In 2018, Marvel produced one of the biggest success stories — if not the biggest success story — in its cinematic history: Black Panther.
Headed into the film’s February release, Marvel had made 17 superhero movies, but never a solo superhero movie with a black star or a predominantly black cast. Black Panther ended up making $1.3 billion worldwide, and its $700 million domestic gross was bigger than that of Avengers: Infinity War, which made $678 million domestically. (Infinity War did make a killing at the foreign box office, however, and netted a bigger worldwide gross, raking in $2 billion overall.)
Considering Marvel’s deep war chest of hits like Iron Man, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, the three Avengers movies, and the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Black Panther’s domestic box office success is a major feat.
That kind of accomplishment could be a game changer for a company that dragged its feet in giving a black superhero a solo movie. A Black Panther sequel is already in the works. But that might only be the first step in how the film might shape Marvel’s future.
Why Black Panther’s box office success matters
In just one movie, Black Panther expanded the Marvel Cinematic Universe to include a fantastic new world. It established the African nation of Wakanda as a technological utopia and the most advanced civilization in the Marvel Universe. It introduced us to Shuri, Black Panther’s brilliant teenage sister who is easily one of the most exciting new Marvel characters in recent memory. It added depth to the hero that is Black Panther, and souls and spirits to the people he’s fighting for and who are devoutly pledged to him.
Black Panther gave us a hero to root for and a place to dream about.
Still, despite its many stunning creative feats, the film’s most pertinent achievement is that so many people went to see it. As I mentioned above, Black Panther is Marvel’s most successful movie on American soil. This is particularly impressive because Marvel’s Avengers movies — the flagship team-up films featuring multiple heroes from the MCU — have historically done better than any of its solo superhero movies. It’s a given, then, that Black Panther is also Marvel’s most successful solo superhero movie in the US — the second-highest domestic haul for one of Marvel’s solo superhero movies was Iron Man 3’s $409 million in 2013.
Black Panther was the American superhero of 2018.
The reason the movie’s box office success is so important is that it offers proof to studio executives and anyone else calling the shots in Hollywood — not just at Marvel, but at rival studios — that people will go see a movie about a black superhero set in Africa. And that could have a huge effect on the future of superhero films.
Black Panther and movies like it still have to fight Hollywood’s worst biases
Though it’s not at all fair, Hollywood — and especially blockbuster Marvel films — has long operated under the myth that making a film with nonwhite and non-male leads is risky because mainstream audiences (white people) won’t want to go see it.
It’s not unlike the myth that “black films won’t travel” or that “audiences won’t go see a movie with a female action star.” Sure, there have been films about black people that have flopped, and the same goes for movies centering on female action heroes. But the same could be said of movies featuring white men.
Still, those specific myths tend to stick to films about nonwhite and non-male characters, and have helped cement a pessimistic view of the entertainment industry and people’s tastes.
No one would think about discontinuing Spider-Man movies because Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disaster. Reflexively, when 2016’s Moonlight (which has a predominantly black cast) did well overseas, or when Get Out (which literally deconstructs racism for white people) became a hit, they were considered lucky exceptions.
“Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug,” Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films, which primarily produces films with black casts, told the Los Angeles Times last year. “It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.”
And director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short) has gone on record about a similar unfair standard that is often applied to women-led movies.
“If they make a $150 million movie with women directing or starring, and it bombs, they take it a little harder,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 2015. ‘‘You can trace that to the old-school guys in the boardrooms.’’
So when Marvel finally did make a movie, its first in 17, about a black superhero with a cast largely made up of black men and women, it faced an unfair but unavoidable challenge: It needed to succeed at the box office; otherwise, it would give credence to those dismal myths about films with black casts.
If Black Panther had been a flop, it would be the first example offered by studio executives if they were pitched a superhero movie featuring a black character. So because of its massive success, Black Panther could give executives and filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories that may have prompted reservations before its existence.
“These execs are all looking around and saying to themselves, ‘Shit, we want a Black Panther; we want a movie where motherfuckers come out in droves and see it multiple times and buy out movie theaters,’” actress and writer Lena Waithe told Vanity Fair in April.
