Marvel’s Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are all without release dates in China, the biggest box office territory in the world, as of this writing. That’s a problem for the studio’s bottom line.
Black Widow was a success overall, even if it didn’t hit the same box office benchmarks we’re used to seeing from Marvel (duh, it’s a pandemic). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a triumph of an origin story that provides the MCU with a new blockbuster lead hero to build around. Eternals, from reigning Best Director winner Chloé Zhao, looks to be one of the franchise’s more unique entries. And Spider-Man: No Way Home is poised to become the highest-grossing movie of 2021.
Yet without a Chinese release, the MCU’s big screen comeback post-COVID is like trying to defeat Thanos without the Infinity Gauntlet.
Here are the Chinese grosses for the last ten MCU pictures, and the percentage they represent for each film’s total worldwide gross.
Spider-Man: Far From Home: $205.4M (18.1%)
Avengers: Endgame: $629.1M (22.4%)
Captain Marvel: $153.8M (13.6%)
Ant-Man & The Wasp: $120.7M (19.3%)
Avengers: Infinity War: $359.5M (17.5%)
Black Panther: $104.6M (7.8%)
Thor: Ragnarok: $112M (13.1%)
Spider-Man: Homecoming: $118.8M (13.5%)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: $99.3M (11.4%)
Doctor Strange: $110.3M (16.3%)
China is a consistent nine figure-plus box office region for Marvel that accounts for an average of 15.3% of an MCU’s global gross over the franchise’s last 10 entires. Continued rollouts without China leaves hundreds of millions of dollars on the table for the studio. But there’s not much Disney can do given the country’s increasingly stringent control of Hollywood imports.
Black Widow has already been wracked by global piracy following its same-day release in both theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access. A similar approach dulled Mulan‘s box office prospects in China ($41 million total) due to piracy as well. Shang-Chi is rumored to potentially be getting a September 23rd release in the Middle Kingdom, though that remains unofficial. (It’s common for Hollywood picture to release in China weeks after their global debut). Chinese authorities have raised objections to comic character, Dr. Fu Manchu, who has ties to Shang-Chi in the source material but is not in the film version.
“Fu Manchu is not in this movie, is not Shang-Chi’s father, and again, is not even a Marvel character, and hasn’t been for decades,” Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige told Variety.
In an unearthed 2013 interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Zhao—who grew up in China—referred to the country as “a place where there are lies everywhere.” This recently sparked backlash from officials, which may prevent Eternals from being released in China. The film also features the MCU’s first openly gay superhero, which would not be approved by Chinese regulators who censor material they deem unfit for the Chinese public [insert eye roll]. Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is a Sony release produced by Marvel Studios, stands the best chance of breaking into China. But due to the MCU’s carefully crafted interconnected stories, there’s a concern that a blackout on an entire segment of Marvel flicks could lead to confusion in future entries that do hit Chinese theaters. (Disney+ shows are not available in China through state-approved platforms).
One the flip side, one can argue that there are clear moral benefits to no longer catering to Chinese government requirements in regards to Hollywood product. But when has the Hollywood industrial complex ever valued ethics over profit? China, with 70,000 movie theater screens at full capacity, holds too much financial upside for Marvel to ignore.