at $20 a pop) and Disney+ subscriptions (even if raised above $7 a month) can’t make up the hundreds of millions spent on “Black Widow,” “Eternals,” or “Thor: Love & Thunder” (yes, I skipped a few upcoming titles just to write down Taika Waititi’s exquisite title) — nor can they match the billions in revenue that theaters can offer.

Moreover, I expect the ties between the MCU’s film titles and its TV properties are just as valuable as the TV titles on their own. A standalone MTU — Marvel Television Universe — didn’t really pan out before. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe was thriving by implementing serialized stories on the big screen, the Netflix-Marvel experiment largely crashed and burned. Blame it on less exciting heroes or bad writing, there’s a reason those stories ended with the Disney-Netflix partnership, and it’s not just because Disney started its own streaming service. If one of those shows would’ve been a big enough hit, Disney could’ve waited out the two-year non-compete on their contracts and built Jessica Jones or Luke Cage into their long-term plans. Technically, they still could, but separating Marvel’s film and TV universes isn’t as enticing as blending them.

I have no idea what connection there will be between Scarlett Johansson’s prequel movie and the Chris Evans-less TV spinoff, but I have to believe their established link through Captain America will spawn some kind of relevance between projects. It’s the Marvel way: One thing feeds the next, creating a dependency ecosystem that requires fans to shell out money for tickets and monthly subscription fees. This is part of the company’s grand plan to conquer the world, and barring some unexpected financial motivation, any kind of delay in production won’t change its long-awaited one-two punch of theatrical rollouts and streaming subscriptions. So it’s doubtful any TV titles would be pushed ahead of the films originally planned to be released first, even if they could be — which, in all likelihood, they could not, because of the production shutdown.

Elizabeth Olsen
“WandaVision”The Walt Disney Company

Phew! I’m exhausted. And I haven’t even touched on the creative possibilities within something as bananas as “WandaVision.” If the movies are delayed beyond Disney+ releases, could something as strange as a ’50s era sitcom parody actually keep the entire MCU afloat?

ERBLAND: Marvel might appeal to both a dedicated fanbase and regular old moviegoers who like keeping tabs on the latest blockbuster, but the divide between them will only grow as theaters remain closed. The same people who turn out in droves and push Marvel movies to $100 million-plus openings aren’t going to do the same for TV offerings, and even if they did, the money will never be the same. And, yes, this is a newly revamped franchise that has been re-engineered to maximize all angles, unlike that mostly failed dip into Netflix territory.

The new coterie of TV series are designed to supplement the film projects in various ways. The wackiness of “WandaVision” will likely lead into the planned “Doctor Strange” sequel, and”The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” presumably will explain how a post-“Endgame” Avengers exists. It’s not a one-or-the-other proposition, and given the meticulous nature of the Marvel world, it’s not by accident. The TV shows are episodic for a reason, the films are feature-length for a reason. By that same token, the world is very different now than it was just a month ago, and more options might be on the table than anyone is willing to explain away just now.

So even if it’s very unlikely, we should ponder the hypothetical. If, by some weird twist of the universe (cinematic and real), Marvel had to spend the next year or so funneling all its material to TV, what would that look like? What other series are in the offing that might get moved up? And is there any possibility that Disney, which has yet to make this leap, would ever gamble on a streaming-only release for one of their films?

TRAVERS: I’d put the odds of Marvel completely pivoting to streaming on par with, I don’t know, the most anticipated sequel of all-time using the ultimate “I’ve written myself into a corner, what do I do now?” screenwriting cop-out — aka time travel — to erase the dramatic impact of its predecessor, but I guess that’s happened before! So, if this scenario came to pass, I think we’d have to look at the “Star Wars” universe as a roadmap.

Late last year, while “The Rise of Skywalker” faced critical backlash and mixed results at the box office, “The Mandalorian” was racking up raves and driving Disney+ subscriptions beyond the industry’s best expectations. Now, Disney has committed to laying off films for a few years and focusing on keeping the Lucasfilm brand alive via Disney+ — a strategy the company may have planned all along, even if “Solo” had been a hit, but one that still mirrors what Marvel would have to do if they couldn’t rely on their films to make money anymore.

