How ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Became the Latest Franchise Film to Survive Its Star’s Untimely Death

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” began its domestic box office run with $28 million in Thursday night preview screenings. That’s above the $25 million preview gross of “Black Panther” four years ago (and the $36 million advance-night showings for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” last spring) — an impressive achievement for a big-budget franchise sequel arriving without both the actor (Chadwick Boseman) and the character (King T’Challa) who headlined its 2018 predecessor.

It’s just the latest case of a tentpole film landing in theaters after the sudden death of one of its stars, following such high-profile examples as 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” 2015’s “Furious 7” and 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond” and 2017’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Unlike “Wakanda Forever,” all four of those films included their deceased actors — though “Furious 7” required extensive retooling to include Paul Walker.

Shortly after Boseman’s 2020 death from colon cancer at age 43, Marvel execs made it clear that they would not recast T’Challa in the sequel — a decision that may actually boost the wanna-see factor for many fans. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole made T’Challa’s unexpected passing, and implicitly the shocking loss of the beloved performer, the emotional fulcrum for the MCU sequel.

“The box office potential of this latest installment may be increased by a desire by fans to honor (Chadwick Boseman’s) memory by supporting the film,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “‘Wakanda Forever” has a massive built-in fan base bolstered by the incredible good will created by the original film.”

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Indeed, the interest in “Wakanda Forever” is intense given the immense success of Coogler’s original, which became a cultural phenomenon that grossed $700 million domestically and $1.346 billion worldwide — and became the first superhero film to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

“The unprecedented nature of the circumstances surrounding the release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is undeniable,” Dergarabedian said.

Even if (no spoilers) someone eventually takes up the mantle of the Black Panther hero, “Wakanda Forever” would still be akin to a “Batman” movie where Bruce Wayne has died and Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon or Damian Wayne eventually don the cowl and cape of the Dark Knight.

That may happen semi-frequently in the comics (or superhero television shows like “Arrow”), but it’s new terrain for a modern cinematic franchise. Such changes are almost always temporary in comics or television, but T’Challa’s death presumably won’t be retconned anytime soon.

Previous franchises have handled the sudden deaths of their stars differently.

Health Ledger had already completed his role on Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” when he passed away seven months before the film’s July 2008 premiere — and later won a posthumous Oscar for his work. The publicity and curiosity concerning Ledger’s frenetic turn as The Joker (as glimpsed from the first trailer released five weeks before his death) helped make “The Dark Knight” a hit. The film earned $533 million domestically and $1 billion globally — more than double what “Batman Begins” had taken home ($374 million worldwide) in 2005.

When Paul Walker lost his life in an off-set automobile accident in December 2013, James Wan delayed “Furious 7” nine months to April 2015 — as filmmakers relied on digital effects and stand-in actors (including the late actor’s brothers Caleb and Cody) to insert Walker’s character Brian into various scenes. “Furious 7” became a kind of global memorial for Walker, with Vin Diesel (and others) discussing the actor at almost every promotional event and providing click-friendly (if presumably sincere) soundbites for those covering the film.

“Furious 7” wound up earning $353 million domestically and $1.5 billion worldwide — again nearly double the return for “Fast & Furious 6” in 2013 (thanks to a massive $380 million from China alone).

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When Carrie Fisher died suddenly in December 2016, she had already wrapped her work on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” which appeared one year later — though that likely had little effect on the film’s box office. Given fan fervor, the film grossed $620 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide on a $317 million budget. Fisher’s death did prompt J.J. Abrams to make significant plot changes for the final film in that trilogy, 2019’s “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Similarly, the tragic accidental death of Anton Yelchin (Chekov) months before the summer 2016 release of Justin Lin’s “Star Trek Beyond” had little effect on its disappointing ticket sales: $159 million domestic, $343 million worldwide on a $185 million budget.

Like those films, “Wakanda Forever” is unlikely to outperform its predecessor given how well the original did. Analysts have projected the film to open between $175 million and $200 million, and had a clear runway in terms of major releases until the opening of Twentieth Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” in mid-December.

While “The Dark Knight” and “Furious 7” may have gotten a box office boost due to the too-soon loss of Heath Ledger and Paul Walker, Dergarabedian said “Wakanda Forever” “was always going to be a strong a contender for mega-blockbuster status in any situation.”

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