Marvel Studios has once again bailed out the box office with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which earned an excellent $181 million domestic and $331.3 million global in its first weekend and is set to be a big theatrical hit. But whether this blockbuster can hit $1 billion worldwide isn’t as clear as it used to be.
The first “Black Panther” earned $1.34 billion globally, a shock for analysts at the time, thanks in large part to American audiences repeatedly seeing the film to the tune of $700 million domestically. Serving as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s lead-in film to the wildly anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War” also helped boost ticket sales.
Though the domestic launch and audience reception metrics for “Wakanda Forever” aren’t quite as strong as its predecessor, Ryan Coogler’s film has been better received than several other recent MCU films like last fall’s “Eternals” and last summer’s “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Audience scores include 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, 83% overall positive on Comscore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak, and an A on CinemaScore.
These all point to strong word-of-mouth that should carry “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” to strong holdover numbers through the next month until it faces major competition from fellow Disney release “Avatar: The Way of Water” on Dec. 16. Moviegoers who aren’t hardcore Marvel fans will likely turn up before and during Thanksgiving weekend in robust numbers and keep weekend drops lower.
But the difference between a $450-550 million domestic run and the $700 million-plus runs that recent billion-dollar hits “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Top Gun: Maverick” enjoyed is the replay factor. Both films had exciting, memorable action scenes and cameos from franchise legends like Val Kilmer and Tobey Maguire that had fans coming back to see them in theaters again and again.
While “Wakanda Forever” will surely be enjoyed and recommended by most who see it, it’s not necessarily a film that moviegoers may want to buy tickets to watch more than once. This is, by necessity, a very somber film. The decision by Marvel Studios and Coogler after the death of Chadwick Boseman to not recast his character, King T’Challa, prompted a total refocusing of the sequel around the real-life tragedy, turning it into a film centered on Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and her struggle to build a future for herself and Wakanda without her brother.
Even with moments of levity from actors like Danai Gurira and Winston Duke, grief over the loss of loved ones remains at the heart of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” even more so than “No Way Home” or “Maverick,” which also depicted the deaths of major characters. That could keep the film from getting the kind of legs that it would need to stretch to $1 billion.
“It’s a credit to Disney’s marketing that a superhero sequel that lost its superhero only dropped 10% in its domestic opening,” Boxoffice editor Daniel Loria said. “Now the next step is to keep pushing that marketing with some word-of-mouth help to casual audiences.”
The other big hurdle is the international market. In like-for-like markets and at current exchange rates, Disney estimates that “Wakanda Forever” is 4% ahead of the first “Black Panther.” While opening weekends in Asia were down across the board compared to the first film, which opened during the Lunar New Year period while “Wakanda Forever” is facing an unexpected collapse in moviegoing in South Korea due to the Seoul Halloween tragedy, the sequel did see higher numbers in some key markets like France ($13.7 million) and Mexico ($12.8 million).
Disney also reported stronger than expected boost in ticket sales across Latin American from Friday to Saturday, indicating that word-of-mouth is particularly catching on in that region. Mexico in particular may become a top international market for “Wakanda Forever” given the presence of rising star Tenoch Huerta as Namor and the film’s depiction of Mesoamerican cultures in the undersea kingdom of Talokan.
But it’s important to note that exchange rates have dramatically changed since the first “Black Panther” came out — or even when “Top Gun: Maverick” was dominating this past summer.
As we reported last week, many major currencies worldwide have significantly weakened against the dollar as the world braces for a potential recession. While that provides advantages for studios filming overseas, it means that overseas box office figures over the last three months have been reduced by around 10% when converted to the dollar. That could weigh down studio revenues for “Wakanda Forever” and even “Avatar: The Way of Water” — even if those films continue to perform well this holiday season.
And then there’s the biggest difference between “Wakanda Forever” and its predecessor: no release in China. While Disney had no comment on the film’s release in the major market, no Marvel film since the pandemic began has received a Chinese release for varying reasons, and reports have already surfaced that China’s film board is blocking “Wakanda Forever” from release due to the LGBT relationship between two members of the Dora Milaje.
While “Black Panther” didn’t make as much in China compared to other Marvel films — just $105 million — that’s more money off the table for “Wakanda Forever.”
Through strong word-of-mouth and lack of other popular blockbusters this month, this sequel could continue to show strong legs worldwide and stretch out to $1 billion. But while strong word-of-mouth could drives domestic numbers up to $500 million, the global total may also settle around $900 million due to competition for attention from the FIFA World Cup and “Avatar 2.” We won’t know until next weekend which path “Wakanda Forever” is taking.
If it’s the latter, the question once again must arise: is a roughly $900 million global run enough? Theaters and studios — especially Disney — were spoiled in the late 2010s by multiple billion-dollar hits driving up revenue in a single year. This was especially true with Marvel, where hype for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” spilled over into interest in other films like “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” and helped their global cumes reach 10 digits.
But in a world where Hollywood blockbusters can no longer rely on China to boost numbers, it may be possible that $1 billion is a milestone that only the most exciting, unanimously acclaimed, escapism-fueled blockbusters can reach, forcing expectations to once again be recalibrated in this post-pandemic new normal.
“‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Top Gun’ were incredible achievements for Sony and Paramount, but no theater is ever going to see a $900 million box office hit as a letdown,” Loria said. “Those sorts of numbers are still a big help, and with the box office still about 30% behind where it used to be before the pandemic, exhibitors need all the help they can get.”