The COVID-19 pandemic has affected quite a lot, but most forms of non-live entertainment kept chugging along. While a few high-profile video game releases have been delayed, the industry as a whole didn’t miss many major deadlines, and the new Xbox and Playstation released on time. The book publishing industry kept on printing. Music artists released albums and singles just like normal, and some—like Taylor Swift with her surprise summer album Folklore—produced more music than they would have otherwise.
However, the film industry was changed beyond recognition this year. The number of high profile movies that came to theaters after March can be counted on just a few fingers, though others made their way to a streaming platform. But for the most part, blockbusters simply noped out of 2020. Nowhere is that more obvious than the fact that no Marvel movie came to theaters this year, which hasn’t happened since 2009.
Superhero films have been around forever, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a game-changer. It has been a driving force in the hollowing out of the “middle class” of movies; if you can’t make a cheap movie or a blockbuster, you’re probably not getting it made nowadays. And the MCU’s creative use of its interconnected universe will inform how studios make blockbusters for years to come.
And while it’s possible that the question I’m about to pose is precisely because we haven’t had any Marvel films in a comparatively long time, but I can’t help but wonder: what now?
Look: on a pure storytelling level, the Marvel films ought to be done. In 2008, we were introduced to Iron Man, the first superhero in his standalone story. Then we were introduced to the Hulk, then Thor, then Captain America. Four years after the MCU’s debut, we got the first Avengers film, which tied everything together and introduced concepts (and even the Big Bad, Thanos) that would form the backbone for the main story ark.
From there, we got more adventures from the main Avengers cast and were introduced to the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel. Spider-Man finally got his show on the road after a longstanding licensing dispute with Sony. Then, finally, we got Infinity War and Endgame, which wrapped up over a decade of blockbuster films in amazing spectacle.
There is nothing truly left to be said. The MCU culminated in a battle against a bad guy with the power to kill half the known universe. The good guys won. There are stories left to tell, of course, but I am reminded from a quote at the end of Ann Leckie’s wonderful novel Ancillary Mercy, the final book in her Imperial Rach trilogy:
There is always more after the ending. Always the next morning, and the next. Always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other. Until the one true ending that none of us can escape. But even that ending is only a small one, larges as it looms for us. There is still the next morning for everyone else. For the vast majority of the rest of the universe that ending might as well not ever have happened. Every ending is an arbitrary one. Everything ending is from another angle, not really an ending.
In other words, stories end when we choose to end them, and until the end of the world, there will always be something that happens after the end of the story for those involved. We simply choose where to end the tale, and how effective the story is depends partially on where and how the story ends.
For Infinity War and Endgame, those in charge of the MCU built up the biggest bad guy that they could, one bigger than anything they had for any previous film or story, and then knocked him over. There is nothing bigger than “bad guy wants to kill half the universe.” Not qualitatively.
Can the MCU survive after the stakes can never be the same? I suspect it will. The films make too much dang money. But will they be interesting? Will they matter to the industry, like the first set did? Will we care? I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.