A Marvel-less Year

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

With the news that the release date of Marvel’s Black Widow has been postponed again until May 2021, 2020 will be the first year since 2009 without a Marvel Studios film released in cinemas. Robyn Murphy looks at the positives and negatives of this break from Marvel’s cinematic onslaught.

The last Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film to be released in our cinemas was Spider-Man: Far from Home, which landed in cinemas July 2019 and marked the end of Phase Three of the franchise. Black Widow’s delay, and its position as the starter film of Phase Four, means that there will be no MCU film released in cinemas for almost two years. Given the franchise’s cinematic dominance for the last ten years, this prolonged gap between films could be seen as either a positive or negative thing. While most die-hard fans will see the lack of releases as a disappointment, for the films which had been poised to open against the MCU films on opening weekends it could mean an increased opportunity to succeed both domestically and globally. 

Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, even the most casual film fan has come to expect multiple Marvel releases in cinemas in a given calendar year. The studio has come to dominate both the genre and the box office, with the 23 films released so far making over 22 billion US dollars at the global box office combined. Even the emergence of a similar extended universe from rival comic book company DC has done little to dispel this dominance and popularity. As the franchise has grown, audiences have become accustomed to seeing numerous films released in a single year, typically one in the spring and winter and often two in the summer. While some audience members may be feeling some weariness relating to the sheer number of films released by the studio, this is not reflected in their box office returns or popularity, with the last 3 films to be released, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel each earning over 1 billion dollars at the global box office. As well as their dominance in the film industry, Marvel’s heroes have embedded themselves in all kinds of popular culture, meaning it's likely that one could name a number of Marvel heroes even if they aren't a fan of the franchise or have never seen the films. 

The answer to the question of whether the industry and audiences are feeling some fatigue relating to the general onslaught of Marvel films will depend on who you ask. For fans, it seems there will never be enough new movies, but ordinary film goers may welcome the break from the barrage of superheroes. It may afford them the opportunity to experience a greater variety of screenings at their local cinema. Marvel films are often accompanied by long cinema releases, with Avenger’s Endgame even receiving multiple releases. These long releases can affect other films coming out alongside Marvel blockbusters, as they tend to take up multiple screens, giving smaller, independent films a lesser chance to stand out or even play in cinemas. While it is hard to fully estimate the effect which the lack of Marvel releases will have on other film’s box office success this year, in large part due to the ongoing pandemic and its effect on cinemas and the film industry in general, from looking at last year’s highest grossing films at the US and UK box offices, the lack of a Marvel release in November 2019 seems to have benefitted films like Last Christmas and Midway, which were able to claim the top box office spot.

For die-hard fans of the MCU who are missing their multiple film fixes, they can look forward to Marvel’s upcoming television releases which will be streamed on Disney+ from December of this year. The series which have been announced so far include WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, She-Hulk, Loki, and Hawkeye, and will feature many of the MCU’s most popular stars. It is expected that the television series will have strong ties to the upcoming films by introducing many new characters and setting up pivotal plot points. While this will be great for devoted fans, who will have an abundance of additional material to obsess over, it could run the risk of alienating casual viewers. At the best of times it can be difficult to fully understand an MCU film on its own without prior knowledge of the overarching story of the franchise. By introducing more plot lines and standalone franchises, which are required viewing in order to fully comprehend the plot of upcoming films, Marvel Studios run the risk of turning away new viewers as well as audiences who may not have an interest in the television shows, and subsequently feel that they then can’t enjoy the films.

The sheer amount of Marvel superhero narratives in cinemas for the last decade is something unlike anything we have seen before in film. While audiences have grown accustomed to successful science fiction and action franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones dominating at the box office, the sheer number, speed, and frequency at which Marvel Studios are creating and releasing films is unparalleled. It may be hard to even remember a time when you wouldn't expect four two-hour MCU films in a given year, but ultimately, I think most people will appreciate the break from Marvel’s dominance. Not only can it afford other films the opportunity to stand out amongst busy cinema listings, but it could also prove beneficial for Black Widow when it is finally released. After such a long wait there could be a stronger appetite for a blockbuster superhero film than ever.