Why Black Panther Was Such a Massive Hit
The most important answer to this question is also the simplest: Black Panther is a great movie. Despite popular misconceptions about audiences only liking loud, dumb movies (propped up by cherry-picked examples like the Transformers franchise), an in-depth study by Metacritic found a strong correlation between critical consensus and box office performance. Now, reviews aren't a completely objective measure of whether a movie is "good" or "bad," but they're generally a pretty good measuring stick, and these findings make sense; ultimately, people just want to watch good movies. They want to be entertained, and Black Panther delivered that entertainment.
Another major driving factor behind Black Panther's success is also likely one of the reasons it was so dramatically under-estimated: it has a majority black cast. Despite substantial research showing that diverse casting is a boon to box office performance, Hollywood still seems to be gripped by a fear that movies with non-white leads are a harder sell. But African-American audiences are far from a niche demographic; comScore polling found that 37% of attendees during Black Panther's opening weekend were African-American (on average, African-Americans usually make up around 15% of the audience for superhero movies). African-American audience members alone accounted for $74 million in opening weekend ticket sales. To put that in perspective, Ant-Man's total opening weekend gross was $57 million.
Much of that success is owed to Black Panther's aforementioned awesomeness, but like many other box office success stories, it's also attributable to the movie offering something that hadn't already been done. There have been black-led superhero movies before, but never with a budget this big, and never made by a black filmmaker, and never with a majority-black cast, and certainly never set in Africa.
African-American audiences were also a driving force behind Black Panther's omnipresence on social media, with even seemingly innocuous lines like "the prince will now have the strength of the Black Panther stripped away" becoming the source of popular memes, and supporting characters like M'Baku becoming fan-favorites. Everyone was talking about it, which made people who hadn't seen the movie yet want to join in the conversation, which in turn drove Black Panther's strong performance in subsequent weeks. It also benefited from a tie-in concept album curated by Kendrick Lamar, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. As we learned with Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy, a great soundtrack can be a major boost to a movie's box office success.
Ultimately, however, a considerable portion of Black Panther's success is attributable to the fact that it was the best thing on offer, and it's not the movie's fault that other studios (even Disney) delivered weak competition. Almost all of the movies that Black Panther has stomped at the box office have received "Rotten" ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, with the notable exception of Alex Garland's cerebral sci-fi movie Annihilation, which was mainly the victim of a botched release by Paramount Pictures. The fact that it went up against Black Panther in its second weekend and came away with an $11 million opening is, frankly, a considerable achievement.
Beyond Annihilation, though, can we really blame audiences for preferring to see Danai Gurira take out a bad guy with a wig, rather than watching Jennifer Lawrence alternate between being sexually assaulted and shamelessly objectified? Can we really pin Death Wish's failure on Black Panther when Bruce Willis' other recent projects have almost all been direct-to-video? Was the Tomb Raider reboot really an event movie in the making, or just another doomed video game adaptation? Forbes points to Pacific Rim: Uprising hoping for a $25 million opening weekend take, when the first movie was considered to have under-performed with a $38 million debut. But Pacific Rim: Uprising is a five-years-later sequel to a movie that barely broke even, which doesn't have that movie's prestige director and has lost most of the original cast. Black Panther is far from the biggest factor at play here.
By the same token, there's nothing standing in the way of another movie coming along and finally knocking Black Panther off the top of the pile (it has been in theaters for over a month, after all). Maybe Pacific Rim: Uprising will become a surprise hit. Maybe Ready Player One will deliver that good old Steven Spielberg magic. Whoever ends up taking the next big victory, it's a safe bet that, just like Black Panther's, it will be well-earned.