Hollywood’s release schedule continues to normalize. The summer release schedule was thinner than usual (a mere four top-grade would-be action-adventure blockbusters), with the last released in July and the next three months, again, on the light side by the standards of 2019 and before. But from late October forward the slate, if not quite so packed with likely big winners as in some years (or it seems likely to be in 2023), does contain some plausible mega-hits. Most obviously there is Avatar 2, which seems far and away the film most likely to take the American and global box office crown away from Top Gun 2. However, there has also been the Veteran’s Day weekend release, Black Panther 2 — the follow-up to the #1 film at the American box office of its own year (2018).
That movie, of course, appeared just when Marvel was at about its peak as a commercial draw — the late ’10s, circa what would have been regarded as the triumphant climax and conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe had the franchise’s runners opted to go out strong at the end of “Phase Three.” And there was the promotion of the film as a civil rights “first” (which was a major reason why, in contrast with the rest of the world, Black Panther and not Avengers 3 was the highest-grossing movie in America in 2018). Neither factor can be considered operative with Black Panther 2’s release, while the film may also be said to have had the disadvantage of replacing not only its lead actor, but its lead character (in yet another gender switch Black Panther’s sister Shuri taking up his mantle).
In spite of all that the movie seems to be selling a lot of tickets at the North American box office — if not so many as some of the more bullish initial projections (which ran as high as $225 million), then at least enough to make the bottom end of their range ($180 million), and leave the film’s backers with what would ordinarily be regarded as a respectable sum banked at this stage of the game. Still, the film is a long, long way from matching the gross of the original — $700 million back in 2018, which adjusting for inflation is more like $820-$860 million today (depending on whether one goes by the Consumer Price Index generally or ticket prices specifically), and it is far from clear that it will close the gap, some projections anticipating the film’s run ending with just half that $800 million+ figure in North America (a bit north of $400 million). Meanwhile the international box office (which, again, was less enthusiastic about the first movie than the North American, treating the movie as a regular Marvel film, not the milestone it was in the U.S.) would seem unlikely to compensate — especially with, once again, the Marvel movie not playing in China (where the first Black Panther film had made $100 million).
Accordingly it seems likely that the movie will end up with a good deal less banked than the original — maybe even falling short of the $1 billion mark that the first so easily crossed at the global level (and that in today’s depreciated dollars, never mind any adjustment for constant dollar values). Indeed, given the likelihood of the gross being at the lower end of the range, and the reality that the first film did a bit less than half its business abroad, even with China included (just 49.3 percent), a Black Panther movie making, for example, $430 million in North America during a global release not unlike that of the last time, but with China out of the picture, might not unreasonably be expected to finish up under the $800 million mark globally.
Of course, having produced that number one is left with what they are to make of it. Judging the success and failure of particular films is a lot harder these days than it was a mere few years ago. This is partly because the bar for success has been raised so high by a handful of really big movies, and it must be admitted, by the immense resources and hype put into far more movies than can possibly attain that bar (the studios unavoidably making a great many gambles they know will not pay off much, or at all, even at the blockbuster level, because commercially blockbusters are their least-worst option). Part of it is, too, that the box office, like everything else in this age of pandemic, recession, inflation and war — of life as itself the Disaster Movie — becomes more volatile. And admittedly it still feels strange to me to call a movie that grosses $800 million (something maybe a dozen films do a year) a flop. Still, a sequel’s making just a bit over half of what the original did is not usually considered a spectacular success. Indeed, thinking of this as a matter of Black Panther 2 making the same money as Thor: Love and Thunder did (and less globally than the original made domestically in inflation-adjusted terms) drives home the sense of, if a flop only in a very relative and marginal sense, at least less than might have been not unreasonably hoped for by the film’s backers.
Additionally, with this coming on top of the performance of Thor 4 — and Shang-Chi — and The Eternals — and Black Widow — reaffirms a sense of Marvel’s “Phase Four” being on the whole a disappointment compared with the preceding phases, and very plausibly Marvel’s passing the peak of its box office power.* Marvel’s Phase Five, which will debut in February 2023 (with Ant-Man 3, and two more major releases in just the next five months), may restore the franchise’s fortunes, but I have to admit that I am not too optimistic about that, the essential material simply too played out (indeed, the making and reception of Thor 4 seemed to me a textbook example of what happens when one exploits a character for far too long). And so a giant Marvel is likely to remain for quite some time — but a giant in decline. Just like that other Disney property, Star Wars. However, where Marvel was in the ascendant as Star Wars was declining (this tendency arguably evident from 2002, when for the first time a year with a main line Star Wars movie saw it fail to claim the #1 spot at the box office, beaten out for the top spot by the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man) no other franchise, no other genre, even, seems to be in the ascendant now — with this fact alone sufficient to compound the shakiness of the film industry in our time, especially insofar as it seems to be doubling down on its commitment to big theatrically released films.
* Yes, yes, the $1.9 billion-grossing Spider-Man: No Way Home was admittedly an unqualified success — but the only one, and an anomaly in many ways, not least the special multiverse premise that brought together the three 21st century big-screen versions of the character, which may be virtually unrepeatable. And the more modest performances of not one, not two, but three Marvel films since testifies to its not having set the franchise aright by itself.