Listen to the podcast:
Marvel’s latest big-budgeted superhero flick, Black Panther, is a runaway success by any standard: Hauling in more than $738 million globally in the first 10 days of its release, it is second only to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in global receipts, according to Box Office Mojo. Black Panther is said to be the most successful movie ever made that features a predominantly black cast, director and writers.
But more than its financial success, Black Panther is becoming a cultural force as well. A GoFundMe campaign to raise money for kids to see the movie has raised nearly $52,000 — blowing past its $10,000 goal, thanks to help from comedian Ellen DeGeneres and others. The campaign has expanded to 260 local efforts and raised $250,000, according to The Wall Street Journal. No less than former First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted, “Young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen.”
“I would call it a cultural zeitgeist,” said Henry Boyd, marketing professor at the University of Maryland, on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111. The response from the African-American community and society in general, he noted, has been “unbelievable.” It shows that if movie studios “put a compelling story together, everyone comes on board and they really enjoy it.”
More than that, it will “forever end the myth that a black superhero action character written by a black writer, directed by a black director, starring a majority black cast … won’t sell outside the black community,” said Jesse Holland, a journalist tapped by Marvel to update Black Panther’s back story. “The myth that they won’t sell to mainstream America, that they won’t sell internationally — that myth has been forever shattered.
“In the past, it seemed like Hollywood would hesitate to trust black writers, black directors to do anything outside of comedy or historical pieces,” Holland continued. But with the film’s success, “we should see more of these stories being told on the big screen … because Black Panther proves that they’re wildly popular.” He said it should also boost prospects for other superheroes of color like Luke Cage and Black Lightning, now a TV show on CW.
“I would call it a cultural zeitgeist.” –Henry Boyd
Black Panther is on track to break $1 billion in global box office receipts, a nice return for Disney’s Marvel Studios. The media giant reportedly pumped $200 million into the making of the movie and another $150 million for publicity, according to Forbes. The film follows the saga of T’Challa as Black Panther, who returns home to the fictional, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda after the death of his father, the king. He ascends the throne but has to fight off a challenger in what becomes a high-stakes battle with global consequences.
Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed said a movie about an advanced African nation with inspiring role models who triumph is a timely offering. “We’re at a time right now where there is a need for empowerment of various underserved groups,” he said, citing the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement. “To have this kind of example, if you will — to be inspired by, to affiliate with, to identify with — is extremely powerful.”
A Surprise Hit
Even so, the mega-success of Black Panther was unexpected. “Even Marvel underestimated the craze for this movie,” Holland said. “Otherwise, you’d have seen many more places with Black Panther advertising, you would have seen more companies that would have jumped on it in advance the way companies line up for Star Wars right now.” But he believes that will change with the sequels. “You will see … a lot more companies ready to jump on immediately even before the movie comes out.”
To be sure, being part of the Marvel superhero franchise usually gives movies a boost. The powerful Marvel brand is “a cash cow,” said Reed. “But you still have to deliver a good movie. At the end of the day, it’s the power of the story. It’s the fact that the collection of characters is so compelling. Even the villain is a complex, intricate character. It’s not black and white.”
“The myth that [a film like Black Panther] won’t sell to mainstream America … has been forever shattered.” –Jesse Holland
Indeed, unlike many Hollywood film characters, the movie’s villain, Erik Killmonger, is not one-dimensional but complex and intriguing. “To understand what drives him, where he is coming from, you start to realize that this really does resonate with audiences,” Boyd said. “We do have this troubled history with race and slavery and all of that is baked into the movie line. You sort of nod your head … I know where this guy is coming from, and the subtle nuances that you’re aware of as being part of the African-American community — they leap right off the screen.”
Holland wrote the back-story novel, Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther? He noted that it was a bit complicated to write about T’Challa’s beginnings because the superhero has been around since 1966 — longer than Holland has been alive. “His character is so well developed,” he said. “I had a lot to live up to, to make sure everything in Black Panther sounded the way it should.” Holland merged the first origin story in 1966, written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with one done later by Reginald Hudlin in 2005, updating it for current times.
But when Holland was doing his research, he turned down help from Marvel. “They actually offered to send me some Black Panther comic books to use as research,” he said. “I politely declined because I already had all of them in my basement anyway.” Holland even told Marvel, “You’re sending me copies of the originals. I have the originals in my basement.”
Holland said the film also sheds a public light on issues between Africans and American-Americans. “The Killmonger character is speaking words that many African-Americans sympathize with because he is talking about the relationship between [the rich and poor]. Wakanda [represents] the ‘haves,’ and everyone else is the ‘have nots’ in the movie. He is talking about the relationship between those two points of view and the responsibility one has to the other. … That’s a discussion that’s been going on for years between African-Americans and Africans.”
Boyd agreed with Holland’s view. “There’s this nation with this wealth, this power that could change the world, and yet we’ve had brothers and sisters, African-Americans in other parts of the world, where it’s been very difficult [for them] and the struggle is real. What are we going to do here? Who’s going to win?”
“We’re at a time right now where there is a need for empowerment of various underserved groups.” –Americus Reed
Such emotional responses to a movie can be a marketer’s dream and proof of the “power of art imitating life,” Reed said. “One of the ways to create the strongest emotional connection for creative entertainment is to speak to identity and speak to those issues inside of you [such as] who I am in this world. A really well-crafted and well-designed story that brings these issues to conscious awareness and does it in an incredibly entertaining way is going to have an incredibly powerful marketing impact.”
Brands can ride this emotional wave as long as they do it carefully. “It’s going to bear fruit for those firms that get involved early and say we’re going to make products and merchandise that relate back to the movie,” Boyd said. “If it is done the right way, we should ring up a lot at the cash register.” However, Reed cautioned that companies should strive to create an authentic and “reasonable” connection to not turn off fans. Boyd concurred. “You have to be very careful in terms of the placement. It has to make sense. It has to fit into the story line. It can’t feel forced.”
Thus far, fans can’t seem to get enough of Black Panther. Holland said his novel was published last November, but in the last two weeks it sold out internationally. “You can’t even find a copy of it,” he said. “You can walk into any bookstore now, and you can barely find anything with the Black Panther name on it. My book is gone everywhere, and the paperback isn’t even scheduled to come out until April.” Currently, Holland has a Black Panther project proposal he hopes Marvel will greenlight. “Anything they want me to do, I am more than willing to do,” he said.