New York CNN Business  — 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” hits theaters this weekend, and with it comes the type of anticipation and box office expectations that Hollywood has not seen in months.

The Marvel film not only has to follow 2018’s “Black Panther,” one of the biggest blockbusters ever, but has the challenge of doing so without star Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020. If all of that wasn’t enough, it arrives as theaters, and Disney, the company releasing the movie, really need a hit.

If early projections and ticket sales are any indication, it appears “Wakanda Forever” will be just that.

The film, which stars Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett as the grieving princess and queen of the Vibranium-powered African country of Wakanda, will likely have a record-breaking debut of around $180 million this weekend, and possibly even $200 million.

Disney, more conservatively, is projecting around $175 million, which still would be one of the biggest openings of the year.

If “Wakanda Forever” clears $158 million this weekend, which is likely, it would become the biggest November opening ever. And if it makes $200 million that would be one of the highest-grossing debuts of all time.

The film is off to a strong start, bringing in $28 million on Thursday night. That’s good news for a theater industry in need of a blockbuster.

Why “Wakanda Forever” matters to theaters

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" is set to be one of the biggest films of the year.

When “Black Panther” hit theaters in February 2018, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. The Marvel superhero flick opened to a eye-popping $202 million weekend before going on to make $1.3 billion worldwide and garnering multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

“There is precedent for this franchise to draw massive crowds,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR), told CNN Business. “Every blockbuster counts more than ever for movie theaters right now.”

Why does it matter how “Wakanda Forever” does this weekend? Because after a strong showing this summer, the domestic box office has hit a wall because of a lack of new, notable films.

There have been a few surprise hits in recent weeks — Paramount’s “Smile,” Universal’s “Ticket to Paradise” and Sony’s “The Woman King” — but overall the North America box office is down 34% compared to pre-pandemic 2019. That’s a lot of ground to make up and not much time left to do it.

There are myriad reasons why ticket sales are tracking behind pre-pandemic levels, but one major factor is that widely distributed film releases are down 38% compared to the same time in 2019.

“Coming out of this slow period with a massive blockbuster like ‘Wakanda’ is welcome news for theater owners, especially as there aren’t any more apparent gaps on the release calendar in the near future,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at, told CNN Business.

Theaters need “Wakanda Forever” right now for the same reason they needed “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “The Batman” earlier this year. It’s unlikely that the box office makes up the deficit from 2019, but if “Wakanda Forever” fires up the ticket booth this weekend then that could cut down the difference and lead to strong momentum heading into 2023.

Films like “Wakanda Forever” not only help bring in ticket sales, they pull in audiences who may have forgotten what it was like to go to the movies. That benefits not just Marvel’s bottom line, but the entire ecosystem of the film industry, including theaters.

Why “Wakanda Forever” matters to Disney

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" could break records this weekend. That's good news for Disney and theaters.

And then there’s Disney (DIS).

The media giant has had a rough 2022. Its stock is down 42% so far this year and this week was particularly bad.

The company’s shares sank 13% on Wednesday after the company reported its streaming business lost $1.4 billion last quarter, despite growing its subscriber base beyond expectations.

The performance of “Wakanda Forever” likely won’t move the needle on Disney’s stock, given that investors remain heavily focused on the company’s streaming endeavors. But a strong showing from the film could help change the conversation.

A big opening weekend could also act as a bridge to another potential blockbuster for Disney next month: “Avatar: The Way of Water.” James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time opens December 16, and like “Wakanda Forever” could be a lucrative sequel to a beloved film.

“Momentum is everything in this business,” Dergarabedian said. “Movie theaters have been waiting for a film like ‘Wakanda Forever’ to remind people of the wonder and majesty of a great film on the big screen.”

That, according to Dergarabedian, could “ignite a spark” that might set off a “chain of movie-going to carry forward to the end of the year and into 2023.”