From the initial success of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel films have redefined what it means to make a superhero movie. From super soldiers to science experiments, Norse gods, Avengers, Defenders, and genetically modified raccoons—we’re way beyond blockbusters and trilogies. Try an entire Universe of stories; namely, the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which has grown to include fifteen films, six television shows, and dozens of overlapping heroes, all launched in less than a decade. And with a worldwide gross in excess of $11 billion dollars, Marvel Studios has rewritten the Hollywood handbook for action movies of the modern era. Their success with building a shared universe even has their longtime comic competitor DC struggling to keep up. Marvel still leads by a mile—and come next February when Black Panther arrives in theaters, the studio will break new ground again.
Black Panther is the first movie to star the first mainstream black superhero in comics and the first Marvel film to feature a predominantly black cast, with veteran talent including Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, John Kani, Phylicia Rashad, and numerous others. First created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, Black Panther is a character with big screen plans in development dating back to the early 1990s. In the present day, where nominees for the Oscars are mostly (or literally all) white, and superhero movies are mostly (or nearly all) headlined by white guys named Chris, the time for films like Black Panther is long overdue.
Helping spearhead change is Nate Moore, who rose through the ranks at Marvel from running their in-house writer’s program in 2009 to serving as executive producer on Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War. Moore was in the room with Captain America: The First Avenger screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely when they were throwing around ideas for Winter Soldier, and he put the character of The Falcon on their radar. He also championed Anthony Mackie for the role, after seeing the actor in the 2006 drama Half-Nelson. Pushing for a standalone Black Panther film was a big victory for Moore, who grew up reading the comics. As a kid, he found superheroes like The Falcon and Luke Cage, who he could look up to and see himself in on the page, if not on the screen. Complex caught up with Moore this month after closing principal production on Black Panther in Atlanta to talk about casting for diversity, Black Panther spoilers, and building billion-dollar film franchises.
Congrats on wrapping production. How did it go?
Thanks! We had a solid amount of prep time so we felt pretty good going in. Production was great, we were in Atlanta with a second unit in South Korea. We’re now starting our post-production phase which will take us through to the release of the film.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now producing at least two movies a year. Is each new film a familiar routine at this point?
It doesn’t change drastically but each one is a different beast, mostly because of the people involved. The director, the writer, the department heads—everybody’s always going to bring something new. Schedule-wise, we have a pretty good idea how we’d like the movies to come together but there is a difference between trying to launch a new property like Doctor Strange or Ant-Man versus doing a sequel. With new characters, you tend to learn things about them along the way. Recurring characters, you know them better so story and character beats come easier. But in some ways, it’s trickier because we have to find new ways to tell stories about Tony Stark or Steve Rogers or Thor that people haven’t seen before.
How has the process been to bring Black Panther to the screen?
Growing up as a kid collecting comics, Black Panther was a character that always spoke to me both graphically and in terms of story. There aren’t a lot of characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that look like Black Panther from either a character or style standpoint and being in the heart of Africa in Wakanda, this nation that’s the most technologically advanced in the world, is a really compelling concept that lends itself to a ton of storytelling. So he brings with him not only a great character with a lot of history but this whole world to explore.
This film takes place directly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which introduced T’Challa and he played a big role. Was there a push to get Black Panther made after positive audience response to the character?
We want to tell the best stories with the strongest developed characters and scripts that we can. Our biggest concern is that, in trying to get more characters out there, we rush something that’s not ready and we deliver something that’s not up to our standards. So it’s less about us rushing a character that’s diverse to get it out quickly and more about figuring out how to do it right.
Does being at Marvel afford you better opportunities for diverse casting? Is it a different experience than with traditional films at other studios?
I think an upshot with Marvel is that our characters and brand are both big enough where we’re not limited to just using actors and actresses who’ve done a ton of movies. We work with big name actors but we’re not under the pressure of saying that we have to work with, say, Matt Damon or Will Smith, or no one’s going to want to see this new idea.
