Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and the Death Knell for Hollywood’s Biggest Lie
What the astonishing success of the black- and female-led superhero films means for the future of Hollywood.
Yesterday, Black Panther surpassed the $623,357,910 domestic gross of 2012’s The Avengers and became not only the highest grossing film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but also the highest grossing superhero film of all time in North America (not adjusted for inflation). By the end of its run, it will undoubtedly pass Jurassic World ($652.3 million) and Titanic ($659.4 million) for the #3 spot on the all-time box office charts. (#1 Star Wars: The Force Awakens and #2 Avatar seem unreachable with mammoth grosses of $936.7 million and $760.5 million, respectively). Upon its release, Black Panther also became the most critically acclaimed film in the history of the MCU. Its score of 88/100 on Metacritic exceeds many recent Best Picture Oscar winners and is 9 points above its next MCU competitor 2008’s Iron Man.
This is a strikingly similar story to what happened last year with the DC Extended Universe (DCEU)’s Wonder Woman. That film wildly exceeded expectations on every front, grossing an astonishing $412.6 million in North America and becoming the highest grossing film in the DCEU. Just as Black Panther outgrossed The Avengers, Wonder Woman handily outgrossed a cross-over event flick of her own (it came on the heels of DCEU’s Batman v Superman, which topped out at $330.4 million). Also, with a score of 76/100 on Metacritic, Wonder Woman has the distinction of not only being the best reviewed film in the DCEU, but also the only film in the much-derided DCEU with generally favorable reviews.
These films are undoubtedly massive economic boons for all involved and represent strong evidence that there is still much life in the superhero blockbuster genre. However, their success has also has more profound implications. Both films have at their center characters from demographics that had long been ignored in the superhero genre (and in Hollywood more generally) — black people and women. For years, Hollywood executives abided by the notion that while films centering on women or people of color could occasionally be profitable, a big budget blockbuster film could only succeed with a white men at its center. This notion represents at best misguided cherrypicking of the facts and at worst deeply bigoted misrepresentation of the facts. They cite half-hearted attempts at launching more inclusive superhero franchises (like Wesley Snipes’ Blade or Halle Berry’s Catwoman) and ignore the vast number of hugely profitable blockbusters centering on women and people of color in recent years (Hidden Figures, The Help, Gravity, Rogue One, The Hunger Games, Ride Along, etc.). Despite the contrary evidence, executives argue that movies with women or people of color at the center will be too niche in terms of appeal and as such bankrolling big budget films that focus on such people is just too risky.
But in the case of Black Panther and Wonder Woman, Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros. went far beyond just making superhero films with characters at the center representing oft-ignored demographics. They chose as their source material some of the most well-regarded and iconic properties of their archives. They approved screenplays that not only featured black people and women, but overtly celebrated them and boldly asked critical questions about colonialism and patriarchy. And they selected directors to bring them to the screen who may not have had the longest resumes, but shared the identity of the film’s protagonist and had a deep passion for the project. Ryan Coogler (who before Black Panther was best known for directing 2015's successful Rocky spinoff Creed) and Patty Jenkins (who before Wonder Woman was best known for directing Charlize Theron to a Best Actress Oscar win for 2003’s Monster) approached the projects with skill, grace, ingenuity, and bravery that are largely responsible for the films’ critical and commercial success.
The fantastic success of these two films shows that if done with a skilled and visionary creative team that has the full support of a studio behind it, blockbuster genre films starring women and people of color can not only turn a profit, but can also be unparalleled cultural phenomenons. In addition to drastically increasing creativity by opening up new avenues for storytelling, putting long-marginalized people at the center of films also galvanizes oft-ignored segments of the population and gets them excited about going to the movies again. Hopefully, the success of these two films will serve as the final death knell for what may be the Hollywood machine’s greatest lie — that inclusivity is an economic risk.