In 'Black Panther,' Disney Seeks a New Kind of Blockbuster

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In 'Black Panther,' Disney Seeks a New Kind of Blockbuster

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Chadwick Boseman plays the title character in ‘Black Panther.’

Chadwick Boseman plays the title character in ‘Black Panther.’


Photo:

Marvel Studios

Fatima Barrie

has never watched a superhero movie and rarely goes to the cinema at all, but for “Black Panther,” she bought a ticket a month in advance.

Her reasons boil down to this: “It was exciting to see all those black people,” says the 25-year-old teacher and writer in South Brunswick, N.J. “People who look like me.”

The Marvel film, opening next Friday, features one of the first black superheroes in comic books, and its resonance for African-American moviegoers is transforming a typical action-movie rollout into a full-blown cultural event.

Disney
,

which owns Marvel, hopes to translate that into the first international blockbuster whose cast and crew are mostly black.

Chadwick Bozeman

plays the title role in “Black Panther,” an heir to the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda who possesses uncanny senses, strength and speed. With help from a female special-forces squadron, he protects his isolated, wealthy and technologically advanced kingdom from threats, including a villain played by Michael B. Jordan.

Michael B. Jordan and Mr. Boseman in ‘Black Panther.’

Michael B. Jordan and Mr. Boseman in ‘Black Panther.’


Photo:

Marvel Studios

Pre-release surveys indicate “Black Panther” could open to $150 million or higher in the U.S. and Canada over the four-day President’s Day weekend. In advance sales, “Black Panther” is the top-selling superhero movie this far ahead of its release on the Fandango ticketing site.

Interest is strong among all audience groups, the surveys indicate, but twice as high among African-Americans as the entire U.S. population.

After months of discussion and countdowns on social media, people are buying up tickets in blocks, raising funds to send needy children to the movie, coordinating outfits for opening weekend and gearing up for a celebratory atmosphere at the multiplex.

Camille Stephens-Jamerson

and her family bought 28 tickets for a showing in the Detroit suburbs on opening weekend. The 50-year-old business management consultant plans to wear a dashiki for the occasion and has watched YouTube tutorials to re-learn how to put on a headwrap. She and her siblings now greet each other with the handshake-chest clap shown in a promo for the film.

“Everybody has started doing it,” including her children and her mother, Ms. Stephens-Jamerson says.

Ryan Coogler,

an African-American filmmaker who previously helmed “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station,” is directing “Black Panther” with a cast that includes Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and

Forest Whitaker,

Oscar nominees

Daniel Kaluuya

and

Angela Bassett

and Emmy winner

Sterling K. Brown.

The nearly all-black casting is a first for a big-budget Hollywood production.

“You go to a horror movie and you’re like, ‘The black guy’s going to die,’ ” said

Evan Narcisse,

a cultural critic writing a Black Panther comic-book miniseries. “Somebody might die in this movie, but there are plenty of other black people.”

Danai Gurira on the ‘Black Panther’ set with director Ryan Coogler.

Danai Gurira on the ‘Black Panther’ set with director Ryan Coogler.


Photo:

Marvel Studios

There are nods to modern black culture, from a storyline involving urban violence in Oakland, Calif., Mr. Coogler’s hometown, to a scene—already taking off on social media—in which actress

Danai Gurira

uses her wig as a weapon. Just as symbolic as the story on screen is that “Black Panther” is the focus of Disney’s global marketing machine.

Movies starring African-American actors, like “Independence Day” with

Will Smith,

have been global blockbusters before, but no movie with a primarily black cast has. Such films are typically comedies like “Barbershop” and

Tyler Perry’s

“Madea” series, made on a relatively low budget and intended primarily for American audiences.

Last summer’s “Girls Trip” grossed $115 million in the U.S. and Canada but only $25 million overseas. It wasn’t released in some foreign markets like Mexico, Russia and South Korea.

“Black Panther” will be released in every major market worldwide, most in the same week as the U.S. debut. It already has a date in the government-controlled Chinese market.

