Black Panther’s Box Office Offers a Long Overdue Lesson
Black Panther is the biggest solo superhero movie ever, which reconfirms a long overdue lesson about bigotry and biases in the culture.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, it’s only February and we may have just seen the biggest movie of the year. It was bold, beautiful, and about a Black Panther, aka Marvel Studios superhero T’Challa—well that, and so much more. The film is only at the very beginning of what is likely to be a historic box office run. After all, it already has the fifth biggest opening of all time with an estimated three-day haul of $201 million, and an expected grand total of $235 million for its four-day holiday weekend. That’s all the more impressive since it’s a project that Marvel Studios delayed by a year to make room for another Spider-Man movie.
Indeed, Black Panther was long expected to be a box office juggernaut, with official industry projections first estimating last month that the film would gross between $100 million and $125 million. (By Friday, analysts had moved the number closer to what I had been personally guessing for months: $175 million). The demand, and need, for a superhero and larger fantasy mythology that serviced more than a strictly white audience has been obviously there for decades, however it seems everyone had underestimated how large that desire was. Not only did Black Panther blow past the $175 million-mark (which is more than any opening for a movie starring Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man), but it also rocketed beyond every Iron Man, Captain America, and all other Marvel Studios films, excepting for the very first Avengers from 2012 (which opened with more than $207 million).
Otherwise the only films that earned more in their opening weekend while unadjusted for inflation are two franchises swimming in Member Berries nostalgia: Disney’s two episodic Star Wars movies and Jurassic World. Yet therein lies the true novelty of Black Panther; its success is not predicated on what came before, but what it promises will come next. With $235 million at the North American box office and $371 million in its first worldwide weekend, Black Panther is poised to have a long run in both realms with meager drops. While some adult-oriented science fiction fare like Annihilation could make waves in its own lane next week, the next would-be blockbuster is not for another full two weekends, and even then it is Red Sparrow, an also adult-skewing (as opposed to four-quadrant, all ages adventure) spy thriller that is dripping in chilly and aloof atmosphere. It will be a full three weeks until Disney itself challenges its own movie with Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time.
As such, Black Panther has a clear path to challenge the best box office run enjoyed by a modern superhero movie: last year’s Wonder Woman. Despite opening at a robust but relatively less shocking $103.3 million (the then-42nd biggest opening ever for those counting), the Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins team-up proved to be lightning in a bottle for audiences also starved for an A-list epic that depicted femininity as a virtue instead of an accessory. That film went on to have a 3.94x multiplier (which means it nearly quadrupled its opening weekend at the North American box office). That kind of reception is unheard of in our modern, oversaturated, and franchised cinema, especially in the heat of summer where Wonder Woman had to compete with a weekly onslaught of aggressive new competition like Cars 3, Transformers 5, and Marvel’s very own Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yet Wonder Woman had the leggiest box office run for a superhero movie since Spider-Man broke records and turned heads toward the genre in 2002 (and even then, the web-head’s multiplier was 3.67x).
Unlike Wonder Woman, however, Black Panther has an “A+” CinemaScore (the first awarded to a superhero movie since 2012’s The Avengers; Wonder Woman had an “A”) and faces relatively meager competition for the next three weeks. There is no reason not to expect it to have a similarly monstrous box office run. This is critical, because the achievements made by Ryan Coogler and his team on Panther, like Jenkins and her own last year, both represents a paradigm shift and an overdue concession to let our fantasies reflect the real-life diversity and multiculturalism that drives the world in the 21st century.
Even Marvel Studios, who produced the surprisingly subversive and brilliant Coogler film, which tackled issues unique to African American life, has previously been AWOL on representation. In 2015, following the Wikileaks of hacked emails between Sony and Marvel chief executives, it was learned that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter did not believe “female movies” could be financially successful. Rather the notoriously conservative company head implied that the failure of B-movies starring comic book superheroines indicated that all female-led tentpoles were destined to end in “disaster.”
It should be noted that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige allegedly went to Disney CEO Bob Iger (who is above Perlmutter) to cut the Marvel chief out of the decision-making process of Marvel Studios films in 2015. But even then, following an agreement between Marvel Studios and Sony to put Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both Black Panther and Captain Marvel (the first Marvel movie to star a woman hero, in this case Oscar winner Brie Larson) were delayed by a year. Captain Marvel comes out in 2019 and will be Marvel’s 21st feature.
Wonder Woman had its own quixotic journey to the screen with Patty Jenkins even pitching doing a movie about Princess Diana and the Amazons in 2004 after directing Charlize Theron to an Oscar with Monster. Yet underrepresentation of women and people of color has long continued to be an industry standard, and not merely the biases of one comic book company executive.
Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy’s conscious choice to emphasize diversity in the Star Wars Universe led to the most popular film franchise of all-time rebooting for a new generation with Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, then unknowns, as the leads. Since then all of Disney/Lucasfilm’s thus far released Star Wars films have starred women in the central role. And each has been met with a growing cacophony of derision and anger from the “men’s right activists,” and the like, who verbalized the unspoken industry-wide skepticism held by many a studio exec. Even in the face of successful action films over the decades like Training Day, Man on Fire, or Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s own previous film, Creed—or woman-led action franchises like The Hunger Games and Kill Bill—internet trolls mewled that Star Wars (and presumably the larger pop culture landscape) “belongs to whites.”
No, Star Wars does not, nor do superhero movies, and never will the future. Period. Black Panther is a wonderful achievement in cinema and pop culture, but it is also a reminder of what should be obvious, as well as a vision of the future to come. One that will be in many varieties.