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Disney and "Black Panther" Obliterate Talk of Superhero Fatigue

By Danny Vena - Updated Feb 22, 2018 at 2:17PM

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After breaking records during its opening weekend, the titular hero is on track to be Disney's next billion-dollar hit -- and to silence critics who think the superhero genre may have run its course.

With the ongoing success of Marvel Studios' superhero movies came prognostications that the space would eventually become saturated -- and the public would finally succumb to "superhero fatigue." Never mind that Marvel's offerings each explored a different genre. Spider-Man: Homecoming depicts a coming-of-age tale, Captain America: Winter Soldier is a political thriller, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a sci-fi movie, and Ant-Man is a heist flick.

The Walt Disney Company (DIS -0.90%) and Marvel's Black Panther broke a number of records in the movie's opening weekend, and it will likely surpass several more. In three days over Presidents Day weekend, the movie achieved the fifth-highest, all-time opening weekend domestic box office, joining an elite group of movies that went on to become monster hits -- and in doing so silenced the voices predicting the genre's inescapable demise.

But for Disney investors, the success of Black Panther is about more than mere bragging rights.

Black Panther's King T'Challa on the Wakandan throne.

Black Panther is breaking records and barriers. Image source: IMAX.


Opening Weekend Box Office (U.S.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

$248 million

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

$220 million

Jurassic World

$209 million

Marvel's The Avengers

$207 million

Black Panther

$202 million

Avengers: Age of Ultron

$191 million

Captain America: Civil War

$179 million

Beauty and the Beast

$175 million

Iron Man 3

$174 million

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

$169 million


You sound like a broken record

It's worth noting that every movie on that list went on to join the coveted billion-dollar box-office club and are all among the 15 top-grossing films of all time worldwide. It's also telling that eight of the top 10 biggest openings belong to the House of Mouse.

Black Panther clawed its way to becoming the highest-ranking February opener ever, the highest-ranking Friday-through-Sunday non-sequel, the biggest superhero debut, and the largest opening weekend for a pre-summer movie. 

Over the long holiday weekend, the movie posted another notable achievement: Black Panther generated domestic ticket sales of $242 million, second only to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which still holds the title for the largest four-day box office draw.

It wasn't just box-office records that fell, either. The movie also sports the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating for any superhero movie, currently at 97%, while also garnering a A+ CinemaScore.  Black Panther also generated more ticket pre-sales for Fandango, AMC theaters, and IMAX than any previous superhero film. It made for the fourth highest opening weekend in IMAX's history, garnering $35 million in worldwide ticket sales. 

Black Panter movie poster with numerous cast members.

Black Panther shatters records. Image source: Marvel.

Internationally, Black Panther landed as the 25th highest foreign debut of all time -- even though it didn't open in three of the largest international markets of China, Russia, and Japan.   

Black Panther also smashed cultural barriers, featuring a virtually all-black cast -- unprecedented in a big-budget tentpole film. Director Ryan Coogler, who gained prominence for his work in Creed and Fruitvale Station, gets the nod for the biggest opening for an African-American director.

Why it should matter to Disney investors

As Disney deals with the effects of cord-cutting and the decline of its flagship ESPN sports network, other segments of the business have had to step in and fill the void. In its most recent quarter, Disney's revenue grew 4% year over year, led by the parks and resorts segment, which increased sales by 13% over the prior-year quarter.

As my colleague Daniel Sparks pointed out, investors may be underestimating Disney's movie segment. Operating income from Disney's studio entertainment division has quadrupled since 2011, and with its "four powerful, proven franchises -- Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Disney -- showing no signs of weakness," Daniel said, "Disney's content engine may be just getting started."

If the opening weekend of Black Panther is any indication, it will be the next Disney production to smash the $1 billion barrier for movie ticket sales, while also showing that superheroes are here to stay. More importantly, Disney's box office reign is likely to continue for years to come. 

Danny Vena owns shares of AMC Entertainment Holdings, IMAX, and Walt Disney and has the following options: long January 2019 $85 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends IMAX and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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