Generally, this time of year is slow at the box office. With the Oscars on the horizon, it's in some ways still the tail end of the previous cinema year, and even with summer blockbuster season creeping earlier and earlier, the big-budget tentpoles don't start rolling out for another six weeks or so. A couple of years ago, Deadpool opened with $152 million at the domestic box office over Presidents Day weekend and folks thought the Earth had tilted on its axis. This weekend, though, Black Panther made that look like a half-eaten chimichanga. After last week saw projections for the film climb ever upward, it ultimately earned more than $235 million in the US, and shattered more records than a vibranium turntable needle. It is nothing short of a phenomenon—and one that should prove once and for all what it is moviegoers actually want.
There is, of course, one big reason why folks turned out for Black Panther. As the first major Marvel movie to feature a black leading character, director Ryan Coogler’s film provides a hero—and story—that audiences have wanted for a long time. (To paraphrase my colleague Jason Parham, it broadened the scope of what a superhero movie is capable of.) Large groups of friends went—some dressed up for the occasion—to experience opening weekend together. Crowdfunders bought tickets to help kids see heroes who looked like them on the big screen. Even folks who don’t normally follow Marvel films turned out to see it. “As a scholar, obviously, I wanted to see it,” says Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago who took her 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to a Sunday screening. “But I know I’m not the only black parent in America that felt like this is an experience that we want our kids to have.”
She's right. In addition to being only the fifth movie to make more than $200 million in its opening weekend, it also had the third biggest four-day weekend in history—surpassing Jurassic World (which, for comparison's sake, came out in the traditionally blockbuster-friendly month of June). It was also the largest ever haul for a non-sequel film and the biggest opening weekend for a film not helmed by a white director. Coupled with the success of Jordan Peele’s massive horror flick Get Out, the similarly boffo box office of last summer’s Wonder Woman, the juggernaut Fast and Furious movies, and the success of the more-diverse new Star Wars films, it’s proof—once and for all—that audiences will turn out in waves for protagonists from all demographics.
It also gave us all receipts for what’s been true for a while. Half of movie ticket buyers are women. Movie attendance by people of color is on the rise—and those audiences want to see themselves onscreen. And, as Variety put it, the MCU's 18th movie signaled an end to the “myth of the fanboy” and the notion that appealing to young white males is necessary for box-office success.
“Black Panther crossed the must-see threshold very quickly over the weekend,” says Phil Contrino, head of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. “Millions of people felt compelled to experience the film in a communal setting. Look at social media and you’ll see thousands of pictures of people with their friends and family at theaters.”
It’s Contrino’s job to promote mutiplex attendance, so of course he would say this. But he’s also not wrong. Over the weekend Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets were flooded with fans’ testimonials and images from theaters all over the world. (It was also hit with trolls making false claims that they were attacked by black moviegoers at Panther screenings, but that’s all the ink they’re getting in this piece.)
The opening weekend momentum, Stewart notes, “is not just naive support of black superheroes,” it’s a conscious effort to send a message to studios that movies with them can be wildly successful. “There’s a savvy consciousness of how Hollywood works, how opening weekend box office figures work,” Stewart says. “It’s a way of demonstrating to the world the passionate interest that black people have for their media images.”
And those images are what have made Black Panther more than just another Marvel movie blowing up at the box office. Black Panther, in addition to being full of heroes of color, also highlights narratives around slavery, colonialism, and Afrofuturism in a way that mainstream movies rarely do—and comic-book adaptations never do. As such, “it’s speaking to an audience that’s in real need of inspiration and solutions, and it layers all those things into what would otherwise be a conventional superhero movie,” Stewart says.
This morning, writer and activist Shaun King posted an essay on Medium postulating that the release of Black Panther is a historical moment on par with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president. One of the many things he pointed to was that Wakanda showed a world without a war on drugs, without mass incarceration, police brutality, or the KKK. “In this world, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin get to grow up. Sandra Bland and Erica Garner are still alive. It’s an alternate universe where we win and we rule,” King wrote.
And now that world rules the box office. “It’s going to make well over a billion dollars and may actually do so within a month,” King concluded. “From a pure business standpoint, it is to film what Michael Jackson’s Thriller was to music. The whole world stopped to not just watch this movie, it was bigger than that, the whole world stopped to soak in this moment. … Let’s make this moment last.”