How ‘Black Panther’ Created Unrealistic Expectations For Future MCU Movies

Walt Disney and Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder earned another $12.39 million on its fourth day of release, dropping 62% from its $32.5 million Sunday. That brings its four-day domestic cume to $156.6 million and, presuming its 47.5/52.5 domestic/overseas split remains, $329.4 million worldwide. That 62% drop is more on less on par with Ant-Man (-57% after a $58 million opening weekend), Spider-Man: Homecoming (-58% after a $117 million debut weekend), Ant-Man and the Wasp (-62% after a $76 million launch), Spider-Man: Far from Home (-57% after a $185 million Tues-Sun debut) and Black Widow (-59% after an $80 million opening weekend). Those are the MCU movies that opened in early July from 2015 to 2021, with a gap in 2016 (when Ghostbusters: Answer the Call debuted with $46 million) and 2020 (when the top movie of the weekend was The Empire Strikes Back). At this rate, it’ll end its first week between $191 million (if it legs like Black Widow) and $204 million (if it legs like Ant-Man).

So, thus far, and this includes a likely over/under 62% second-weekend drop, Thor: Love and Thunder is playing exactly like a mid-summer Marvel movie. That Taika Waititi’s Thor 4 is disappointing because it only opened as well as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($146 million in 2017 with rave reviews and massive goodwill toward James Gunn’s first Guardians flick) makes no more sense than arguing that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a disappointment because it didn’t crack $1 billion global. The Sam Raimi-directed fantasy sequel had no revenue from China and Russia and a $950 million cume that makes it still Marvel’s third-biggest no-Tony Stark/no Peter Parker grosser. Fun fact: Matt Reeves’ The Batman didn’t have to crack $1 billion to be a hit either. I went from being dragged for arguing that it would only earn around $650-$750 million to defending its status as a hit when it earned $770 million (including just $25 million from China).

Save for two prominent examples that I’ll get to in a moment, the biggest “no Spider-Man or Iron Man” MCU grossers were, heading into 2020, Thor: Ragnarök with $854 million in 2017 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with $869 million in 2017. Before that, the top MCU earners were Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million in 2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million in 2014), followed by Doctor Strange ($677 million in 2016) and Thor: The Dark World ($644 million in 2013). However, the relative overperformances of Black Panther ($700 million domestic and $1.346 billion worldwide) in 2018 and Captain Marvel ($427 million domestic and $1.128 billion worldwide in 2019) may have skewed the expectations of every MCU movie. The size of those numbers, especially for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (which outgrossed the first three out of four Avengers movies in North America), suggests audiences who showed up who otherwise weren’t all that interested in the past or future MCU movies.

Captain Marvel was the first big-deal solo female superhero movie in the franchise and acted as a glorified prologue to Avengers: Endgame. That partially (but not totally) explains why it earned about as much worldwide as Spider-Man: Far from Home ($1.31 billion two months after Avengers: Endgame) and Aquaman ($1.148 billion in 2018, including $298 million from China). However, Ant-Man and the Wasp opened after Black Panther and after Avengers: Infinity War ($679 million/$2.048 billion) and ended with a big “clue” as to Infinity War’s shocking cliffhanger and still earned “just” $216 million domestic and (thanks to $125 million from China) $620 million global. Yes, the Marvel brand did the work of lifting all its boats. It did more than DC Films, as blow-out hits like Aquaman and Joker barely moved the needle for smaller, cheaper films like Shazam and Birds of Prey). However, it didn’t automatically put every MCU movie on the same playing field as Black Panther and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

I will argue that, in the eyes of too many pundits and/or perpetually online folks, the blow-out successes of Black Panther and (to a lesser extent) Captain Marvel set the bar way too high for any and/or every upcoming MCU movie. That’s especially true for Black Panther since Captain Marvel’s no China/Russia total is $954 million or tied with Doctor Strange 2. But Black Panther was a monumental event. It stood out from the broader MCU narrative just as (for example) Terminator 2, Rambo: First Blood Part II or The Dark Knight vastly overperformed in comparison to their respective predecessors. Whether “we” should have seen it coming (as opposed to it “only” earning $400 million domestic and maybe $850 million worldwide), I’m guessing even Disney didn’t. They otherwise wouldn’t have slotted Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time just weeks later. Throw in whatever boosts both films got concerning Infinity War and Endgame, and you have a scenario that won’t be repeated with just any MCU flick.

Thor: Love and Thunder could be more frontloaded (even after the second weekend) due to mixed reviews and buzz (think Batman & Robin) and the “on Disney+ in 45 days” factor. Conversely, the total lack of live-action four-quadrant tentpole newbies between now and Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam on October 21 will give it the same advantage that Spider-Man: Homecoming had in 2017 between itself and Thor: Ragnarök in November. If it “only” earns $715 million, that’s tied with Thor 3 sans China and Russia. Such a result should not automatically cause alarm or brand-wide concern. Doctor Strange 2 just pulled the second biggest (sans China and Russia) global grosser for any “no Spider-Man and no Iron Man” MCU flick, even with Covid variables and a shorter window. Before Black Panther and Black Widow, $650-$850 million would be more than good enough for “just another Marvel movie.” I’d argue, relative to budget, word of mouth, scheduling and post-Covid variables, it still is. Wakanda Forever, however, may be an event unto itself.