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A year without Marvel movies left a pop culture void

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The upset found within an absence of excitement

In early April, I watched a clip of people crying, hollering, and clapping during a scene in Avengers: Endgame. It was the first time I remember missing physically sitting in a movie theater. I thought by May, when Black Widow was scheduled to be released, life would return to normal. I’d be back in a theater on Thursday night with friends, sitting among a packed room full of strangers chatting excitedly about the beginning of a new Marvel Cinematic Universe phase.

That never happened.

Instead, 2020 has become the first year since 2009 without a major addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s no big introduction of a new superhero, no highly anticipated sequel — there’s not even an entry in Marvel Studios’ MCU TV universe. WandaVision, once slated to premiere this month, won’t hit until January 15th. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was supposed to kick things off in August of this year, and now will now premiere in March 2021. There’s no big Marvel anything.

In a year where I feel more disconnected from people than ever, where I’m searching for community from the confines of a tiny studio apartment, not having that quintessential part of normalcy — sitting in a theater and watching the couple of Marvel movies that come out every year — feels enormous.

The absence of Marvel movies is the absence of a very specific kind of excitement. Living within the confines of our new normal for the last 10 months means trying to find little things to look forward to every week. A new show on a streaming service helps or a Zoom catch-up with family who can’t visit. But it doesn’t replace the physicality of community or the excitement of leaving home to experience something people may have been waiting on for several months. In 2020, a year filled with death and travesty at the worst of times and mindless boredom at the best of times, the absence of unbridled anticipation was tough to swallow.

Marvel’s disappearance didn’t just echo through subreddit forums and on stan Twitter. It severely impacted business for a number of companies in the entertainment industry. Disney went from having its strongest third quarter ever in 2019 with the release of Avengers: Endgame, which brought in more than $2.8 billion, to one of its worst without any notable releases. Since Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009, the IP has brought in nearly $30 billion. That doesn’t include merchandise.

There are also theaters. In a moment where Hollywood is struggling to get people to tear their eyes away from Netflix, TikTok, and Minecraft, theaters are reliant on major tentpole event movies — like a new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — to bring people in. In 2008, Marvel Cinematic Universe movies made up about 6 percent of the US box office; by 2019, it was more than 15 percent, with Disney controlling close to 40 percent of the total US box office market share.

A new Marvel movie would come out, it would dominate pop culture discussion around the world for a few weeks or months — giving us a fresh round of memes and plenty of Twitter discourse — and then start up again by the time the next one rolled around. This happens with other movies, of course, but with Marvel, everything felt like it was on a grand scale. A subreddit deleting half of its members over the course of a couple of days all because of a joke in Infinity War was something we could participate in together, even if it was online. That moment was spurred by an event that millions of people experienced in movie theaters together.

The pandemic has become a lesson in adapting to a new normal. The beauty (or nightmare, depending on who you ask) of Marvel movies is that there’s always one or two just around the corner. That absence of excitement is beginning to fade; in part because The Mandalorian has helped to make the last few weeks fun again. I’m getting excited about WandaVision, which will premiere on Disney Plus in just over a month. I’m excited about having that week-to-week discussion and feeling of community online again when episodes drop. I’m excited for Black Widow, and hopeful that we may be at a place where we can pile into a movie theater and fall back into a world with a character that’s been on-screen since 2010.

A year without Marvel movies is significant to me, but Marvel can be replaced with any number of things. Concerts, basketball games, church outings, or nights at the local bar — it’s the quiet bonding that we experience that emphasizes our communities. It’s the feeling of intimacy inside a sea of strange faces. It’s that inexplicable sense of true unity in the face of this thing that we love so much. As much as I can’t wait for the next MCU release, I’m more excited to get that feeling back.

Update (December 15th, 9:57am ET): This story was updated to include new release date information about The Falcon and the Winter Solider’s release date.