Why ‘Black Panther’ is the most important blockbuster in years

Even before making its theatrical debut this Friday, “Black Panther” has already been called one of the most successful comic-book films of its time, culturally and financially.

The film, directed by Ryan Coogler — the first African American filmmaker to helm a Marvel film in 10 years, after 17 movies — follows T’Challa, who is the Black Panther, king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country in the Marvel universe. Resource-rich Wakanda sits on the largest repository of vibranium (the metal used to forge Captain America’s shield), has remained untouched by colonialism.

“Black Panther” assembles a predominantly black cast of some of Hollywood’s most bankable stars in the first major film centered around a black superhero since 2008’s “Hancock,” starring Will Smith, and before that, the “Blade” trilogy, which first starred Wesley Snipes as the Marvel vampire in 1998.

Coogler’s movie is expected to open to $165 million in its first weekend, which would make it Marvel’s fifth-largest opening ever. But projections have risen week after week. Online ticket retailer Fandango says advance ticket sales for “Black Panther” have outsold all other superhero films in the company’s history.

More than what the superhero film could mean for Marvel and parent company Walt Disney Co. DIS, +0.07% “Black Panther” will almost without a doubt become the highest-grossing film from a black director, and it looks poised to become the most commercially successful superhero blockbuster in history. Disney has made its bet on the film, investing about $200 million in it, and another $150 million to market it, according to Variety.

“Black Panther” is a big deal, and its prominence is important.

Though it’s been in development for years, “Black Panther” is being thrust into a Hollywood landscape still reeling from the #OscarsSoWhite controversies in 2015 and 2016.

“It is important because of the growing need to challenge the misperceptions of Hollywood that says major studio films featuring people of color won’t be successful at the level necessary to make a profit and attract wide audiences,” said entertainment lawyer Darrell Miller, who represents one of “Black Panther’s” stars, Angela Bassett.

“Black Panther” isn’t the first black superhero film ever — aside from “Hancock” and “Blade,” there has been “The Meteor Man” and “Blankman” — and the Black Panther character isn’t the only African superhero. Thanks to Halle Berry’s portrayal in the “X-Men” films, Storm may have been more well-known than the Wakandan King.

But “Black Panther” is entering into the cultural consciousness at a significant moment in time. The sitting U.S. president has referred to African nations as “shitholes,” alt-right groups have attempted to sabotage “Black Panther” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” through the newfound influence of Rotten Tomatoes, persons of color are still fighting for significant representation in Hollywood, and the Black Lives Matter movement has reinvigorated conversations around systemic racism.

Also read: Hollywood is still keeping black creators out of TV writers’ rooms

“I teach my students to see a film in the context of the times,” said Sheril Antonio, an associate dean and professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “These are not normal times that we are in — artistically, politically, socially, economically, and in terms of the global multicultural stance. There’s an extreme sense of divided perspective on race.”

“The post-racial, post-whatever era was exposed not to be past at all, but very much present… most people will say we went back to a 1950s attitude,” Antonio said.

Black film, black filmmakers and people of color have been through significant moments before.

In 1971, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released “Shaft,” produced on a budget of $500,000. The film grossed $13 million, helping MGM stave off bankruptcy while also serving as the catalyst for the blaxploitation subgenre that spawned more than a decade of films dedicated solely to black audiences.

“Shaft” was crucial in African-Americans’ advancement in Hollywood.

“It was the rocket out of an era into mainstream white America. It signaled a cultural shift,” Antonio said.

Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “Do the Right Thing,” “Boyz in the Hood” and “Malcolm X” — along with filmmakers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles, Ernest Dickerson and Julie Dash — helped usher in a new era of potent and socially conscious black film.

“Black Panther” now follows a recent string of commercially and critically successful films which have sought to tell black stories, or bring black faces to the forefront.

Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia (left), Chandwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther and Danai Gurira as Okoye in Marvel Studios’s “Black Panther”

“Girls Trip,” Universal Pictures’s CMCSA, +0.13%  comedy following four friends travelling to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans in order to reconnect, not only launched Tiffany Haddish to stardom, but became a critical and box-office darling. “Girls Trip” was the first comedy of 2017 to reach $100 million at the box office, after a string of poor-performing films from a genre Hollywood has come to rely on. The film, made for $19 million, earned $115.2 million and was the top-grossing comedy of the year.

“Hidden Figures” brought the stories of three black female NASA scientists, forgotten by history, to the big screen. It garnered 20th Century Fox FOXA, +0.74%  three Oscar nominations, including best picture, earned $236 million worldwide and showed a generation of young black girls they too can dream for the stars. “Moonlight” drove the cultural conversation, eventually winning best picture at the Oscars.

This year, “Get Out” has hopes of nabbing the same honor, which wouldn’t have been a possibility five years ago. Director Jordan Peele become only the third filmmaker to receive directing, writing and best picture nominations for a directorial debut. The film’s shoestring budget of $4.5 million and $255 million worldwide gross made it one of 2017’s most-profitable movies.

See: When are the 2018 Oscars?

The social thriller, delivering commentary on systemic racism in a dark take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” received its four Oscar nominations almost a full year after its release in theaters — a testament to its impact.

The success of these films, and those to come after them, is important. Hollywood immediately becomes interested in making more movies that speak to that audience, Miller said, and in turn studios are more willing to spend significant production and marketing dollars on tentpole films focusing on people of color.

“We need allies,” Henderson said. “We can’t do this alone, and justice can’t be reached with just black people in power.”

The Dora Milaje in Marvel Comics are an elite group of female bodyguards and Wakandan special forces.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were, after all, the stewards of Black Panther’s creation in 1966.

“Black Panther” shows a commitment by a major studio to producing films that speak to the 5.6 million African American moviegoers that were recorded going to the theater in 2016 — the latest data from the National Association of Theater Owners. The number of African American moviegoers has increased each year for the last few years, and while African Americans make up 12% of the population, they accounted for 14% of ticket movie ticket sales in 2016.

“Let us not forget the power of audiences,” Antonio said. “[But] we put a lot of pressure on this one film to ‘save’ us, and that’s not fair. We’re guessing based on the energy afoot in this moment whether or not this will be a timeless, significant work of art.”

“It’s unfair, but that is culture, that is the nature of art,” she said. “Art isn’t necessarily fair. But I think it is a worthy question to ask and an important lesson and it shows the importance of not just talking about a film when it comes out, but following it through its life.”

Heading into its release, “Black Panther” has everything going for it. The film has a 97% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and the buzz that has surrounded the film leading up to this weekend has been astonishing.

When casting details began trickling out in May 2016, the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit began trending on Twitter. Schools and organizations have raised money in order to take young black kids to see the movie for free. And after pictures of the film’s premiere appeared online, discussions of what to wear to the movie’s opening weekend — kente cloth, dashikis and other traditional African garb — became a hot topic.

It’s hard to imagine “Black Panther” not being a hit. It’s hard, in the fever pitch leading up to its release, to imagine the film won’t leave a lasting impression on audiences who see it, and on the industry that can greenlight more films like it.

“When we talk about the end goal, it’s as simple as this: I want to be present in telling my own story,” Henderson said. “Black people have historically been excluded from those spaces, from the writers room, in front of and behind the camera. It’s hard to define an endpoint, but our goal is equality.”

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