For the past decade, movie theaters have counted on a big, buzzy Marvel hit to kick off a lucrative summer season. But this year, the superhero of the moment isn't going anywhere near the cinema.
"Loki," the latest streaming series from Marvel Studios, premiered Wednesday to much fanfare. The show, which stars Tom Hiddleston as the charming god of mischief, is the third Disney+ series from Marvel in 2021 alone. It follows "WandaVision" and "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," which both had successful runs on Disney+ (or as successful as anything can be in the streaming world since most viewership metrics are kept under wraps).
"Loki" was never intended for theatrical release, but the timing of its premiere underscores a tectonic shift in Hollywood as studios increasingly have to tailor content for both streaming and cinema.
Marvel, the studio that defined the modern blockbuster, is now as much a streaming brand as it is a movie brand, according to Zak Shaikh, vice president of programming at research-based media firm Magid.
"I don't think Marvel is either a streaming brand or a theatrical brand," Shaikh told CNN Business. "Both platforms can continue to elevate the brand."
Series like "Loki" help to expand Marvel's universe. That's good news for Disney as it tries to push its company into a streaming future.
But where does that leave theaters?
A marvelous blockbuster brand
Marvel is the biggest blockbuster franchise in cinema by almost any measure.
The franchise has produced more than 20 films, all of which have opened at No. 1 at the box office, and includes one of the biggest films of all time with "Avengers: Endgame." That film made nearly $2.8 billion in 2019 and was the biggest blockbuster in history until "Avatar" took back the title earlier this year — a move that didn't upset Disney too much, since the studio now owns both franchises.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has notched more than $22 billion at the global box office, according to Comscore. That's bigger than Star Wars and James Bond combined.
In short, as goes Marvel, so go movie theaters.
As that industry struggles to recover from a devastating year brought on by the pandemic, it will need heavy hitters like Marvel to lure audiences back. But theaters have good reason to worry about the brand's expansion into the world of streaming.
We're far from Marvel giving up on theaters entirely, but the deeper the franchise goes into the world of Disney+, the further it arguably gets from being a significant theatrical event, according to Shaikh.
"With so many Marvel streaming series and so few theatrical releases, at least as of late, the biggest challenge could be the dilution of the brand," he said. "The problem really is volume. If you expand that universe too much on streaming then that could hurt the excitement around the brand in theaters — and that directly hurts box office."
That said, we're about to find out how excited audiences will be for a new Marvel movie.
Can an avenging superspy help save theaters?
Theaters will have to wait till July 9 to get their next Marvel hit, when "Black Widow" finally premieres after multiple delays.
The film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as the avenging super-spy, is arguably the biggest of the year and one of the most anticipated.
The film is likely to give a bump to theaters' bottom lines at a time when it appears that audiences are returning to cineplexes. It could also give Hollywood studios — which are trying to figure out which content to put in theaters and which content to put on streaming — a better idea of the industry's overall health as coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
"It'll be a great barometer," Shaikh said.
At the same time, "Loki" could boost Disney's streaming efforts even more by driving subscribers to Disney+ — the new focal point of the House of Mouse. Marvel is definitely not slowing down its streaming output, and it has a bunch of series set to be released in the coming months and years.
While "Black Widow" will be a red-letter date for theaters hoping to return to normal, it too will come with a streaming option.
The film is being released simultaneously in theaters and — for an extra charge of $29.99 — on Disney+.
"With the extra purchase fee for new releases on Disney+, it seems like Disney is confident that they are expanding to many non-theaters viewers rather than cannibalizing that audience," Shaikh said. "Nobody really knows until it happens."