The fictional African land of Wakanda, which outsiders wrongly assume to be a Third World country, is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth in the Marvel comic book universe. This weekend, the new film about Wakanda's protector, Black Panther, is also poised to destroy long-held assumptions about the movie business.
All signs say Marvel Studios' "Black Panther," being released Thursday evening by Walt Disney Co., is having a cultural moment fueled by massive pent-up demand for what is expected to be the first global superhero blockbuster to feature a mostly black cast and an African American director.
The $200-million film — directed by Ryan Coogler ("Creed") and starring Chadwick Boseman as the titular hero — is expected to gross at least $150 million in the United States and Canada through Monday, according to people who have reviewed audience surveys, putting it on track to become one of Marvel Studios' most valuable franchises.
Such a strong domestic result would set a record for a film directed by an African American filmmaker. It would also represent an unprecedented opening for a Marvel Studios movie that is not a sequel or an "Avengers" film, easily beating the first "Iron Man," "Thor," "Captain America" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" pictures.
Crucially, "Black Panther" could help shake up the way Hollywood does business by defying assumptions about films with predominantly black casts and filmmakers. Most movies with black casts, producers and directors — including the highly profitable "Girls Trip" and Tyler Perry productions — are made with low budgets and marketed to American audiences, not international crowds. "Black Panther," by contrast, is getting a global release and marketing push from Disney.
"There aren't many examples of African American directors being given that kind of opportunity to make a big-budget movie with a black cast and a global marketing campaign," said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA. "It's a great opportunity to demonstrate the box-office power of this type of storytelling. This film, on both the cultural and economic fronts, has the potential to be a powerhouse."
According to Fandango, "Black Panther" has pre-sold more tickets than any other superhero movie at the same point in its life cycle. The film has energized black moviegoers, many of whom bought their tickets weeks in advance and tweeted their excitement about it.
The movie has also inspired black charities and celebrities, including actress Octavia Spencer and Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Clinton McDonald, to host free screenings of the film in African American communities. Rapper T.I. teamed with Walmart to give free tickets to fans in Atlanta for an advance screening, one of five screenings that the retail giant set up for this week in different cities.
Spencer, who does not appear in the film, wrote a Jan. 31 post on Instagram saying she planned to buy out a theater in Mississippi "in an underserved community there to ensure that all our brown children can see themselves as a superhero."
Marvel and its Burbank-based owner, Disney, have taken steps to target African American audiences. The studio enlisted rap superstar Kendrick Lamar to create the original soundtrack, including contributions from artists such as SZA, Khalid and Vince Staples. Lamar recently performed at the college football championship halftime show to promote a new trailer for the movie.
Other films have already proved that diverse casting pays off at the box office. Universal Pictures' "The Fate of the Furious," directed by F. Gary Gray, who is African American, grossed $1.24 billion in 2017, mostly outside North America. Jordan Peele's satirical horror film "Get Out" grossed $255 million at the box office last year and scored four Oscar nominations, including best picture.
African Americans are a powerful underserved market for Hollywood, making up about 15% of frequent moviegoers, while constituting 12% of the general population, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Still, only six of the top 100 films released in 2017 had black directors, according to a study by USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released in January.
"Audiences of color are driving box office and they're driving ratings," Hunt said. "Hollywood, if it wants to remain viable, will need to produce what the audience wants, and the audience is becoming more diverse by the day."
Yet Marvel has previously been criticized for not giving lead roles to minorities and women. Now the studio is starting to address the lack of superhero films with leads who are not white men, including upcoming projects such as "Captain Marvel," starring Brie Larson, and a Black Widow movie with Scarlett Johansson that is in development.
Marvel and Disney declined to comment.
There have been superhero movies starring African Americans, such as Wesley Snipes in the "Blade" films and Will Smith in "Hancock," but "Black Panther," in particular, is tapping into pent-up demand. Though the character of Black Panther (real name: T'Challa) was created in the 1960s, he has never had his own movie. Boseman made his debut as the character in the 2016 blockbuster "Captain America: Civil War."
"It just seems like this is becoming a major event," said Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. "People forget how few movies there are for African American audiences, so when you combine that audience with the regular Marvel crowd, of course this is going to be huge."
The likely success of "Black Panther" comes at a pivotal time for Disney, which paid $4 billion for Marvel Entertainment in 2009. Disney has enjoyed an unmatched string of successes from the Marvel franchise, with multiple interconnecting story lines converging in this year's superhero mashup, "Avengers: Infinity War." After mining its most famous characters to great effect at the box office, Marvel needs to tap fresh, lesser-known characters to build its audience and pave the way for the company's future.
"It's about keeping up with the times and putting characters into story lines that are relevant," Bock said. "They've got to continue to take risks."
Among Disney's stable of brands, Marvel has in some ways been overshadowed by Lucasfilm and its "Star Wars" property in recent years. Three "Star Wars" movies have come out since 2015, and Disney is placing even bigger bets on the brand — developing two new film series and several TV shows based on the space opera. And there's the theme park business: Disney is building $1-billion "Star Wars"-themed areas at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort, projects that dwarf Marvel additions to the company's parks in recent years.
But some observers say that Marvel could become increasingly important to the company as the "Star Wars" franchise shows signs of possibly losing steam. Though Disney's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" has grossed more than $1.32 billion worldwide since its release in mid-December, some observers have nonetheless pegged the film as a disappointment, given the lofty expectations. The movie's theatrical haul will fall far short of the performance of 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which took in more than $2 billion worldwide.
Laura Martin, an analyst with Needham & Co., said Marvel has more options than Lucasfilm because it has a "broader panoply" of characters compared with those from the Star Wars universe. Case in point, Marvel has been mining lesser-known heroes such as Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, and doing huge business with them. With "Black Panther," "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Ant-Man and the Wasp," 2018 marks the first time three Marvel films will be released by Disney in a year.
"Marvel has more flexibility, and if they tell a great story, it doesn't matter if you don't know the character," Martin said.
By most accounts, that's what Marvel has done with "Black Panther." The film has an almost perfect score on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes and received an overwhelmingly positive response from moviegoers who saw early screenings of the picture, praising its compelling characters, Afro-futuristic visuals and themes of black empowerment.
"The creation of 'Black Panther' represents the turn from seeing black people as victims to them having agency, and who has more agency than a superhero?" UCLA's Hunt said.