Hollywood is a bit agnostic as far as race and gender. They’re just trying to get as many people as possible to see movies so they just want faces that get people into seats, frankly. And because there aren’t as many roles for people of different ethnicities, you tend to see a lot of guys like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio who are super talented, but who maybe aren’t as diverse as other actors out there.
That’s why I think franchises like The Fast and the Furious are so important, because they’re exposing people worldwide to faces they might not traditionally see in films. It helps to get more diverse talent out there so that when people see them in other films, they’re still going to want to buy tickets, which is then going to allow studios that might be more risk averse to cast them in other things.
The need to increase diversity in film roles is a decades-old struggle that’s returned to the spotlight with recent Oscar controversies and the talk of whitewashing in films. Do you encounter hurdles in the casting process behind-the-scenes?
There’s sometimes backlash when you cast against type. We’ve faced it a bit with the character of Heimdall, for instance, played by Idris Elba who was not reflective visually of what we’re more used to the character looking like in the comics. It’s something that we’re aware of and talk about at Marvel when we consider characters.
Do you think that seeing films with more diverse casts will continue to be a slow growth or has there been a tipping point, with films like The Fast and the Furious and Rogue One demonstrating huge success isn’t limited to all-Caucasian casts?
It’s definitely accelerating. The conversation has always been there but now, with initiatives like having more diverse members of the Academy [of Motion Pictures and Sciences], all these things are starting to snowball. So with films like the Fast and the Furious and Marvel franchises, and also on television with shows like How To Get Away with Murder and Scandal, whenever programs featuring diverse casts work, it opens a door for someone else to take a chance on another film or show that would seem risky. The more normalized that diversity in film becomes, the more commonplace it’ll become.
What can you tell us about Black Panther? What are you excited about?
What’s great is that people have already met Chadwick [Boseman] in Civil War, so now we get to jump in feet first without having to tell a more traditional origin story. We meet him as his world is changing. Black Panther takes place right after the events of Civil War, so T’Challa’s father has just been killed, he has returned home to Wakanda, and T’Challa has to navigate potentially becoming the new ruler of this nation. He never intended to become the king for years because he figured his dad would be around for a long time. T’Chaka’s death is, in a lot of ways, the catalyst for everything that’s happening in Black Panther.
It’s a strong setup. And a good counter-balance to Thor, the other prince in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who we originally met on the other side of that fence where he actually really wanted to take over but wasn’t ready.
That’s something that I think Marvel has as an advantage by having all our films produced in house: we all know the other stories that we’re trying to tell, and we we do our best to make sure each film does feel distinct. If we zig one way with a particular story, we can zag another way in a different franchise.
So after Black Panther, what comes next? Will we continue to see more diverse characters leading future Marvel properties?
Yes. So we’re finishing up what we call Phase 3, which will sort of end with the fourth Avengers film in 2019. And then I think for us, we continue that conversation of, what’s next? Who will be the new heroes who can tell great new stories and bring us to new worlds that we haven’t even had a chance to visit yet, while still expanding on the slate of heroes we have and finding the next step for characters people have come to love? We’re looking for the next best story. And then we let the story tell us what we should be making as part of that one united narrative in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s all driven by storytelling and that tends to mean you get to intersect characters in a fun way. Black Widow’s an interesting example. She was introduced in Iron Man 2, then she was in The Avengers, and the next time you see her is Captain America: Winter Soldier, so it’s almost impartial and more ends up being, where is her story best served? Having that kind of flexibility with the characters is fun because then it’s not about having to bring everyone back because contractually it needs to happen. Instead it’s saying, wouldn’t it be cool if this story collided with that story and gave us this whole new angle?
At Marvel, the fans are at the forefront of our minds when we talk about development. What does our audience want and how do we give it to them in a way that’s unexpected? What do they want to see? What can we show them that they don’t know they want to see, but that we think they’ll really respond to? And a big part of that is plunging into new worlds with characters that offer a different flavor than what people are used to. Those are the stories that we want to explore.
Black Panther debuts in theaters on February 16, 2018