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Review: 'Black Panther' Rules As Smart, Socially Powerful Superhero Cinema

February 06,2018 20:35

Mark Hughes , Contributor I write about films, especially superhero films, & Hollywood. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. After a record-setting $2.59 billion year at the box office in 2017, Marvel Studios hopes to challenge or ...and more »


After a record-setting $2.59 billion year at the box office in 2017, Marvel Studios hopes to challenge or surpass that eye-popping figure this year, and their first entry Black Panther looks likely to start 2018 off in the right direction. The hype keeps getting bigger by the day, so the only question at this point is whether Black Panther can possibly live up to it. The good news for Marvel and for audiences everywhere is, the answer to that question is a resounding, "Most definitely."

Source: Marvel Studios

Chadwick Boseman stars in Marvel's "Black Panther"

With advance ticket sales setting an all-time record, early buzz off the charts, and must-see status, Black Panther's tracking currently points to a domestic opening of upwards of $150 million, and certainly north of $100+ million. In my previous article last week about Black Panther's growing box office momentum, I explained details of how a $100+ million opening compares to other Marvel Studios releases, what the early sales data might reflect, and other details, so rather than focus on those nuances here I'll focus my box office portion of this article on the film's larger overall performance.
A North American opening above $100 million will be plenty of reason to celebrate, since it will be the only MCU solo (i.e. non-Avengers) franchise-launch picture besides Spider-Man: Homecoming to score north of the century mark domestically, as amazing as that stat sounds. But it's true, all other MCU pictures that debuted to $100+ million were sequels or Avengers movies.
Using that data to determine what to expect for Black Panther, I think we can discount the Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War as direct relevant comparisons, since they were team-up films that all opened at least in excess of $179+ million. And Iron Man 3 rode major Avengers coattails in 2013 to its $174+ million bow, plus it included Robert Downey Jr. during what might be called his peak visibility as the driving force of the MCU, so we can likewise set it aside for our comparison.

Source: Marvel Studios

Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright star in Marvel Studio's "Black Panther"

Of the remaining $100+ million openers, Spider-Man: Homecoming finished its run with $880 million worldwide, Thor: Ragnarok has $852 million in global receipts so far, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 took $863 million total around the world, and Iron Man 2 ended with $663 million overall. Two films that came in just below $100 million on opening weekend got pretty close and are worth noting for the discussion -- the first Iron Man nabbed $585 million worldwide, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier's global cume was $714 million.
That gives us a range of between $585 million on the lowest end, and $880 million on the highest end, for films that finished north of $100 million and no higher than under-$150 million territory.
The lowest figure is from a sub-$100 million opener, and the highest is from a character with five prior films under his webbed belt and who arguably the most popular individual superhero in the world (in terms of merchandising sales and other metrics), so I think we could fairly toss out both of those while being mindful of them as outliers. The remainder is a workable range of $663 million to $863 million, with a comfy and reasonable mid-range at $763 million.
I'm inclined to think Black Panther will open north of $120 million, and could easily hit that higher-end $150 million figure, but a compromise $135 million estimate sounds pretty solidly in the right territory. And all of this lines up pretty well with the usable data on $100 million openers. Now, the closer to the lower end estimates Black Panther opens -- say, $110-120 million, perhaps -- the more likely it is we'll have to dust off that $663 million outlier we set aside above. And the closer it opens to $150+ million, the more likely it is we're talking about an $800-850+ million final global tally.

Source: Marvel Studios

Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan do battle in Marvel's "Black Panther"

The big question is, how will Black Panther play internationally? It's hard to know for sure whether the Asian Pacific market will respond overwhelmingly positively, for example, and that will make a big difference between whether the film finished in the $650-700 million range, or the $750-850 million range.
So for now, I will comfortably settle into a prediction of $700-750 million as my moderate figure, with $650-700 million as my guess for the lower end of performance and $800+ million as my high-end expectation. But while $700-750 million is an awesome performance and seems like a very reasonable prediction, I'm mindful of the fact the MCU just had three entries all top $850+ million in 2017, and how most of these $100+ million openings have been translating into even higher box office lately.
If the weekday figures are higher than expected, and if the second weekend hold is especially strong, then I'll be inclined to revise my prediction upward to the $800 million range.
Now, let's talk about whyBlack Panther will be a massive hit.
Ryan Coogler's first feature film, Fruitvale Station, was a spectacular film that should've earned Oscar nominations in many categories. His follow-up Creed was another great picture, which did earn one Oscar -- but not for any of the African American artists who work on the picture. Coogler's work as both a director and a screenwriter is simply remarkable, and if you've seen those two previous films then you know what it means when I say Black Panther continues that trend and delivers one of the most important, resonant, and powerful stories and narrative themes of any superhero picture to date.

