Black Panther surprised some analysts by destroying box office records in its opening weekend.
The film by 31 year-old Ryan Coogler (31, people!) made more money in its first three days than every other Marvel movie except The Avengers.
To put it bluntly, Black Panther had the 5th-largest opening weekend in the history of movies.
(UPDATE: Since I wrote this, Black Panther became the 3rd highest-grossing movie of all-time!)
We’ve come a long way from 2008, when an Iron Man movie seemed like a huge risk.
If there were any doubts about Black Panther’s validity as a title character…
or Ryan Coogler’s ability to deliver a blockbuster…
or America’s enthusiasm to show up in droves for a sci-fi action adventure with an almost all-black cast, those questions have all been answered.
Black Panther is a culture-redefining phenomenon.
The only questions left now are: what impact will Black Panther have on the Marvel universe going forward, and on pop culture as a whole?
Here’s why Black Panther works so well, what we can predict about its short-term effects on the Avengers and Infinity War, and what its success may mean in the long run for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Black Panther and educated guesses for Infinity War and beyond.
Black Panther Is the Culmination of Marvel’s Superhero Model
As I’ve said before, every Marvel movie tells basically the same story.
What tends to differ from movie to movie is the flaw that each hero must overcome.
And what’s interesting about Black Panther is that T’Challa is basically the composite of all three of Marvel’s current lead superheroes.
Think about it:
- Iron Man / Tony Stark is a technologist who worries about how his inventions will affect the world
- Thor is a boyish prince who struggles to lead his people after the death of his father, the king
- Captain America / Steve Rogers is a patriot whose leadership inspires the world to unite
Black Panther is all three of those character arcs / archetypes rolled into one.
T’Challa even gets their individual plot beats in this movie.
When Killmonger attempts to send Wakanda’s technology out to the world, T’Challa and his allies must scramble to stop that from happening… much like Tony Stark’s technology wrought global havoc in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When his father’s own secrets are revealed, T’Challa wrestles with the realization that his past is less idyllic than it seemed, which affects his ability to lead his people… much like Thor is shaken by Hela’s revelation that Odin was not exactly an angel in Thor: Ragnarok.
And when T’Challa jumps on a grenade to protect his allies, not only does his suit absorb the impact, but his character literally absorbs the defining moment of Steve Rogers’s evolution into Captain America.
In other words, the rise of T’Challa as Black Panther renders Marvel’s three headlining heroes redundant.
All of this is important because Black Panther is likely to be the new cornerstone character of the MCU after Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4.
Speculation on a Post-Black Panther MCU
Hey, guess whose contracts with Marvel are up at the end of Avengers 4?
Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man/Tony Stark), Chris Evans (Captain America/Steve Rogers), and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) are all currently set to end their Marvel contracts at the conclusion of the Infinity War arc.
Insiders have been speculating for awhile on what this legal detail might mean for the future of the MCU. But now, with the rise of Black Panther, I think we know.
Since Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa has consolidated all three of their narrative arcs into one character, this means Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Thor can die during the Infinity War storyline while Marvel keeps their ideals alive in their new flagship character of Black Panther.
This would mirror events from recent Marvel comics… and it would explain that post-credits bumper at the end of Black Panther.
In it, T’Challa’s sister Shuri has a brief conversation with Bucky/Winter Solider, who’s been recuperating and “finding himself” in the calm of Wakanda.
As we already know from the Avengers: Infinity War trailer, Winter Soldier will soon be fighting alongside Captain America and Black Panther to defend Wakanda from an alien invasion.
However, comic fans also know something else: that Bucky eventually takes up the Captain America identity.
This also explains why Sebastian Stan (Bucky / Winter Soldier) still has at least three films left on his contract after Avengers 4. [Apparently, so does Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), while Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) ends his contract with Avengers 4. Draw your own conclusions about what the next generation of a Captain America franchise may look like from here.]
