How Marvel has sold what became an unexpectedly emotional sequel
2018’s Black Panther was, and continues to be, one of the more solid entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, there were the usual problems with the antagonist and some of the special effects appear to have been completed with a Spin Art toy, but you can’t argue with the emotional honesty of Chadwick Boseman’s first full-length outing as the title hero as well as director Ryan Coogler’s ability to work some engaging elements into the story.
Now Black Panther: Wakanda Forever arrives in theaters two years after Boseman passed away from colon cancer. That’s an unquestionably tragic loss that for a time threw the fate of this sequel into doubt as everyone wondered: How do you tell another Black Panther story if the actor is gone? Aside from Hulk and Rhodey, that’s something Marvel hasn’t done much of and would have been extremely disrespectful since this isn’t just another switch but the result of an untimely passing.
Coogler and his collaborators have opted to tell another story and acknowledge the reality of the situation instead of pretending nothing happened.
The sequel finds the African nation of Wakanda mourning the loss of T’Challa and working to find a way following his revealing the truth of the nation at the end of the last movie. As the kingdom’s warriors defend it from various threats, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of the undersea kingdom of Talokan, launches a full-scale invasion in an effort to protect his people from the surface world.
Much of the original cast, including Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett and others return. In addition to Huerta, new members include Michaela Coel as the Wakandan warrior Aneka and Dominique Thorne plays Riri Williams, a young woman who builds her own suit of armor to become the hero Ironheart.
With so much going on, let’s take a look at how the movie’s been sold.
announcements and casting
Coogler appeared on stage at Disney’s D23 Fan Expo in August, 2019 to announce the movie’s official release date. The fact this came a year and a half after the release of the first movie when Marvel usually sets up sequels five minutes after opening weekend was not lost on anyone.
Tragedy struck in August 2020 when Boseman passed away suddenly from colon cancer he’d been diagnosed with six years earlier. While the fate of the movie and character were the first thing on no one’s mind, it certainly left it up in the air. Coogler, in his statement on Boseman’s passing, talked about being in the midst of working on the script, including lines Boseman would never get to speak.
News then came in late November that Marvel had set a date to begin production, though details on how Boseman’s absence was going to be handled were not shared at that time. That was cleared up during Disney’s 2020 investors presentation, with executives sharing that T’Challa would not be recast but that this movie would continue to explore other characters in Wakanda.
In an op-ed, Coogler explained why he was alright with the movie’s production remaining in Georgia despite the state’s recently-passed voter suppression laws. That was in response to calls for him and other filmmakers to pull their productions.
How she and the others were preparing for the eventual filming in the wake of Boseman’s passing was the subject of an interview with Nyong’o.
The movie, along with other upcoming MCU entries, was name-checked – and given its official subtitle – in the “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video from early May.
Production officially got underway in July 2021. Coel was cast in an unnamed role later that month, with speculation she would play Storm. Also raising eyebrows was the August news that Thorne would appear as Ironheart ahead of her already-announced solo Disney+ series.
While in Cannes in May 2022 Wright spoke more about how they worked to honor Boseman while filming the sequel.
News came in July of that year that, because of scheduling conflicts resulting from the many delays in shooting, Kaluuya was dropping out of this film.
Right after that, the cast and crew appeared at San Diego Comic-Con, where they were part of Marvel Studios’ Hall H panel to talk about what fans could expect, the loss of Boseman and lots more, including the introduction of Huerta as Namor.
the marketing campaign
After the panel concluded the studio released the first poster, which shows the Black Panther helmet empty and nearly hidden in the black background, and the first teaser trailer.
That trailer (41.5m YouTube views) starts with establishing shots of some of the characters we met in the first film, all of whom seem to be collecting their thoughts and dealing with what can be assumed to be the loss of T’Challa. Then the focus shifts to what’s happening underwater. Lots of shots of characters in some form of anguish – including Ramonda’s impassioned speech about what she’s sacrificed for the good of Wakanda – and the appearance of Namor (who’s unnamed because there’s almost no dialogue here) all lead up to confrontation between the people of Wakanda and the armies of Talocan. It ends with someone new in the Black Panther garb as they prepare for battle.
Funko also revealed the first look at the movie’s line of POP! Figures at SDCC.
Right after the convention ended Marvel released a “Prologue” album including the music featured in that trailer and more.
Marvel put out a Namor 101 video in August to make sure everyone was up to date on the character.
In mid-September Disney gave attendees of its D23 event an early look at footage from the film with Duke, Wright, Nyong’o and others from the cast appearing on stage to talk about what fans can expect.
Huerta was interviewed at the event about how Namor is unique and how the character adds something new to the story.
Loungefly revealed a line of movie-inspired fashion accessories.