Prior to Black Panther, Warner Bros.’ 2017 hit Wonder Woman was another box office success that functioned similarly, and it offers a case study for what Black Panther’s success could mean for the future of Marvel movies. Wonder Woman was the first movie from Warner Bros. to focus on a solo female superhero. It was a huge moneymaker and it smashed expectations. Now the sequel to Wonder Woman is currently filming, and there’s an all-women Warner Bros. superhero movie in production.
In October, it was confirmed that Black Panther director Ryan Coogler will be coming back to direct the sequel.
And there’s another Marvel movie coming out that could follow a similar path to Wonder Woman.
Captain Marvel could be as big a success as Black Panther
In March, Marvel will release Captain Marvel, the first female solo superhero film in the current MCU (some may recall 2005’s Elektra, but that film was distributed by Fox). The similarity between Black Panther and Captain Marvel is clear: They’re both the first superhero movie of their kind for Marvel, in that they’re the first solo superhero movies that don’t center on white men.
Captain Marvel will tell the story of Carol Danvers, who was in the Air Force and, by fate and circumstance, finds herself fighting in an intergalactic war where Earth is in the crossfire. And outside of her solo movie, Danvers will likely be an integral character to the MCU, because ever since Thanos snapped his fingers and eliminated half of all life in the universe — including heroes like Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Star-Lord, among others — she stands as the Avengers’ last hope.
Danvers already has an established fandom devoted to her too, something that’s been unique to the hero.
Back in 2012, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artists Dexter Soy and Jamie McKelvie revamped Danvers and reimagined the character into a space commander and adventurer — the basis of her current movie.
In doing so, Danvers became a favorite character among a faction of comic book readers, primarily women, who then dubbed themselves the Carol Corps. That fan base, to this day, is present at comic book conventions and has inspired other fandoms like the Kamala Corps (fans of Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel).
With Danvers’s vocal comic book fan base and the success of Black Panther, as well the triumph of crosstown rival Wonder Woman, it seems as if the stars could align to make Captain Marvel a big hit like Black Panther. It could, like Black Panther punch holes in the industry’s ideas about who sees movies and which stories are worth investing in.
And should it be a success, it would undercut a comment that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter made four years ago when he brushed off the idea of a female solo superhero movie.
In a 2014 email from Perlmutter released during the 2015 Sony email leak, the executive disparaged the idea of “female movies,” as he listed off a series of female superhero movies based on comic book characters that ultimately flopped. The email is short, but reading between the lines, it’s not hard to see Perlmutter was issuing a warning.
To be clear, Captain Marvel’s green light wasn’t contingent on Black Panther’s success; Marvel announced it was making both movies back in 2014.
But if Captain Marvel becomes a hit like Black Panther did, the immediate line of thought at Marvel will be that female superhero movies sell (and Wonder Woman’s success would bolster this idea). This might result in the emergence of female superhero movies.
There have, of course, been some examples in the past where a successful milestone movie like The Joy Luck Club’s Asian, female cast or the very successful women-led franchises like Underworld and Resident Evil didn’t exactly change the industry overnight.
But the bigger picture might be that Captain Marvel and Black Panther could give Marvel the incentive to focus not on just black superheroes from Wakanda or female superhero space captains, but on heroes — She-Hulk’s criminal defense lawyer by day, or the campy silliness of Namor, Prince of Atlantis — who wouldn’t otherwise have their stories told. We might also see studios that own Marvel characters’ film rights, like Sony and Fox, tell more of those stories; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which centers on a new biracial Spider-Man named Miles Morales, comes out this week.
Historically, there’s been a lack of diversity in Marvel films when it comes to who’s getting solo movies and who gets to lead teams that save the world. But there’s also a rich tapestry of stories in the comics, stories that are every bit as good or even better as the ones onscreen today, that Marvel hasn’t delved into yet.
Black Panther showed Marvel and the industry that there’s an appetite for superhero stories that don’t necessarily fit the traditional idea of what heroes look like or where they come from. And the more movies featuring different kinds of heroes, or even villains, that get made, the more incentive there is for Marvel to take chances with stories it hasn’t yet told. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and its fans could both benefit.