"Black Panther" is poised to make box office history next week, giving Disney's Marvel Studios movies a path forward as it prepares to retire its core superhero franchises.
The movie is generating enormous buzz, confounding the conventional wisdom among Hollywood gatekeepers that billion-dollar franchises have to be anchored by white male actors.
"Black Panther" is helmed by rising African-American director Ryan Coogler, and stars Chadwick Boseman in the title role. He is backed by an overwhelmingly black cast that follows the rise of T'Challa, the leader of the fictional African country Wakanda, who operates as the masked protector of a secretive and highly technologically advanced nation.
The film is building on a revolutionary moment for minority representation in big budget movie-making, sparked in part by the surprisingly strong showing from DC's "Wonder Woman" last year. Now, some see Black Panther ushering Marvel into the future as contracts for its Avengers cast members — who are mostly white and male — expire.
"At some point we're going to have to say goodbye to Captain America and Iron Man. Black Panther is kind of the obvious choice to lead the Avengers from that point on," said Alisha Grauso, an entertainment writer and editor.
"Black Panther" is currently tracking for a $150 million Presidents Day weekend opening, taking aim at the current record holder, "Deadpool." In 2016, the R-rated superhero breakout hit earned $152 million over four days, setting a record for a February release.
Given the $132 million three-day haul for "Deadpool," "Black Panther" looks like it will breeze into the top 15 best superhero movie debuts.
BoxOffice.com projects it will earn $140 million-$150 million in the Friday-Sunday window, enough to crack into the top 10 and put Black Panther in the same big screen league as Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman.
Paul Dergarabedian, comScore senior media analyst, said the box office could be looking at a new February opening record, supplanting the record set by "Deadpool."
"Black Panther" is already on pace to top pre-sales for all superhero movies through online ticket-seller Fandango. A study by marketing tech firm Amobee indicates it's the most anticipated movie of 2018.
Despite its 2018 release, "Black Panther" generated more tweets than any superhero movie released last year, except "Justice League," according to Amobee. The only comic book flick that generated more positive sentiment on Twitter last year was "Wonder Woman," which also broke boundaries and generated tremendous goodwill by putting a women in the starring role and director's chair.
"Much like 'Wonder Women' before it, 'Black Panther' allows a segment of the audience that had previously been woefully underrepresented on-screen to finally see themselves front and center in a superhero movie," said Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst at Amobee.
To be sure, this isn't the first time a superhero franchise was headed by a black man. The modern genre arguably kicked off in 1998 with "Blade," starring Wesley Snipes as Marvel Comics' African-American vampire hunter. The first installment earned $130 million worldwide and spawned two sequels. The dark, violent film redefined the tenor of superhero movies, just as the "Batman" franchise momentarily lost traction at the box office after a fourth sequel in 1997.
The gritty and grounded tone of "Blade" dominated superhero movies for the next 10 years, until "Iron Man" introduced Marvel's formula of interconnected films that blended comic timing, big-budget special effects, and character-driven storytelling.
It's taken another decade for Marvel to deliver a movie with an African-American lead. In that time, superhero shows steeped in black culture, like Marvel's "Luke Cage" and DC's recently debuted "Black Lightning" on the CW, have attracted high praise and a loyal fan following.
To be certain, many superhero movies with ensemble casts also feature prominent black characters, including the "X-Men," "Avengers" and "Suicide Squad" franchises.
Grauso said "Black Panther" is important because it further expands the portrayal of black characters in a superhero movie into a rich and expansive world of Afro-futurism that audiences have never experienced.
"It shows a completely different kind of possibility of what a superhero in that vein can be, as opposed to Luke Cage or Black Lightning, as important as those characters are," she said.
That said, Grauso believes the movie could be a bigger hit than many suspect, exactly because so much media attention has focused on representation — a conversation that perhaps overshadows Black Panther's broad appeal.
"Black Panther is one of the sleeper favorite characters in the Marvel pantheon," she said. "He's one of the smartest. He can compete with [Iron Man] Tony Stark and [Hulk] Bruce Banner and any of those guys for intelligence," she said.
T'Challa "kind of does it all. He's a king. He's a master strategist. He's a tactician. He's a gymnast. He's a diplomat. He rules over a country that has a really unique balance of military technology, science and magic," Grauso added.
Over the last 28 days, the social media conversation around "Black Panther" has been roughly split between men and women, according to social data and analytics firm ListenFirst. Millennials are dominating the conversation, while white audiences drummed up 46 percent of the chatter, followed by black audiences at 34 percent, Hispanics at 12 percent and East Asians at 6 percent.
There's something else important about "Black Panther," says comScore's Dergarabedian. It's simply a really great movie, with spectacular fight scenes and action sequences layered on top of international locations, a compelling narrative focused on family, and an impressive supporting female cast including Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright.
"Movies can represent all kinds of things and have all kinds of cultural significance applied to them, but if they open and people are like, 'Meh,' then the cultural significance is mitigated," he said.
"As a movie, it's brilliant."