Empire published a cover story about the movie in September that included new images of many of the characters along with comments from the cast and crew. Some of those had Feige discussing why the role of T’Challa wasn’t recast and the revelation the movie’s running time was nearly three hours. Wright, Nyong’o and Gurira then appeared on the cover of Elle UK and were interviewed about the situation they found themselves in when it came time for the sequel.
The second trailer (31.3m YouTube views) was released in early October. It’s not too terribly different from the first spot but does add more of Namor and his attacks on Wakanda along with the rest of the surface world along with some vague comments about who he is and the threat he poses.
Shuri stands at the forefront of the heroes on the theatrical poster that came out at the same time, with the others arranged in a V formation behind her. That’s the top of the one-sheet, with Namor on his throne as others flank him upside down at the bottom to illustrate how he comes from the world below our own.
An interview with the director had him sharing how Boseman’s death had him questioning not just whether he could make another Black Panther movie without his lead actor, friend and collaborator but whether he could go on directing. There were other parts of that Entertainment Weekly package that had Duke, Thorne and others talking about the movie and story.
Exclusive posters were released for IMAX, Dolby, RealD3D, Screen X and 4DX, all of which take slightly different approaches in how they display the warring factions of Wakanda and Talokan, some of which are more like high-gloss family portraits and some of which are more artistic.
Marvel offered exclusive movie-branded apparel and other items at its New York Comic-Con booth.
A TV spot from a week later in October uses much of the same footage as the trailers but also offers the first actual dialogue from Namor, who warns “Wakanda will fall” while later on Shuri declares her defiance.
The cast also appeared in a commercial announcing tickets were now on sale.
Gurira appears in character in a Lexus tie-in commercial where she has to fight off attackers on her way to a speech, all while enjoying the comfort and amenities of the electric RZ 450e.
A set of character posters highlight Shuri, Attuma and Agent Ross.
Coel was featured on the cover of Vogue later in October while Nyong’o received feature profiles in both Vanity Fair and The Hollywood Reporter where she talked about coping with Boseman’s passing, how much she and the rest of the cast bonded once again with their grief and more.
Coogler and the cast reflected on the loss of Boseman as well as what audiences can expect in this sequel in an IMAX featurette.
Riri Williams is the focus of a Target tie-in commercial where she inspires a young girl working on a project and shopping for supplies at the retailer.
Another collection of character posters features Shuri, M’Baku and Okoye.
Bassett was interviewed for a cover story in Essence.
Viewers of the NBA games on ESPN on 10/26 got a special look at movie.
At this point the big news was that the rumors were true and a new song from Rihanna would be featured on the movie’s soundtrack. She and the studio started teasing “Lift Me Up”, with the full song dropping later in the month.
The purple carpet premiere was held at the end of October with the cast and crew along with the usual array of others from the MCU franchise and various friends in attendance. They all talked more about what they hoped this movie would accomplish as well as the emotional nature of making it.
Lexus continued its sponsorship deal to a trivia contest at that premiere.
A line of movie-inspired cosmetics was announced by Mac Cosmetics at this time as well.
More details about Namor’s attack on the surface were shared in an extended TV spot that features a lot more new footage than we’d seen before.
Marvel Studios teamed with the Chadwick Boseman Foundation for the Arts and the Smithsonian National Museum for a special screening of the movie that included an appearance by the cast and crew.
News came at the beginning of November that writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who famously wrote one of the most well-received “Black Panther” comics runs in the last decade, would host a six-episode audio series featuring recollections of the character along with interviews with Coogler and others.
Further TV and online advertising was done as the weeks went on, including a sponsored playlist on Spotify and an extended spot featuring Rihanna’s original song.
Both Shuri and Attuma were added as playable characters to Marvel’s Contest of Champions mobile game.
An Ebony cover story featured all the main cast members.
Coogler talked about the making of the movie in a featurette that also had the cast praising him as a director and leader on set.
Tracking projections estimate an opening weekend box office of at least $175m, but it’s likely the final number could be higher. That shows a lot of interest in how the story will continue given the seismic shift that occurred with the loss of Boseman.
As for the campaign itself, as is usual for Marvel Studios marketing efforts it’s so massive as to be nearly overwhelming. It’s huge, with dozens of trailers and other videos yet at the same time it manages to betray very little about the story itself save for the broadest of strokes about the conflict and such.
There’s a disconnect that runs through the campaign, though.
On the one hand you have the very emotional element where Boseman’s memory is evoked, either through comments by Coogler and the cast in the press or the overt references to T’Challa’s death in the marketing elements. On the other, you have the blatantly commercial, where all of that emotion is evoked in order to sell tie in merchandise.
Not that the two elements can’t coexist, just that the one inherently impacts the other and creates a sometimes inconsistent tone.
Regardless of all that, I think that while your mileage might vary for various individual parts of the campaign, we can all agree there isn’t enough Ironheart, who too often simply evokes some moment originated by Tony Stark 14 years ago, and that Namor’s feet wings are proof we have strayed too far from God’s light.