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Amid social distancing, can the Avengers even assemble?

By Geoff Ritter
updated: 4/12/2020 8:49 AM

At least one spider won't be hitting the web anytime soon.

That rather well-known arachnid, "Black Widow," is the next scheduled film in the insanely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, which you've surely heard of if you've been within a mile of a movie theater over the past decade. Originally scheduled for release next month, the film now won't hit screens until at least November -- and that's only if we and our real-life heroes manage to contain the coronavirus by then.

"Black Widow" is holding fast to its theatrical plans, but the ground is shifting both locally and nationally. Over the past month, as the virus has taken hold, theaters across the country have closed their doors, prompting many studios to rush their offerings online far sooner than planned. This new trend has allowed early streaming access to hits including "The Invisible Man," "Frozen II" and "Onward," which I enjoyed with my two sons last weekend. This trend also greatly escalates a pre- existing threat to the movie-going experience.

In Carbondale, movie buffs have been relatively lucky, even if the variety of films we get now isn't nearly as diverse as it was 20 years ago. In lieu of the more independent offerings once seen locally, we at least have been gifted with the revitalization of The Varsity Center, which screens old favorites and occasional independent films on a weekly basis. That, of course, isn't happening right now. Nor are we reaping any of the benefits of the previously shuttered movie theater at the mall, which was scheduled to reopen as soon as last month under the operation of a newcomer to town, VIP Cinemas. I tried to find VIP Thursday morning to learn about their plans, but I failed. It's hard to get anyone on the phone right now.

The biggest threat this week is to AMC Theatres, the world's largest theater chain and operator of Carbondale's University Place 8, among other nearby theaters. Many analysts now anticipate AMC could fall into bankruptcy by this summer, presenting an existential threat to the film-going experience across the nation and around the globe. This is just a further obstacle for Scarlett Johansson's black-clad Black Widow, who may find the world dramatically altered by the time the fall film release window rolls around.

So many unanswered questions remain. Will Carbondale even have an open first-run theater to screen the latest Marvel adventure this November? Given this week's news about AMC, as well as the virus' unpredictable nature, there's just no way to know. Even when life returns to normal, how long will it take society to return to the comfort of sitting in a dark room shoulder-to-shoulder with total strangers? Again, that's unclear right now.

Even when the show eventually does go on, what will we be watching? Just as this collective experience will surely alter so many other aspects of our society and culture, look for it to shift what entertains us, too. Before 9/11, we had been treated to a solid decade of sensational disaster movies that laid waste to towering cities in epic, bloodless fashion. (I'm looking at you, "Independence Day.") After that tragedy, though, the portrayal of such destruction on film took on a darker, grittier tone. So, too, will the current pandemic affect our popular entertainment for years to come. Will you ever watch an outbreak movie the same way again?

Maybe not, but here's hoping zombies return to local screens in some form, aliens again drop by to lay waste to New York City, and the Avengers get to assemble once more -- ideally fewer than 6 feet apart. Like other film fanatics, I'll continue to enjoy the boon of new releases now streaming into my living room, but I'll be yearning for the experience of sitting in a darkened theater filled with total strangers.

Hopefully, just like a spider, that experience still has some legs.

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