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Scarlett Johansson stars in Black Widow. The films release has been pushed back to November 6 after it was originally to hit cinemas on May 1. Photo: AP

What’s next for Marvel Cinematic Universe now coronavirus outbreak has delayed Black Widow and other summer releases?

  • Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson, has been pushed back to November, and Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel sequels, among others, are also delayed
  • Marvel superhero films have interlocking plots, but with delays, Marvel president Kevin Feige’s grand scheme for Phase Four could start to unravel

Right now, even the superheroes are taking cover. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Hollywood has been like a bowling ball scattering pins in all directions, as studios have uprooted their big summer tent-pole movies in the face of the unprecedented global health crisis.

First it was James Bond, with No Time to Die moving from its April opening to November 2020, swiftly followed by A Quiet Place II and Fast & the Furious 9. It was only a matter of time before Disney took stock of its releases, shifting Niki Caro’s live-action Mulan away from its March global roll-out and – finally – pulling Black Widow from its May 1 berth.

It will doubtless come as a huge disappointment to followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), not least because Scarlett Johnasson’s very own Avenger – the ultra-limber Russian spy Natasha Romanoff – has long been denied her own solo outing.

This week Disney relocated Black Widow to a November 6, 2020 release date, meaning it will arrive in cinemas just a week before Daniel Craig’s final Bond outing. It marks the longest gap between MCU movies since the very early days, when 2008’s The Incredible Hulk – a rare misfire in the canon, with Edward Norton as the rage-filled loner – was followed by Iron Man 2 almost two years later.

Ever since then, Marvel president Kevin Feige has kept the series rolling, with an average of two films a year.

When Avengers: Endgame arrived in April last year, becoming the biggest box-office hit of all time, it delivered a hugely satisfying end to an intricately woven 22-movie tapestry, as seeds planted in entries as disparate as Black Panther and Ant-Man finally came to fruition.

Filmmakers look beyond pandemic headlines for a human story

Spider-Man: Far from Home followed in July as something of a postscript to the intergalactic events of Endgame, bringing Marvel’s so-called Phase Three to a resounding close. Directed by Australia’s Cate Shortland, whose past films include kidnap drama Berlin Syndrome, Black Widow was set to be an intriguing way for Marvel to begin Phase Four.

A prequel set just after the events of Captain America: Civil War , the film sees ex-KGB assassin Romanoff reunite with her past life back East, including the equally ass-kicking Yelena Belova ( Little Women star Florence Pugh) and Alexei Shostakov (Stranger Things’ David Harbour).

Already, Phase Four is something of a gamble for Marvel. True, Benedict Cumberbatch will return for the first Doctor Strange sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. There is also room for a second Captain Marvel adventure with Brie Larson.

Benedict Cumberbatch is set to return this year for the first Doctor Strange sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Photo: Marvel Studios

But there is experimentation too: In Thor: Love and Thunder, for example, Natalie Portman’s Dr Jane Foster will take over the mantle of Thor after Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding hero loses his powers. Yet the real intrigue lies in Marvel dipping into the farthest corners of its comic book archives, with arrival of The Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Starring Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and Salma Hayek, The Eternals tells of an immortal alien race that has lived on Earth in secret for over 7,000 years. Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the group vow to protect humanity from the warmongering Deviants.

Meanwhile, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Lu as Shang-Chi, a martial arts practitioner who will face off against terrorist cell, the Ten Rings.

Zendaya (left) and Tom Holland in a scene from Spider-Man: Far from Home. The film brought Marvel’s so-called Phase Three to a close.
The film is looking to right the wrongs of an earlier misstep, when Sir Ben Kingsley was cast as The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, only for his character to turn out to be a decoy. Now Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-wai will play a new version of The Mandarin.

Like Black Widow, all of the above have seen their release dates moved back due to the coronavirus; The Eternals has now vacated its November 2020 release for February 2021, while Shang-Chi has now earmarked May 2021.

Does any of this matter? Certainly, given the very real horrors the world is facing right now, not in the slightest. But for the millions of MCU fans out there, there is evidently concern as to how all the delays will affect Phase Four.

Given Marvel’s penchant for creating interlocking narratives, it’s already something of a stretch to see how the heroes of Shang-Chi and The Eternals will hook together with Thor, Doctor Strange and others.

Director Taika Waititi (left) hands the Thor hammer to Natalie Portman at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the US. Portman will take over from Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding hero in Thor: Love and Thunder. Photo: AP

Perhaps they won’t, with the MCU possibly embracing more isolated outings. Yet alongside the films, there comes the arrival of several TV spin-offs that are due to debut on Disney’s new streaming platform, Disney + in the near future.

Due to the pandemic, Disney called a halt on small screen series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, as they reprise their roles from the Avengers films, it was set to shoot in Europe until the studio suspended the production.

Others shows in pre-production that have been disrupted include Loki – with Tom Hiddleston back again as the titular villain. WandaVision, featuring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as Wanda Maximoff and Vision, was also affected.

In Marvel’s Loki, Tom Hiddleston will reprise his role as the titular villain. Photo: Marvel Studios

These were hardly alone, with productions shutting down worldwide – including Shang-Chi, which had been shooting in Australia until director Destin Daniel Cretton went into self-isolation on medical advice (thankfully, he did not ultimately test positive for Covid-19). The question is, how will these interruptions impact on the MCU’s overlapping narratives?

Take Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which was due to start shooting in May. It’s already suffered the departure of director Scott Derrickson, who left citing “creative differences”, but by all accounts, the script has ties to both the forthcoming TV shows Loki and WandaVision, with Elizabeth Olsen said to be reprising Wanda Maxioff for the film (presumably acting as a springboard into the launch of the show).

Marvel will certainly need to get those productions back on track simultaneously, or risk an entire unravelling of the multiple storylines that has been the trademark success of the MCU.

In theory, with everything just shifting dates by several months, that seems simple enough. But that is before taking into account actor availability; in-demand A-listers tend to sign on for projects way in advance – meaning they may already have other projects lined up for whenever shooting can recommence.

Johansson (left) and Jeremy Renner in a scene from Avengers: Endgame. Photo: AP

If the stars do not align, so to speak, it may mean hasty rewriting of scripts to ensure that continuity remains consistent. Meanwhile, fans will simply have to exercise patience for Black Widow, which is now in danger of arriving in a winter season chock full of summer blockbusters.

The irony is, after years of superhero saturation in cinemas, now they’re absent from our screens, it’s being keenly felt. If anything, it feels like we need the escapism they offer more than ever.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Marvel in danger of losing the plots