Anthony Mackie takes on the role of Sam Wilson in the Disney series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
After a pandemic delay, Marvel Studios’ latest wave of film and TV projects is finally hitting screens. But what does the company’s new direction mean for the future of the MCU?
Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in the Disney sitcom WandaVision
In late July 2019, Marvel presented plans for its next two years of film and television programming in a splashy, star-studded presentation at San Diego Comic-Con. The 6,000 fans packed inside the massive Hall H—and millions eagerly refreshing their browsers online—cheered at the announcement of the five new feature films and five Disney+ series that would comprise “Phase 4” of the company’s film and TV strategy and release between May 2020 and November 2021.
Two years and one global pandemic later, and fewer than half of those projects have actually been released: Scarlett Johansson’s long-awaited Black Widow feature hits theaters and Disney+ July 9; and Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki have made waves in the TV world. Other shows due out this year include animated alternate universe series What If...?, Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel; films include Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Sept. 3 and The Eternals Nov. 5, plus Spider-Man: No Way Home at Christmas and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness March 25, 2022.
New release dates aside, the fanfare involved with the Comic-Con announcement—which saw stars including Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Taika Waititi, Florence Pugh, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch and many, many more hit the Hall H stage—was meant to show how Marvel Studios was moving forward after Avengers: Endgame brought the original Marvel Cinematic Universe storylines to a close. The new MCU would span TV and film, consolidated officially a few months later under one Marvel Studios umbrella helmed by President Kevin Feige.
In the past, the TV series would work around plot points introduced in films. When Nazi organization HYDRA infiltrated superhero law enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entire premise of season-old ABC procedural Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shifted. Sometimes the shows would simply acknowledge that they take place in the same world, like how cut-rate New York City real estate prices in the wake of a massive battle in 2012 superhero team-up The Avengers played a surprisingly large role in Netflix drama Daredevil. Now, however, there’s reciprocity—these new series will affect the MCU films in the same way the films used to affect the shows.
But Marvel fans without a Disney+ subscription won’t necessarily need to pony up the $8 per month just to have a clue about what’s happening in the latest tentpole, just as casual moviegoers don’t need a PhD-level knowledge of the Marvel Comics before they see Iron Man.
“We try to make the stories unfold in a way that, if you are following along and have seen what has preceded it, you’ll be right up to speed. And more importantly, if you haven’t, you’ll be up to speed,” Feige said of the new MCU TV strategy. “There will always be different layers of understanding, but we don’t want there to be a barrier to entry.”
Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh as Black Widow and Yelena Belova in the Marvel Studios film Black Widow
WandaVision, the consolidated Marvel Studios’ heralded entry into TV, introduced storylines for Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) that will continue in the Doctor Strange sequel and Captain Marvel 2, respectively. And while some of the series, like WandaVision and the upcoming Ms. Marvel, will lead into films, others are being envisioned as ongoing series.
Feige didn’t get specific about which titles could continue as shows, but likely suspects include She-Hulk and Hawkeye. Plus, the news that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is campaigning in the Drama Series category at the Emmys could imply that there are more seasons to come.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Marvel Studios series Loki, exclusively on Disney.
“The fun of the MCU is, obviously, all of the crossover that we can do between series, between films,” Feige teased. “It will always vary based on the story. Sometimes it will go into a season two. Sometimes it will go into a feature and then back into a series.”
Put simply: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is expanding. And in addition to the increased storytelling abilities allowed by the larger TV landscape—characters who wouldn’t have necessarily gotten their own films can now have their backstories told in their very own series—the investment into streaming has proven valuable for the company.
While the impact of the pandemic box office losses will continue to reverberate for every studio, the fact that some of Marvel’s highest-profile projects were planned for streaming all along has just one of its films with a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, with Black Widow joining Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+ Premier Access (a $30 additional purchase for existing subscribers). Warner Bros., on the other hand, is releasing its entire 2021 slate on its streamer, HBO Max, for a month when each film bows in theaters.
Comics are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves, and Marvel Studios’ new direction is a way for the film and TV division to do the same—to dive deeper into the origins of more characters than a couple of tentpole movies a year ever could, and to play with the conventions of film by using the TV framework to its advantage. With Disney+, the company has a built-in distribution model that other studios do not. Ultimately, though, Marvel is making entertainment to appeal to all demographics.
Said Feige, “When the lights go down and a movie starts, it’s a clean slate. Forget everything that’s come before and enjoy something as a self-contained storyline.”
As the company makes more projects and introduces more characters, that becomes harder and harder. But, Feige promises, his team will continue to “take chances, to take risks, to go to places we haven’t gone before.” Hopefully, audiences will come along for the ride.
Photography by: Chuck Zlotnick/Courtesy Of Marvel Studios/Disney