Source: Marvel Studios

Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman star in Marvel's "Black Panther"

The cast in Black Panther is one of the finest assembled for any superhero production. Stars Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, and others bring such dramatic weight to the proceedings, elevating an already splendid script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole into something far greater.
What amazed me was the way each character had a particular relationship with each individual other character, and these relationships felt as complex and fluid as those we experience in real life. How these relationships grow and change through the story depend on not only what transpires between any particular two people, but also how each of their other relationships has grown and changed as well. The dynamics all carry weight, and the performers make us believe these people interacted long before we showed up to watch them, and they'll continue those families, friendships, and partnerships long after we've left the theater.
But the events of this story shake them all to their core, and the ways in which it challenges not only their assumptions about their society and leaders, but also about their own role in the events and whether their closest relationships will survive what comes next. Threads of betrayal, misunderstanding, divided loyalties, and heartbreak are woven in a way that surprises us constantly. Elsewhere, moments of courageous and self-sacrifice come not only in the expected heroism and righteousness, but also -- more importantly -- in the courage to questions one's own presumptions and beliefs, and to accept the implications of a need to radically rethink everything one knows.
Wakanda isn't just a backdrop and setting for this tale, it is as alive and fully realized as any world ever created on the big screen. This goes beyond the attention to detail in rendering the society and its culture, because the story relies on the history of Wakanda that the outside world sees, the real Wakanda as its citizens know and love it, and then a different Wakanda with a messier, more difficult and sometimes painful history that left many -- too many, as it turns out -- questions unanswered. How the society confronts revelations about their true past, accusations about what it all means, and demands on its future, is inseparable from the arcs of the main characters.

Source: Marvel Studios

Winston Duke stars in Marvel's "Black Panther"

Chadwick Boseman is always regal and powerful as King T'Challa (aka Black Panther), but he also has moments of discrete vulnerability, most notably around his ex-love -- Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia. Likewise, a different sort of lowering of his defenses is apparent in his playful and loving relationship with his sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. Angela Bassett as Romanda is a mother whose pride in her son is matched by both a deep and painful understanding of the struggles he will face as Wakanda's leader, and by fear for his safety in the aftermath of her husband's -- T'Challa's father's -- death.
Among my favorite relationships in the film is the love between Danai Gurira's character Okoye and Daniel Kaluuya's character W'Kabi. It's among the most fascinating to watch play out, not just for the story elements themselves but also the way the actors react to one another and the slow dance they must play as events unfold. I'm hoping Gurira appears in any eventual all-female superhero team-up alongside Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie (from Thor: Ragnarok).
Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger is as fully realized a antagonist as one could hope for. I say "antagonist" on purpose, because it's hard to call him a "villain." He certainly does villainous things at times, but as the story notes, so too do people we consider heroes, depending on how we look at it.

Source: Marvel Studios

Michael B. Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya star in Marvel's "Black Panther"

Killmonger isn't just a villain who has a point of view, and isn't just a villain who thinks their actions are justified -- we've had plenty of that in other superhero movies, of course. Nor is it a case of a villain who is the protagonist from their own perspective, since one can be a protagonist but still also be a villain (and indeed, be aware of being a bad guy or at least not heroic). Make no mistake, Killmonger considers himself the righteous superhero of this story, and considers his enemies outright villains. Whether you can relate to any of Killmonger's message or not, you will definitely recognize why he feels the way he does and understand why, if you were in his shoes, you might have developed the same perspective.
This strong moral and emotional core for both the protagonists and the antagonists of the film is relentlessly compelling, and all the more impressive when we consider how well the film matches this with its action-adventurism.
The action and visual spectacle of Black Panther is stunning. From big-city settings to elaborate interiors, from the heart of the jungle to the sky far above, from one-on-one battles of will to a mass of armies on the field, Coogler gives us wide varieties of locales, colors, textures, tones, and styles of combat and excitement. Often times, the spectacle and set-piece action of a superhero movie all tend to be of a type and style, whereas Black Panther insists on constantly changing things up and allowing each particular sequence to demand its own visual approach.

Source: Marvel Studios

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, aka Black Panther, in Marvel's "Black Panther"

The costumes and designs for this movie are easily the best of any Marvel picture to date, a gorgeous tapestry of color and elegant styles bringing the whole world to vivid life. I'll be amazed -- and it would be inexcusable -- if Black Panther isn't ultimately nominated for Oscars in the relevant categories here. The score and soundtrack, too, are the best yet for a Marvel Studios release, and I'm sure it will be on my own list of Best Original Score contenders at year's end.
Now here's a word many of you have been waiting to see pop up -- fun. Because undeniably, Black Panther is insanely fun and entertaining. The pace is faster than many other superhero films, and when it's over you'll be surprised 2 hours 15 minutes went by so fast. It's amazing that a film packed with so much intelligent storytelling, nuanced character development, serious dramatic themes, and multiple tragic developments can still feel like a pure pedal-to-the-metal thrill-ride at the same time.
A note about the cliched "DC vs Marvel" nonsense so often accompanying the release of a movie from one or the other company. Occasionally, a film will transcend the silly fan rivalries and earn mostly admiration and praise from fans of both camps, as we saw with films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Logan, and Wonder Woman for example. I believe Black Panther will be the MCU movie with the most crossover appeal to DC fans, for a variety of reasons -- the fact it doesn't attempt to tie itself into the larger overarching MCU narrative (Thanos, Infinity Stones, and so on), the fact it tackles major important global issues and serious themes in such a straightforward way forcing all of the characters to reassess their worldviews and place so much on the line, the fact the film does so much that we simply haven't seen in a superhero movie before, and the fact that yeah Black Panther himself will remind a lot of DC fans of Batman (but not in a ripoff way, in a very good and indirect way).

Source: Marvel Studios

Letitia Wright stars in Marvel's "Black Panther"

Black Panther is a tour de force, one of the smartest, most original action-packed blockbusters of the decade. This is bold and visually stunning filmmaking, unique and relevant in deeply emotional, truthful ways few films of the genre achieve. Believe the hype -- Black Panther rules!
Box office figures and tallies based on data via Box Office Mojo , Rentrak, and TheNumbers.
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