Without a new movie to keep brand awareness high, Marvel would need a TV show quickly, so the options already in production are their best bets. Does “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, offer enough marquee names in the title or over it to launch the Marvel TV slate? Not to me. Is “WandaVision” too weird to be a universally appealing tentpole for the entire MCU? Sure sounds like it.

The Child and Pedro Pascal in "The Mandalorian" Baby Yoda
The Child and Pedro Pascal in “The Mandalorian”Disney+

So I’d bet on the God of Mischief, “Loki,” and his six-episode series starring Tom Hiddleston. Much like “The Mandalorian,” “Loki” repositions a beloved franchise foe as the series lead. It also carries more star power, not only in the fans’ familiarity with (and enthusiasm for) its eponymous wayward god, but in Hiddleston (who carried AMC’s “The Night Manager” to popularity), Owen Wilson, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. (Plus, I can’t imagine Chris Hemsworth saying no to a cameo.) I’m not sure how feasible it would be to get “Loki” streaming before year’s end, if Marvel hopes to maintain the fervor surrounding its film releases for streaming titles — and they can’t bet on film tie-ins to give the shows a boost — then I’d try to get “Loki” ready for the revised Phase Four launch date.

As for narrative cohesiveness in this “What if…?” scenario where the next year was TV-or-nothing, I’d imagine Disney would have to release a film via streaming if it wanted to keep pace. Eventizing the MCU streaming debut with a feature film could be a way to keep the planned rollout in place — “Black Widow” leads into “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — but I just can’t picture a scenario in which the films they already spent hundreds of millions on would premiere via VOD or Disney+. It would have to come down to future projections, where the long-term health of the Marvel brand was better served by losing money on individual titles now in order to keep audiences hooked long-term.

And, with the distant future in mind, it could make sense for ensemble films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Fantastic Four” to become TV properties — with so much talent comes great responsibility… to give everyone enough screen time. (Sorry. I know I’m mixing references.)

ERBLAND: While I think the bonkers “WandaVision” concept is one of the more creative ideas that the studio had cooked up in recent years, but the additive nature of the MCU shows does make a full TV pivot hard to swallow. The only way we’d see a film debut on the streaming service would be if there was somehow a determination that movie theaters wouldn’t open for at least another year.

Even then, “Black Widow” is the only film that has completed filming and its designated reshoots, so that would still be a stop-gap measure and not a viable path forward for other projects. And just imagine the flood of audiences hitting theaters once they can to check in with their favorite heroes. That’s going to be big business no matter when it happens.

Falcon and Winter Soldier
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”Marvel/screenshot

Instead, Disney and Marvel might want to stretch out what they do have and eventize the original series they already have coming down the pipe, rather than releasing it all in one go. It could be “The Mandalorian” all over again: one big series (in this case, one at a time) meted out each week, a must-see program that keeps viewers engaged and hooked in nifty one-week increments. Now that’s how you spread out what you’ve already got (and buy yourself a little breathing room before it’s necessary to make more in an environment where that concept is currently impossible for both film and TV productions). Stake out a Friday night slot and rip through “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” and “Loki,” reminding fans of how much fun the communal experience (with caveats) can be.

TRAVERS: Stretching out releases is the one thing other services can’t get away with — imagine if Netflix slowed its output to one series a week — but Disney+ seems like it can rely upon. So Marvel could release (and should) continue the pattern of weekly releases for its new episodes, but it could also take pretty significant breaks between each series’ debut without Disney+ losing subscribers.

Disney’s massive library and mainstream branding has allowed the new service space to grow, even when it’s not pumping out new content. Just look at the most recent numbers: Disney+ hasn’t released a high-profile original series this year, and the company still claims to have hit 50 million subscribers. People are latching onto the service as a utility: They’re willing to pay the monthly fee just to know it’s there (and now more than ever, given families are sharing a TV while sheltering in place).

Of course, that also means they’re likely watching whatever they want from decades of Disney movies and shows, not just what’s new this week. So if the MCU needs to make a splash on streaming without a movie driving audiences to its inaugural series, I’d still recommend a high-profile show like “Loki” to lead the way. But if the MCU stays the course — as you noted is the very likely scenario — it can definitely take its time with streaming releases, even if that’s not the news fans want while patience is lower than ever.

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