Place Your Bets: The Year’s #1 Domestic Box Office Hit Could Be ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" and "Avatar 2: The Way of Water" also have a shot at being #1 for 2022 — but it's not a sure thing.
Avatar: The Way of Water
"Avatar: The Way of Water"
Courtesy of Disney

Remember this summer, when “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount) lapped the field with a domestic $716 million gross? Two upcoming Disney titles each have a chance to grasp Tom Cruise’s bragging rights as the top film of 2022: “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (November 11) or “Avatar: The Way of Water” (December 16). Before making any predictions — remember last spring.

Before its Cinemacon screening in April, industry consensus on “Maverick” was around $325 million — perhaps the fourth biggest domestic hit of the summer. “Jurassic World: Dominion” (Universal) got the nod as most likely as #1 (estimate: $450 million), then two Marvel titles — “Doctor Strange” (est.: $400 million) and “Thor: Love and Thunder” (est: $375 million) also ahead of “Maverick.”

The guesses were off, to varying degrees: “Strange” was $411 million, “Thor” was $343 million, and “Jurassic” was the whiff with $376 million. Still, all were respectable estimates — except for “Maverick.”

Guesses for “Wakanda” and to some extent, “Avatar,” is easier: In a franchise business, we have models to gauge potential. While “Maverick” was a sequel, the original is more than 30 years old. It grossed $126 million in 1986 ($341 million in 2022 dollars) — excellent, but only fourth best for that summer. The “Top Gun” sequel delivered $127 million on its three-day opening weekend, and grossed $716 million.

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”Marvel/Disney

That’s the mark to beat. Both “Wakanda” and “Avatar” have a shot; neither is a guarantee. Let’s look at the models and throw in some caveats.

“Black Panther” opened in 2018 to $200 million followed by an outstanding 3.5 multiple, getting to $700 million. With more than a 20 percent ticket price increase, that would be over $850 million today.

Second films in Marvel series often do better than the first, but that’s not always the case when the first is a monster hit. The “Avengers” and “Captain America” sequels, though still excellent performances, saw substantial drops.

The first “Black Panther” was a massive hit; it was also a historic event. It was the first MCU entry written and directed by a Black filmmaker, with a Black star in a breakout performance. The sequel carries a different kind of weight: It mourns the death of both T’challa and the actor who portrayed him, Chadwick Boseman.

It’s been five months since the last Marvel film, which is a benefit (a longer gap also helped “Strange”). A November release date is traditionally stronger than the February slot that “Black Panther” received; “Wakanda” will see both Thanksgiving and Christmas play. Early competition is Disney’s animated “Strange World” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” followed by “Avatar” at Christmas. Beyond that, the time belongs to “Wakanda.”

“Panther” is one of only four Marvel films to get an A+ Cinemascore. The inexact science of tracking predicts a $175 million opening weekend (ticket-price increases would put the 2018 original at over $240 million); industry consensus suggests a $600 million total gross. Its world premiere Wednesday night ranged between enthusiastic and rapturous, with a few caveats for fan service and length. But $700 million definitely seems possible.

avatar way of water underwater
“Avatar: The Way of Water”20th Century Studios

As for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” it could be #1 domestic for 2022 releases.  Thirteen years ago, the original was a massive hit with its then-breakthrough 3D; in adjusted results, it’s #15 all time. The 3D is back and probably even more impressive, but today’s median age for blockbuster audiences is 20-25; they were 7 -12 when the original “Avatar” was released. Many saw it, but familiarity is not certain.

With ticket-price increases since 2009, the original would have grossed close to $1.1 billion. Like the first, the sequel is a Christmas release — only this time it will have many more premium screens and much less competition than in 2009. It’s almost certain that the sequel will have a much bigger opening than the original, which generated around $110 million adjusted.

Past performance guides but never guarantees. It would be no surprise if “The Way of Water” beats everything in 2022, and maybe even 2021 when “Spider-Man: No Way Home” grossed $814 million. Industry sources say it will best “Wakanda,” with a consensus around $650 million, but the range of estimates stretch from $500 million to $1 billion.

Worldwide, “Avatar” is anticipated to easily be the biggest film of the year; the first one grossed a staggering 75 percent of its total overseas. Both “Black Panther” and “Maverick” were closer to even. Domestically, “Maverick,” “Wakanda,” and “The Way of Water” could be first, second, or third.

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