[embedded content]
Watch a trailer for ‘Black Panther’

Unlike an infamous Italian poster for “12 Years a Slave” that featured supporting actors

Brad Pitt

and

Michael Fassbender

over lead Chiwetel Ejiofor, the international posters and trailers for “Black Panther” feature its main character front and center.

It remains to be seen, however, if “Black Panther” can draw crowds typical of past superhero movies in foreign countries with fewer people of African descent. Overseas grosses are a key component of such films’ success. Every Marvel Studios production since 2010 has grossed more internationally than domestically.

One component designed to help: An extended action sequence that takes place in Busan, South Korea.

For Disney, the success of “Black Panther” will be measured not just at the box office but in merchandise sales and its effectiveness in setting up Marvel’s main event for 2018: “Avengers: Infinity War,” a May release featuring a superhero team that includes Black Panther.

There aren’t direct precedents for a movie like “Black Panther.”

Wesley Snipes,

who tried to get one featuring the Marvel character off the ground in the 1990s, starred in three movies about Blade, a sword-wielding vampire hunter. There were also comic-book vehicles for Mr. Smith (“Hancock”) and

Halle Berry

(“

Catwoman

”), but their casts and filmmakers were predominately white.

Though it is notable Marvel Studios made 17 films before its first one featuring a nonwhite title character, “Black Panther” arrives amid several projects focused on heroes of color. For example, the African-American superheroes

Luke Cage

and Black Lightning, who emerged in comic books in the 1970s, have TV series devoted to them on

Netflix

and the CW, respectively.

Black Panther, however, doesn’t carry the same baggage as some of those ’70s-era characters, whose depictions at the time drew criticism for mirroring stereotypes found in blaxploitation films.

Black Panther has always been different, representing a fantasy of “astral blackness,” says Adilifu Nama, author of “Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes.” He describes Black Panther’s world as “futuristic technology and super-science that transcends traditional tropes of black people bound to a racist past, or simply symbolizing coolness or an urban menace.”

As a child growing up in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Narcisse says he was drawn more to Black Panther than African-American characters who, on paper, were more similar.

“In Wakanda, black people have an agency they don’t have in the real world,” he says.

Hannah Beachler,

a production designer who previously worked on Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and Mr. Coogler’s other films, drew on ancient African imagery and circular symbolism as well as the original “Blade Runner” and “Star Wars” to create the sets in “Black Panther,” which at times must reference Wakanda’s past and elsewhere evoke futuristic technology.

“We talked about what it is to be African and what it is to be African-American,” she says, “but also how we could make this global as well.”

50 Years of the Black Panther

1966: The Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, makes his first appearance in an issue of Fantastic Four. He is known as T’Challa, king of the secretive African kingdom of Wakanda, a technologically sophisticated nation rich in vibranium, a fictional material used in Captain America’s shield.

1972: Marvel temporarily changes the character’s name to Black Leopard in an effort to avoid confusion with the Black Panther political organization, which emerged after the comic-book hero did.

1973: As part of the Jungle Action comic series, Black Panther gets his first headlining stories. Writer Don McGregor’s formative “Panther’s Rage” arc featured work by African-American artist Billy Graham and saw the hero battle the Ku Klux Klan.

1988: After years of sporadic appearances, the Black Panther was a second-tier hero in the Marvel universe. A miniseries including a storyline about racist oppression in Azania (a fictional stand-in for South Africa) had mixed results in boosting the hero’s profile.

1998: An acclaimed series by writer Christopher Priest modernizes the character and adds depth and complexity, establishing T’Challa as a master tactician.

2006: King T’Challa marries Ororo Munroe aka Storm, the meteorological mutant in the X-Men. The power coupling ends six years later amid a disaster in Wakanda.

2016: Ta-Nehisi Coates, a longtime comics fan and National Book Award-winning author of a book confronting America’s racial history, teams with illustrator Brian Stelfreeze to create a new Black Panther comic series.

2016: After previous failed attempts to adapt the character for the screen, including as a Wesley Snipes vehicle in the 1990s, Black Panther makes his movie debut in “Captain America: Civil War,” setting the stage for his 2018 solo film.

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com and Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com

By | 2018-02-06T14:45:33+00:00 February 6th, 2018|0 Comments

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