When we sat in a movie theater watching Avengers: Endgame last April, none of us could have known we were saying goodbye to the MCU as we knew it. Sure, there was a sense of finality and impending change as characters we’d come to love ended their journeys in the superhero world. But excitement built up around the light dawning on the horizon. A fresh beginning, filled with new characters and continued groundbreaking stories.
Now, in hindsight, it feels like when we watched Endgame we were also saying goodbye to our moviegoing life. Black Widow had scheduled to debut in May 2020. It would kick off a new era of Marvel stories that included stories of the small screen. That ultimately didn’t happen. COVID-19 ravaged the country, causing countless delays and cancelations across the pop culture sphere. In doing so, it made 2020 the first year since 2009 without a new Marvel movie. The first year that we didn’t experience a moment of movie magic like Captain America picking up Mjölnir in Endgame. Or Spider-Man swinging through New York City in Homecoming. The first year that we didn’t meet new characters whose arcs we could excitedly theorize going forward, like Bucky Barnes in The Winter Soldier or T’Challa in Civil War.
In Endgame, we watched a story that seemed like it could only happen in a superhero film. Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half of the world’s population. Over the five years to follow, characters adapted to a strange, quiet, and depressing world. One where loved ones disappeared; where recreational sports and interests stopped; where the new normal was just trying to get by. For us, it hasn’t quite been five years, though it certainly feels like it.
But Endgame‘s themes—loss, grief, starting over, moving on—are what we’ve been dealing with for the past year with COVID-19. We’ve seen families separated in more ways than one. We’ve looked towards an uncertain future for things that previously brought us joy and relaxation. And we’ve experienced the day-by-day struggle of figuring out how to live in a world that seems irrecoverably changed. Suddenly, a fictional plot in a movie seems all too familiar. Although most of the movie’s characters got happy endings, not everything went back to normal. Far from it.
We saw this with Peter Parker and his friends in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Those who vanished five years prior had to adapt to a world where time had passed for everyone else. For others, losing loved ones left grieving holes. Pepper Potts and Rhodey contended with the death of their husband and best friend; Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye had to struggle with the guilt that came with the death of their own loved ones. If we already hadn’t accepted that this fictional world would change irrevocably, those feelings—emphasized at Endgame‘s end with Tony’s hologram speech and Captain America’s passing of the torch to Falcon—hammered it home.
Reflecting on our experience with the pandemic, we realize that we carry the same guilt and grief for those who have not been as lucky. For the friends and family we’ve lost and for the institutions that will never be the same. We may have a happy ending at the end of our long haul with COVID-19, but it doesn’t mean normal will look like what it did before.
To say that the MCU’s Phase 4 will feel like a new start in many ways seems like an understatement. Even before the pandemic, the universe stood to change in a way that we knew we would have to adapt to. A core group of actors were no longer going to be the center of their stories. Meanwhile, entirely new characters from properties such as Shang-Chi, Blade, and Eternals were preparing to make their entrance. Disney+ television shows like WandaVision, Hawkeye, and She-Hulk wouldn’t just be fun standalone programs. They would specifically tie into the slate of films, helping usher storytelling to new heights.
The pandemic threw the MCU timeline for a loop, disrupting carefully timed schedules and dutifully laid plans. Then, in late August, Chadwick Boseman passed away from cancer. His untimely death left a hole in both the filmmaking world and in the fictional Wakandan universe he had commanded. The universe we had been eager to see him grow in. All of a sudden, the changes that we had been looking forward to, even prepared for, seemed even more abrupt in the face of everything else we experienced in 2020. Like Thanos wiping out half the universe, we were forced to reckon with the idea that the future we planned for was going to be changed without warning.
We can’t predict how different the MCU will look after COVID, and we can’t truly know how 2020 changed an entire decade of planned storytelling. But like our heroes adapting to a post-Endgame world, the MCU can lean into its fresh start. WandaVision stands as the first real Phase 4 entry; its clear scheduling structures have already been tweaked in response to the pandemic. But storylines can continue to be revisited and entry points for certain characters can be rejiggered, even if that means we have to wait a little longer to see a fan favorite arrive on screen. While no one can replace Boseman’s T’Challa, perhaps a changing world means there’s also room for changing leadership, with characters like Shuri and Okoye becoming more prominent.
There’s a sense that whatever feelings we have concerning a “fresh start” will feel even more pronounced the first time we hear that Marvel intro music. When we first turn on Disney+ and see characters we haven’t seen in over a year. Our first glimpse of new hero or an epic team-up. Or one of those “movie magic” audience moments. And even though we didn’t plan for a new pop culture beginning that coincided with our new personal beginnings, maybe that’s what we need. To help usher in this new era of superhero stories, maybe we need to know that the stories on screen underwent a journey similar to what we’ve been dealing with for the past year.
After all, familiarity is comforting. But in the words of Black Widow, “Nothing lasts forever.”
Featured Image: Marvel