Despite a lower-than-expected international bow, director Ryan Coogler’s eagerly awaited Marvel Studios superhero sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever shattered domestic November box office records with a massive $181 million opening weekend.
In my review of Wakanda Forever, I predicted a larger result both domestically and internationally, but it appears a combination of factors — particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where the film lacked distribution in China and where a recent tragedy in South Korea contributed to suppressing theatrical turnout, not to mention global surges in COVID, flu, and RSV that have hospitals filling up with children and adults — kept the MCU sequel from even higher ticket sales.
There’s also the fact that domestic election results — or more to the point, a lack of final results heading into the weekend — probably stifled some of the excitement and enthusiasm for going to theaters with friends and family. So, too, did the longer runtime, which reduced the number of screenings per day.
And of course, Chadwick Boseman’s death and absence from the film created a more somber tone to the anticipation and release of the film, which combined with election fears and other factors to prevent a turnout quite as big and enthusiastic as I expected.
Indeed, the loss of Boseman is a central part of not only the film’s story and its production, it’s also an undeniable element likely responsible for at least some of suppressed turnout for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. For some, his death no doubt is still too sad to make a sequel seem appealing, while others likely decided that without Boseman they’re less interested in the sequel. Still others will be sure to see the new film, but might be less energized and enthusiastic about their attendance, meaning not as excited to bring big groups of friends or family and less likely to make it a whole “event” complete with dressing up specially for a screening.
Those are the types of things that can also affect repeat viewership in theaters, and even positive word of mouth that’s framed within the broader sense of loss and grief might have a reduced effect when it comes to driving increased attendance.
But none of this is to suggest Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had anything less than a huge and impressive opening. Again, the film set a record for the largest November opening weekend in North American history, 15% higher than previous record-holder The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which took $158+ million on its freshman outing in 2013. It’s also Marvel’s fourth-highest non-Avengers domestic opening of all time, behind only Spider-Man: No Way Home, the first Black Panther and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Worldwide, Wakanda Forever’s global debut ranks seventh for the MCU’s non-Avengers titles, behind only Spider-Man: No Way Home, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Captain America: Civil War, Iron Man 3, and Black Panther.
The foreign receipts are still impressive despite falling short of predictions, but this is the only obstacle that could potentially prevent Black Panther: Wakanda Forever from hitting $1 billion, depending on how things play out. This time of year, with so little competition for the next month, Wakanda Forever should normally enjoy strong weekly holds through the holidays and kids getting long weekends and vacation from school. However, the convergence of factors including lack of a theatrical release in China and lower ticket sales in other parts of the Asia-Pacific market, plus rising Covid, flu, and RSV infections and hospitalizations, might result in lower weekly holds.
That said, China’s box office contributed only a relatively small portion of the original Black Panther’s box office, just slightly north of $100 million out of a total cume of $1.34 billion, so absent the Middle Kingdom and even missing another $200 million from other markets, Wakanda Forever should still reach $1 billion territory.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever should end next weekend in the $525+ million range (and likely closer to $530-540 million), with plenty more open territory ahead and no significant competition until mid-December when Avatar: The Way of Water floods cinemas for the Christmas holiday. And while pandemic and epidemic numbers are rising again, that hasn’t seemed to cause any lasting suppression of theatrical attendance lately, and the sheer numbers of people on vacation and kids out of school for long weekends and holidays should be large enough to dwarf the number avoiding theaters in the long run.
If Wakanda Forever does fall short of $1 billion, there’s a chance that lower international totals combined with pandemic-related issues and other factors could hold the final tally as low as perhaps somewhere in the $800+ million range. This assumes big weekly drops, though, and doesn’t include the likely surges in box office during holiday weekends. More likely for a sub-billion outcome would be a finish somewhere closer to $900+ million.
There’s no point sugarcoating the fact anything below $1 billion will surely be unexpected and below the studio’s hopes. Yes, they will be disappointed by such an outcome. That said, there’s a difference between expectations and objective assessments, and even a much lower $800+ million cume would still be a blockbuster success positioning Wakanda Forever to make nine-figure profits, even if it’s also considered an underperformance that disappoints relative to expectations.
A $900+ million global total, while also below expectations, should be less disappointing. The very fact of losing Boseman and releasing during a pandemic are more than enough by themselves to make a lower financial result understandable and even perhaps to be expected — that’s precisely why my initial prediction for a final box office tally was $1+ billion without specifying a result significantly north of that number. And of course, the loss of China’s market and reduced turnout in Korea were other factors that would inevitably mean a lower result.
I still believe Black Panther: Wakanda Forever can and will reach $1 billion, and if not then I think it will still top $900 million. But it’s less certain at this point, even knowing it’s going to pass the half-billion mark on its second weekend. We’ll have a much better sense of where things are headed after the weekend, which will indicate if Wakanda Forever is seeing larger weekly declines or has better staying power.
Be sure to check back soon for updates, and if you’re seeing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever this weekend, then be sure to mask up not only to protect yourself from Covid, flu, and RSV surges, but also to protect others around you who might have compromised immune systems or suffer from chronic conditions (like COPD for just one example) making infection with any of those viruses much more dangerous.