The superlative success of Marvel’s Black Panther has inspired pundits to reach for ever-bigger adjectives, but sometimes hyperbole can lead them in the wrong direction. Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson learned that lesson the hard way on Tuesday when he wrote up the film’s five-weekend hot streak with an article entitled, “Black Panther Should Terrify Every Hollywood Studio.” Many bristled at the language that framed this black-led film as some sort of cinematic super-predator, while Mendelson’s specific take — that Black Panther is so successful that it has left a trail of “victims” like Red Sparrow and Tomb Raider — came in for its fair share of online scorn, too.
Then, as Twitter was still taking Mendelson to task yesterday, Indiewire wandered into the fray with its own spin on the story, this one bearing the headline, “Is the Success of Black Panther Actually Hurting Other Films? Nobody Knows, and That’s Hollywood’s Real Problem.” This is the point when I muttered, “Shit, this is going to become a whole thing, huh?” I began to imagine the next several weeks of studio shareholder reports and Deadline.com box-office postmortems where executives would blame their underperforming titles on Black Panther’s dominance, their fire fueled in part by box-office analysts who’ve shrugged and said, “Hey, maybe, you never know.”
Well, let’s nip this in the bud. If your movie hasn’t lived up to expectations this spring, that’s the fault of the way your movie was made and marketed. Don’t hang your failure on Black Panther’s success.
Can a pop-cultural event be so massive that it sucks all the air out of the room? Sure, although that was more of an issue in the 1980s and 1990s — when the cinematic demands on our attention were comparatively sparse — than it is in 2018, where we’re bred to multitask and jump from medium to medium so often that some people can get phone withdrawals during a two-hour movie. While Black Panther has been Topic A for the last several weeks, its ability to cause all this conversation hasn’t brought down strong competitors. The truth is, the other movies in the multiplex simply weren’t all that strong to begin with.
Mendelson notes that last year, March titles Beauty and the Beast, Logan, Power Rangers, and The Boss Baby all thrived, while this year, “the biggies of March 2018 (Red Sparrow, Wrinkle in Time, Tomb Raider, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and Ready Player One) are getting hurt by the mid-February smash that won’t die.” Leaving aside that the latter two movies haven’t even opened yet, this isn’t a terribly accurate comparison to draw. Beauty and the Beast was a gigantic, four-quadrant remake of one of the biggest animated tales ever made, featuring characters that Disney has made millions off of every year since the first film’s release, while Wrinkle in Time was a film aimed mostly at children based on a book released in 1962. Sure, Logan and Red Sparrow are both R-rated movie-star vehicles, but the former is a comic-book crowd-pleaser with Hugh Jackman in his signature role, and it was always going to open bigger than a grim spy film where J.Law goes to blow-job school.
I never expected major returns from Tomb Raider, which couldn’t even put out a successful sequel when Angelina Jolie was a megastar, let alone during this go-round with Alicia Vikander, whose Oscar-winning halo has been tarnished after a string of flops. Similarly, Pacific Rim: Uprising is following a first film that failed to impress domestically, so if its sequel doesn’t set the world on fire, that is hardly Black Panther’s fault. None of the films I’ve named have earned the superlative reviews given to Ryan Coogler’s superhero movie; in fact, on Rotten Tomatoes, all of those would-be “victims” earned a score around 50 percentage points beneath Black Panther’s 97 percent fresh rating.
Even typing that reminds me that at this time last year, some analysts and executives blamed Rotten Tomatoes for the bad box office when Baywatch and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel both sank. It wasn’t the fault of the critic-aggregating website then, and it’s not the fault of the massive superhero movie now. When the studios make truly exceptional tentpole films, people will go to them, as Black Panther has amply proven: Its tenure at the top of the box office for five weeks is a feat last achieved by films like Titanic, Avatar, The Fugitive, and The Sixth Sense, all critically acclaimed hits that exemplify the best traits of studio moviemaking. If Hollywood should be terrified by anything right now, it’s that their current underperformers can’t hold a candle to those classic titles.