Black Panther is expected to be a major box office smash, but it has also taken on the mantle of cultural talisman, a touchstone on which moviegoers of colour worldwide are pinning their hopes.
The 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, opening Friday in the United States, features an almost entirely black cast led by Chadwick Boseman as the first non-white superhero to get his own standalone movie in the lucrative franchise.
The film from Disney-owned Marvel Studios is expected to break opening weekend box office records and has spawned headlines and social media buzz worldwide about its significance as a game changer for racial representation in cinema.
"We put our heart and soul into it because we knew it was a great opportunity," Boseman, 41, said during a Twitter Q&A on Monday.
"But to see how people have responded to it when they haven't even seen the movie yet, it's unlike anything I've ever seen. It's crazy."
Boseman (Message from the King, Marshall) plays the titular superhero in Black Panther, also known as T'Challa, king and protector of the technologically advanced fictional African nation of Wakanda.
His star-studded support cast is made up of African Americans Michael B Jordan, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, English actors Daniel Kaluuya and Letitia Wright — Kaluuya is of Ugandan heritage while Wright grew up in Guyana — and Kenyan-Mexican Lupita Nyong'o.
With two Oscar winners (Nyong'o and Whitaker) and two nominees (Kaluuya and Bassett), as well as a hatful of Golden Globes nods, the super-cast features some of the most accomplished black actors working in cinema today.
Wakanda, almost a character in itself, subverts the stereotype of Africa as victim by positing an affluent, resource-rich, never-colonised utopia doing its own soul-searching over taking in refugees from poorer nations.
'BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS'
"What this movie represents... is a story and point of view that is universal in its appeal yet very grounded in African American culture," Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for comScore, told AFP.
"Its universal themes will allow it to become a worldwide phenomenon while at the same time representing a really important moment in film, breaking down barriers and outmoded ideas about what is commercially viable."
With five million posts, Black Panther is the most tweeted-about movie of 2018 — ahead even of Star Wars: The Last Jedi — and is outperforming The Hunger Games and Beauty and the Beast in pre-sales.
Experts are predicting a $150-165 million opening which would challenge the $152 million Presidents Day weekend record set by another Marvel Comics creation, Fox's Deadpool (2016).
Fred Joseph, a marketing consultant from New York, set up a GoFundMe campaign in January that aimed to raise $10,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem to watch the movie.
Help Children See Black Panther ended up making fives time that amount and Joseph has since encouraged hundreds of campaigns around the world to raise a total of $400,000 under the hashtag #BlackPantherChallenge.
Joseph describes the film as a "rare opportunity for young students — primarily of colour — to see a black major cinematic and comic book character" on the big screen.
Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, describes the film as a "stake in the heart of what works and what doesn't in Hollywood."
"This is a new ballgame now, one that shouldn't discriminate in any way shape or form — with talent leading the charge, no matter what colour flag they're flying," Bock told AFP.
"Black Panther" isn't the first movie featuring non-white superheroes — around 30 ethnic characters have donned lycra for big screen appearances since the early 1990s — but the Wakandan royal is the first black protagonist to land his own movie in the MCU.
"When Ryan and Hannah Beachler, our production designer, came on, they really made it their mission to go to real African sources for inspiration for the costumes and designs of the structures, and even how the city is laid out," said African American executive producer Nate Moore.
"All that care helped make it real for all of us."
Various analysts interviewed by AFP said they expect the film to do for ethnic diversity what last summer's Warner Bros. smash hit "Wonder Woman" did for women — which was to persuade executives that blockbusters don't need white male leads to sell tickets.
"As an art form, film has the ability to capture the cultural zeitgeist in profound and influential ways — whether that's via a small indie film or a big-budget blockbuster," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told AFP.
"The impact of Black Panther's seemingly inevitable success could be far-reaching in ways that we can't fully predict yet, other than to say Marvel's universe — and the movie world at large — are becoming more and more inclusive for all genders and all colours of skin."