Following the triumphs of ‘Wonder Woman,’ record-breaking success of ‘Black Panther’ adds to the evidence that inclusion sells in cinema

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From left, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright star in "Black Panther." Marvel Studios photo

From left, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright star in “Black Panther.” Marvel Studios photo

Will it finally be enough?

After the record-breaking, critical acclaim-nabbing and audience-thrilling success of “Wonder Woman” finally gave female filmgoers a superhero in their own image, Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” – starring a black superhero and boasting a largely black cast — opened this weekend to record-breaking, critical acclaim-nabbing and audience-thrilling success.

“Black Panther” brought in an estimated $192 million for its three-day debut in North America this weekend, ranking it as the fifth biggest opening of all time, according to CNN Money.

Disney estimates that the film will bring in $218 million domestically by the time we finish the four-day holiday weekend, especially since many schools and offices are closed Monday for President’s Day.

“Black Panther” also shattered the record for the top-grossing opening in February, which was previously held by another superhero title, “Deadpool,” the R-rated superhero film from 20th Century Fox that hauled in $132 million in 2016.

It is the second biggest opening for a Marvel Studios film, behind 2012′s “The Avengers,” outpacing the likes of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Iron Man 3.” It marked the studio’s incredible 18th consecutive No. 1 opening.

Perhaps even more importantly, “Black Panther,” helmed by Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) smashed the record for the largest opening weekend for an African-American director. According to CNN Money, that record previously belonged to F. Gary Gray and “The Fate of the Furious,” which opened to $98 million last April.

The New York Times reports that “Black Panther” also immediately broke the mark for the top-grossing film in history by a black director and featuring a largely black cast. The previous record-holder was “Straight Outta Compton,” which raked in $214 million worldwide in 2015 over its entire run, after adjusting for inflation.

The 18th film in the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” is also the first helmed by an African-American director and the first to feature one of the long-running comic-book publisher’s black heroes in the starring role.

Let that sink in for a moment: It took 18 films for Marvel to create a film in its cinematic universe that centered on a black hero.

Although there are other black heroes (Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Don Cheadle’s War Machine) in the MCU, it took 18 movies before there was one led by a non-white man. It took 17 movies for the blockbuster-churning studio to hire a person of color, since Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who is Maori, helmed last year’s “Thor: Ragnarok.”

Brie Larson plays the title character in the 2019 release "Captain Marvel." Marvel Studios photo

Brie Larson plays the title character in the 2019 release “Captain Marvel.” Marvel Studios photo

As for women, we have to wait another year for “Captain Marvel” to become the first MCU movie starring a female superhero and at least co-directed by a woman: “Half Nelson” helmers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are reteaming to direct the first feature focused on super-powered U.S. Air Force Capt. Carol Danvers, played by Oscar winner Brie Larson.

Of course, it took 76 years for DC Comics’ “Wonder Woman” to get the chance to star in her own feature film, and when she finally did the results were unbridled audience enthusiasm (measured in both rapturous social media buzz and sky-high CinemaScore audience exit poll numbers), glowing reviews and broken box-office records. Much like “Black Panther.”

But will it finally be enough to get through to Hollywood decision-makers that filmgoing audiences are ready to see movies about people who aren’t just white and male, made by people who aren’t just white and male?

Obviously, superhero movies aren’t the only movies out there, but for the past 10 years, they certainly have conquered the cinematic landscape. Remember, “Black Panther” is the 18th Marvel movie in a row to top the domestic box office, and for the past several years, the super-studio has been releasing three films a year. So, they’re a huge part of what the mainstream moviegoing audience is exposed to, an outsized portion of what the big studios’ resources go into, and they are a genre that has been dominated by white, male characters and filmmakers.

It’s also true that “Black Panther” isn’t the first superhero movie centered on a black character: Wesley Snipes’ “Blade” trilogy and Will Smith’s “Hancock” also scored box-office success — although not nearly the critical acclaim – but those films weren’t helmed by black directors and didn’t feature predominantly black casts.

