The Marvel Cinematic Universe faces a big test as the shifting movie release calendar disrupts its meticulous story planning

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"Black Widow"

Marvel Studios

  • As a connected film universe with movies and TV shows plotted out in advance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is particularly disrupted by the release-date changes happening because of the coronavirus.

  • "Black Widow" has been indefinitely pushed back, there are already four MCU movies on the theatrical calendar next year, and the Marvel Disney Plus TV shows further complicate matters.

  • But as the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time, it's also the franchise best positioned to overcome the challenges thrown its way at the box office.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest movie franchise of all time and it's about to face its biggest challenge yet.

Most movie theaters across the US are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hollywood productions have shut down. Studios have delayed movies, often indefinitely. That includes Marvel's "Black Widow," which was slated for May and doesn't have a new release date yet.

When the MCU wrapped up its 11-year-long "Infinity Saga" with last year's "Avengers: Endgame," it was apparent that the franchise would be entering a new, uncertain era with this new decade. But the shifting theatrical release calendar creates an unforeseen obstacle.

As more movies get pushed back, studios will be duking it out for calendar space this fall and winter — and even throughout 2021. Universal got a jump start on this by pushing "Fast and Furious 9" to next April. On Monday, Sony removed some of its major releases from this year's schedule and moved them to next year, including the Spider-Man spin-off, "Morbius," and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife."

It's impossible to know how long movies will be delayed, but the battle for release dates is more complicated for Disney than other studios when it comes to its Marvel movies and Disney Plus TV series.

"The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" series is set to premiere on Disney Plus in August, but production was halted and Disney hasn't announced whether that could impact its debut. "The Eternals" is set to hit theaters in November and the "WandaVision" series is slated for Disney Plus in December. There are already four Marvel movies coming to theaters next year in February, May, July, and November (which includes the third "Spider-Man" movie, distributed by Sony), as well as three Disney Plus shows.

The MCU is plotted out in advance, spearheaded by Marvel Studios president and Marvel creative chief Kevin Feige. As a connected film universe, the movies tie into one another. And the coming Disney Plus TV shows, which will tie into the movies, complicate things even further.

Dumping "Black Widow" or other Marvel movies that may be impacted on Disney Plus or video-on-demand services is likely not an option, either. As research firm Lightshed Partners pointed out in a recent report, that wouldn't replace the profits Disney would earn by releasing movies to theaters — not by a longshot. Studios seem to be committed to the theatrical experience, and the current rise in high-priced, on-demand releases (PVOD) is a short-term solution to the current situation.

But even if the MCU is the franchise facing the most disruption by the coronavirus, it's also the franchise in the best position to overcome any challenges.

The last three MCU movies earned more than $1 billion at the global box office. "Endgame," with $2.8 billion, is the highest-grossing movie in the world. At this point, it's a matter of when, not if, they hit theaters. Though their interconnected plots make release changes hard, they are also a box-office boon. MCU movies are events — some of the last true theatrical events left. And whenever the movies do come out, that means they'll likely have an edge at the box office over any challengers, even if the release calendar fills up.

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