¡®Wakanda¡¯ Success Shows Iger What Disney Film Strategy Needs

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"
Photo collage: VIP+; "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"; courtesy of Getty Images

After star Chadwick Boseman’s death in 2020, it was never a sure bet if sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” would continue its 2018 predecessor’s box-office dominance when it released in November.

But following its second weekend at the box office, it’s clear “Wakanda Forever” means the Marvel brand is as strong as ever.

While its weekend opening came in $20 million shy of the first “Black Panther" film’s mighty $202 million domestic debut, “Wakanda” bowed to around the same gross as the “Doctor Strange” sequel in May. Furthermore, the film retained a greater share of its opening gross in its second weekend than other Marvel sequels from during the pandemic, including Sony’s mammoth “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Ignoring the Marvel vs. Marvel comparisons, “Wakanda” massively lifted the overall box office during 2022’s fall slump, a feat that Warner Bros. DC film “Black Adam” wasn’t as successful in achieving during October ― a good sign for this week’s extended holiday weekend.

Disney’s 2021 trio of standalone or new entrants to the Marvel Cinematic Universe never opened above $100 million. While this can be attributed in part to the film market’s ongoing recovery from pandemic closures at the time, Disney’s 2022 MCU slate has been nothing but direct sequels, all of which opened to well above $100 million.

That wasn’t the case for Pixar’s “Lightyear,” which was a standalone spinoff of its flagship “Toy Story” films that opened to $50 million in June and was the first Pixar film to get a theatrical release since the pandemic began. Three prior Pixar features went straight to Disney+, whereas 2021’s “Black Widow” was the only MCU film to debut on the streamer, though it played in theaters as well.

As such, “Wakanda” served as another reminder of what currently works best for Disney’s media distribution unit in the wake of a less-than-desirable earnings call. Disney disclosed $1.5 billion in operating losses for its direct-to-consumer unit in fiscal Q4 just days before “Wakanda” hit theaters, resulting in a severely negative reaction on Wall Street.

Disney stock was up 5% the day “Wakanda” released, following its 13% post-earnings tumble, but began to fall again in the days after the premiere.

That is, until Disney made a move no one saw coming.

After Sunday’s surprise that Disney CEO Bob Chapek was to be replaced by his predecessor, Bob Iger, Disney stock rebounded more than 6% Monday, a seeming vote of confidence from investors that the company made a smart call. 

Alongside Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” and ahead of that division’s “Indiana Jones 5” in 2023, as well as 20th Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” in December, the “Black Panther” films and their Marvel siblings are reminders of how successful Iger’s aggressive acquisition strategy was in turning Disney’s film unit into an absolute powerhouse during his 15-year tenure as CEO.

That doesn’t mean “Black Panther” is absent from streaming. An untitled series centered around Wakanda is in development for Disney+, while the main character in upcoming Disney+ series “Ironheart,” which “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler is helming alongside writer Chinaka Hodge, was introduced in “Wakanda Forever.”

But as Disney weighs its content spend against its streaming losses under Iger’s eye, making sure its film slate continues to deliver the goods remains a top priority.

On that front, “Wakanda” is yet another Marvel sequel leading the way for the company and cinemas alike.

That means it’s up to Iger to chart the best path forward for Disney’s content efforts by prioritizing a more consistent theatrical strategy that keeps more films in theaters. A similar strategy overhaul is underway at Warner Bros. Discovery under David Zaslav, providing Iger the opportunity to better dictate distribution in a manner that doesn’t leave the sting Zaslav’s cuts have.