Gal Gadot stars in "Wonder Woman." Warner Bros. photo

Gal Gadot stars in “Wonder Woman.” Warner Bros. photo

“Wonder Woman” wasn’t the first superhero cinematic outing to star a woman, either, although super-powered females are a rare enough phenomenon that Vulture had trouble compiling a list of “The 25 Best Onscreen Female Superheroes” as recently as fall 2015. And “Wonder Woman” was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, who clearly understood how the character needed to portrayed and how important she was to women. (She proved that with the indelible moment when Wonder Woman, wonderfully played by Gal Gadot, crosses No Man’s Land in what I rated as my favorite cinematic scene of 2017.)

But “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” are roaring onto cinema screens at a time when the conversation about representation and inclusion in movies and other media and art forms has never been louder.

But they’re also coming out a time when, as previously reported, female directors are still woefully underrepresented, with women directing just 4.3 percent of top movies over the last 11 years, according to the latest study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. They’re coming out a time when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is reportedly in settlement talks with the major studios to resolve charges that they systemically discriminated against female directors, Deadline Hollywood reported last year. And they’re coming out at a time when – despite some high-profile exceptions to the general rule — movies are still predominantly white and male and made by people who are white and male.

But the success of movies like “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” proves that Hollywood is running out of excuses to keep the “white and male” status quo.

As previously reported, the three highest grossing films of 2017 – “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman” – were all femme-centered stories. Four out of the last five years, the top movie for the year at the domestic box office was led by a woman character, which one would hope would go a long way toward debunking the persistent, pervasive and downright pesky Hollywood myth that movies about women are somehow a risk.

From left, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Danai Gurira appear in a scene from "Black Panther." Marvel Studios photo

From left, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman and Danai Gurira appear in a scene from “Black Panther.” Marvel Studios photo

The New York Times reports that “Black Panther’s” huge opening weekend shatters another Hollywood myth with global ticket sales that by Monday will total an estimated $387 million.

“Big-budget films that focus on black characters have long been held back by the Hollywood argument — a ridiculous one, in the eyes of many critics — that foreign audiences have little interest in films with largely black casts. It has been a self-fulfilling attitude; studios, ever fixated on what kinds of movies have succeeded in the past, never challenged the assumption with a big-budget fantasy because they were always too afraid to take the risk,” the NYT’s Brooks Barnes writes.

“’Black Panther’” arrived to very strong results in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Ukraine, South Korea, Mexico and Brazil, in many cases beating initial ticket sales for Marvel nonsequels based on lesser-known characters, including ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ in 2014.”

Phil Contrino, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners, talked with the NYT’s Barnes about the power of seeing “Black Panther” in a communal setting on a big screen.

“Hopefully someday we’ll look back at the release of ‘Black Panther’ as the turning point when diversity and positive representation in blockbusters switched from being an anomaly to being normal,” Contrino said.

Snipes, who tried in vain to get a “Black Panther” movie made before starring in the “Blade” trilogy, told Variety it’s too early to tell if the new blockbuster’s success marked a turning point where studios finally at long last realize the need to tell diverse stories. But he sounded hopeful, too.

“It is a big moment. Is it impactful? Is it going to influence change, break some stereotypes and inspire people? Absolutely. And will there be other business around [movies starring] African Americans and people of color? Absolutely,” Snipes said. “I think it’s a great time. It’s a great opportunity and a great seed that’s been planted. Whether the film is fantastic or just ok, once people realize the economic upside of inclusive and diverse multi-cultural intellectual properties, there’s going to be a greater appetite for it. The world has changed dramatically and the Internet has brought the divides closer. There’s a lot more people who can get access to content than they were in the ‘90s. I think we’ll see a very different landscape soon, with new product being produced all over the world featuring diverse talent, diverse stories and hopefully some of them are really good.”

Will it finally be enough to spark real change in Hollywood? We shall see.

-BAM

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