On Thursday, Marvel Studios released “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the 30th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a collection of media produced by Marvel Studios that shares a single fictional storyline). This latest MCU installment is likely to be a commercial success; its predecessor, 2018’s “Black Panther,” is the 14th-highest-grossing film of all time.
“Wakanda Forever” also will factor into speculation about whether the MCU has entered an artistic and commercial downturn, especially among critics who claim that the franchise has become too diverse or “woke” for its own good. According to this narrative, attention to diversity in casting and storytelling can drive White audiences away and hurt media companies’ bottom lines.
As political scientists, we are interested in what the weeks ahead will reveal about how audiences, critics and fans react to “Wakanda Forever.” In the meantime, data on audience responses to the first Black Panther film may hold clues about whether Marvel Studios will pay a price for its increasingly diverse storytelling.
The MCU and its discontents
Since 2008, Marvel Studios has released more than two dozen movies and television shows set in a shared fictional reality. Each installment takes into account events of the others, and recurring characters are usually portrayed by the same actors. This serialized storytelling has led to record-breaking commercial success, including six of the 20-highest-grossing films of all time.
As the MCU’s popularity has grown, it has come under increasing scrutiny by fans, industry observers and scholars. As we write in our new, edited volume “The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” MCU films and shows are criticized as being formulaic, status-quo affirming, juvenile, not diverse enough, too numerous and — as Martin Scorsese memorably wrote — “not cinema.”
Will these negative assessments ever catch up with Marvel Studios? The MCU had one of its worst-performing films in 2021 with “The Eternals.” The studio has released eight streaming shows in the past 20 months, with mixed results.
One strand of MCU doomsaying predicts downturns because of increasingly diverse MCU storytelling. White men played every title hero during Phase 1 of the franchise (2008 to 2012). In subsequent phases, however, Marvel Studios increased diversity in its stories and its production teams. In the MCU’s Phase 4 (2021 to 2022), only half the films feature White male leads.
As the franchise has become more diverse, right-wing commentators have speculated that audiences are reacting negatively to the MCU’s “leftist political and moral agenda,” often referred to as “woke.” That term originates in Black social activism but it is also used to deride marketing strategies that associate consumer brands with progressive politics. Opponents have similarly criticized diversity in Marvel’s print comics, in Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel and in the forthcoming live-action film “Little Mermaid.”
Did ‘Black Panther’ drive away White viewers?
One indicator of how “Wakanda Forever” will shape the MCU’s future can be found in how audiences reacted to the 2018 “Black Panther” film, led by the same creative team, writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole.
When “Black Panther” debuted in 2018, surveys indicated that many Black Americans who were not MCU fans were planning to see the film in theaters. One Quartz headline after opening weekend argued that “Black Panther” had “dramatically changed the makeup of the superhero movie audience.”
Such conclusions were premature. As one of us (Bethany Lacina) has shown, the MCU has long been more popular among Americans of color than White Americans — although MCU films are more popular than similar blockbusters with every racial demographic group. Before 2018, for instance, an average of 18 percent of Black consumers reported watching MCU films compared to 14 percent of White consumers.
Black viewers were an even larger-than-usual share of the theatrical audience of “Black Panther.” But “Black Panther” was popular with White viewers, too, and across all racial demographics. Non-Hispanic Whites made up 52 percent of the total theatrical audience of “Black Panther,” a proportion comparable to audiences for past MCU films. Far from being racially divisive, the film earned more revenue from White Americans than any prior MCU film except “The Avengers.”
But was it progressive?
All that is especially striking since “Black Panther” broke some MCU racial barriers. It was the first MCU film headlined by a Black protagonist, filmed by a Black director, or penned by a Black writing team.
“Black Panther” also was the first MCU film to explore structural inequality and the history of systemic racism. T’Challa, the titular Black Panther, came from Wakanda, a fictional African country that succeeded in amassing tremendous wealth and astonishing technology by concealing itself from the outside world. The film’s antagonist, Killmonger, sought to use Wakandan resources in a worldwide revolution of the oppressed; as political scientists Allison Rank and Heather Pool note in our book, “When we first meet Killmonger, he provides a plausible and justified argument for Black revolution.”
Killmonger is ultimately vanquished by T’Challa, and his quest for radical change villainized. Some left-leaning observers criticized this ending as neocolonial or an instance of Black “respectability politics.” However, the movie also criticized status-quo politics more decisively than any prior MCU installment: T’Challa rejects Wakanda’s historical isolationism and begins using Wakandan resources to address global inequalities. If audiences bristle at progressive MCU storylines, they should have rejected “Black Panther.”
The wages of “woke” cinema
The commercial success of “Black Panther” casts serious doubt on the claim that there is a box office backlash against diversity. The film was more racially progressive than any MCU film on numerous measures, and it won over untapped non-White markets while outperforming most MCU films with White consumers as well. It was also a critical success, with a host of nominations and awards.
In the coming weeks, detractors may hunt for evidence that “Wakanda Forever” was a mistake for Marvel Studios. Sequels don’t always live up to their predecessors. We don’t yet know if “Wakanda Forever” will be as transformative or novel as “Black Panther.” But the evidence so far suggests that in MCU films, as the late co-creator of the Black Panther character, Stan Lee, said, “Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race.”
A previous version of this article had two incorrect references to the title for the book co-edited by Nicholas Carnes and Lilly J. Goren. It is titled "The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe." The article has been corrected.
Nicholas Carnes (@Nick_Carnes_) is a professor of public policy and sociology at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and co-editor of “The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe” (University Press of Kansas, 2022).
Lilly J. Goren (@gorenlj) is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisc., and co-editor of “The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe” (University Press of Kansas, 2022).