Disney’s D23 Expo over the weekend was a marathon of entertainment news that was run at a sprinter’s pace. The new project announcements, footage previews, and surprise appearances were set off like a string of firecrackers stretched over the long weekend in Anaheim.
With Disney+ revving up for a November launch that will instantly reshape the subscription streaming marketplace as well as the final installment of the Skywalker saga (with the December release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) there was a parade of talent all weekend at the biennial fan convention.
The onstage appearances included J.J. Abrams, Jon Favreau, Angelina Jolie, Dwayne Johnson, Jeff Goldblum, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Salma Hayek, Chris Pratt, Anna Kendrick, Pedro Pascal, Awkwafina, Tom Holland, Hayley Atwell, Anthony Mackie, Kristen Bell, Paul Bettany, Sebastian Stan, Carl Weathers, Idina Menzel, Anthony Daniels, Elizabeth Olsen, Billy Dee Williams, Hillary Duff, Diego Luna, and Alan Tudyk.
And, unlike Comic-Con International’s similar Hall H preview panels, the Disney-ified production values made this star-studded showcase a sleek, polished and occasionally thunderous affair with big musical performances (starting with a Christina Aguilera performance on Friday and peaking Saturday with big-finish, confetti-covered closing number by the cast of Frozen). You don’t see that in Hall H.
A look back at some of the highlights:
FEEL THE FORCE: What a weekend for Lucasfilm and its president, Kathleen Kennedy, whose reign began the day before Halloween 2012 after Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of the company. There’s been ups and downs for Kennedy over these past seven years, but everything was golden during this D23 weekend with Friday’s terrific preview of The Mandalorian (which, without exaggeration, looks to be the most impressive visual achievement in television history) and Saturday’s triumphant preview of this December’s The Rise of Skywalker (which included Abrams’ touching comments about the late Carrie Fisher and a cast appearance with newcomer Keri Russell included). Kennedy also announced the return of The Clone Wars animated series, which had some Jedi partisans in the audiences bellowing their approval. There were announcements about even more Jedi-themed additions to Disney theme parks, too. Add to that the drama of the unexpected (but unsurprising) appearance by Ewan McGregor and the announcement of his return to the Jedi fold as the beloved Obi-Wan Kenobi and, well, you get the biggest Jedi victory party since that teddy-bear luau on Endor back in 1984.
TRIPLE THREAT: Marvel Studios announced another wave of live-action shows for Disney+ with the intriguing trio of Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, and Moon Knight. Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan of Jersey City, N.J., is a Pakistani-American teenager and protege of Captain Marvel who was introduced into Marvel Comics in 2014 as the publisher’s first Muslim superhero. She-Hulk, aka, attorney Jennifer Walters, is a fun-loving green giantess who inherited her powers from her cousin, Bruce Banner, during an emergency blood transfusion; introduced in 1979, she was the last major Marvel character created by the late Stan Lee. Moon Knight is a crime fighter in the mold of Batman but unique in the fact that he maintains three different secret identities, converses with a Egyptian lunar deity, and, in some depictions, has been portrayed as a unbalanced masked man with multiple personality disorder. If Marvel captures these three off-kilter characters with their odd energies intact, these should be some of the very best acting roles in the ever-widening superhero sector.
WAKANDA (TAKES) FOREVER: Marvel Studios started their film preview with Black Panther sequel but it felt like a school report by a student who didn’t bring his homework. Director Ryan Coogler seemed genuinely apologetic that a Black Panther 2 trailer wasn’t ready for the event. He also said it was premature to share the title of the film or the identity of the villain, which may suggest the film’s script isn’t all that close to being done either. “We really, really want it to be right,” Coogler told the crowd. The film’s release date was announced as May 6, 2022 so there’s plenty of time for Coogler and company to find their sequel’s path through the jungle.
ASIA MAJOR: Walt Disney Animation announced Raya and the Last Dragon, which stars newcomer Cassie Steel and Awkwafina as the two title characters, as young warrior girl and a powerful dragon, respectively. The animation looked gorgeous and the setting, a fantasy world that draws heavily on the cultural heritage and art history of Southeast Asia, shows the emphasis and care that Disney is investing into storytelling tailored with China and Asian markets in mind. Scenes were shown from the live-action revival of Mulan, too, which got a more tepid reaction from the audience (the comedic elements in the footage were a bit flat), but the Marvel Studios film Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings (February 2021) wasn’t included in the superhero factory’s preview.
FIGHTS LIKE A GIRL: Raya was described as a “five-star badass” during the presentation for Raya and the Last Dragon and in past decades that would have made her a rarity in the Disney pantheon of female characters. Not these days, and certainly not at D23 with the live-action revival of Mulan, the return of Jedi warrior Rey, the solo film for Black Widow (which introduces her equally capable sister), as well as the announcement of She-Hulk and Ms Marvel shows on Disney+ roster. Also in the House of Mouse’s weekend stage program: Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Emily Blunt’s intrepid adventurer in Jungle Cruise, and Angelina Jolie with two powerful (albeit non-traditional) matriarchal figures (The Eternals and in the Maleficent sequel). And they weren’t at D23, but Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) will be the one swinging the hammer in Thor: Love and Thunder and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) of Avatar is waiting in the wings…
HOUSE STARK: One of the rare unscripted moments over the long weekend: Robert Downey Jr.’s Disney Legends Award acceptance speech on Friday which turned into a vivid riff on a Disneyland pot bust from his wild-child youth. The actor kept glancing over his shoulder at Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, whose smile could be described as strained, pained, but maintained during the hazy anecdote. Downey also made a surprise D23 appearance on Saturday but it was only on-screen during the Black Widow footage. The super-spy tale is a prequel so Tony Stark is still among the living (just like the doomed title character). It will be the 11th Marvel Studios film with an appearance by Downey in his signature screen role.
WIDOW’S PEAK: Speaking of Black Widow, the preview for the May 1, 2020 release looked terrific. The feature film’s European espionage backdrop, it’s gun-metal hues, and those bone-cracking fight sequences in tight quarters are all clearly beholden to Universal’s Jason Bourne films, but Marvel insiders say the thriller is also informed (in tone, pacing, and action) by The Fugitive, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Salt. The footage included only a fleeting glance of the villain called Taskmaster (a character introduced in the comics back in 1980) but longtime Marvel readers will swoon when they see this interpretation.
HOUSE STARK, PART 2: Richard Madden, who portrayed the tragic figure Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, was on stage at D23 as one of the cast members of Marvel’s The Eternals, while Kit Harrington, who portrayed Robb’s adopted brother, Jon Snow, wasn’t present but was introduced as the latest addition to The Eternals cast. Earlier this summer, Sophie Turner, who portrayed another member of the Stark brood, Sansa Stark, played the title role in Dark Phoenix, Fox’s final Marvel Comics adaptation before the Disney merger. So, clearly, Westeros is somewhere between Wakanda and Westchester, NY?