Lastly, from a thematic standpoint, if the spirit of Wakanda helps Bucky overcome his government brainwashing and frees him to become the new Captain America, that may also signal two of Marvel’s intentions going forward.
For one, T’Challa and Bucky may be Phase 4’s version of Tony and Steve: shared ideals with differing beliefs on how best to achieve them. (In that case, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange could serve as their mystical third wheel in Thor’s place.)
And two, Wakanda may end up becoming Marvel’s narrative crown jewel.
How and why? Well…
Wakanda’s Potential Impact on the MCU
By creating its own fictional nation where technology can do just about anything, Wakanda could be Marvel’s most important invention yet.
Remember that scene early in Black Panther, when W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and T’Challa are debating the merits of opening Wakanda’s borders? W’Kabi — a strict nationalist — basically says “if you allow refugees to enter Wakanda, they’ll bring all of their problems with them and ruin what we have here.”
And remember when Asgard was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok… which means Thor is flying a spaceship filled with Asgardian refugees to Earth?
Well, hey: guess what makes the most logistical sense and creates the most dramatic tension for resettling those Asgardian refugees on Earth.
Now, let’s take this idea a step further.
In the comics, Thor is eventually replaced when Jane Foster takes up the hammer… but Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster appears to have been written out of the MCU after Thor: The Dark World.
So, who’s left to replace Thor if Chris Hemsworth does indeed depart after Avengers 4?
Well, remember all that buzz about Tessa Thompson possibly getting her own Valkyrie movie?
Imagine the possibilities of Valkyrie leading the Asgardians-in-exile as a redemption arc for her having fled from Hela’s attack the first time around.
And if you take into account the fact that Black Panther and the weather-wielding Storm from the X-Men were briefly married in the comics… but Storm doesn’t exist in the MCU (yet, due to legal roadblocks with FOX), while a potential Mjolnir-wielding Valkyrie does… then we could even see one hell of a love triangle (or more) among T’Challa, Nakia, and Valkyrie in the eventual Black Panther 2.
Beyond that, there’s the ripple effect of Wakanda’s technology.
We don’t yet know everything that Vibranium is capable of. We also don’t know what a world without Vibranium would look like, even though T’Challa once nullified all of Wakanda’s Vibranium in the comics — again, a potential future MCU plot point.
But if Tony Stark really is gone after Infinty War, that leaves the title of Earth’s leading technologist to… well, actually, not T’Challa, but to his sister Shuri. And that means the next phase of MCU films could all stem from technology that’s shared with the world by Wakanda.
Which brings us to our final consideration: Wakanda as a plot machine.
The Inhumans was supposed to be Marvel’s next big TV series, but it appears to be D.O.A.
Since Disney (which owns Marvel) is trying to launch its own streaming TV series to compete with Netflix, what are the odds that Wakanda — which naturally lends itself to a multi-character sci-fi soap opera — becomes the setting for an exclusive series that helps Disney gain significant ground on Netflix in the streaming TV war?
I don’t know about you, but I think its tribal politics, its global spy network, its Dora Milaje military, and a recurring role for Winston Duke as M’Baku/Man-Ape would help Wakanda fill a Game of Thrones-sized hole in the streaming TV universe in 2020 and beyond.
You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss
Black Panther is more than just a box office success. It’s the key to Marvel’s continued box office dominance.
The genius of Wakanda is that the Black Panther movie introduced over a dozen new characters to the MCU, nearly any of whom could headline a TV series (or their own film). In just one two-hour movie, Marvel created a nearly-bottomless well of new story (and I.P.) opportunities.
Meanwhile, the genius of most of Marvel’s heroes is that they’re rechargeable. Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Black Panther are costumes that represent ideals. Anyone can step into them and become that hero.
With its own fictional nation that offers endless opportunities for drama, technology that operates like magic (and, now thanks to Dr. Strange, actual magic), and an infinitely reloadable cast of characters who can always pick up where the last hero who wore a suit left off, Marvel is now in position to keep churning out record-breaking blockbusters for generations.
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