Destin Daniel Cretton’s new movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings reawakened the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) earlier this month with its box office debut over the Labor Day weekend. Netting an impressive $94 million domestically, Shang-Chi’s success comes as a sigh of relief for Hollywood after many unsuccessful half theater, half online releases failed to meet expectations. While the movie made headway in areas of cultural representation and a return to Marvel’s theatrical domination, it also comes with a shadow looming overhead that may upend it all.
Simu Liu and Awkwafina star as the main protagonists and head the majority Asian-Pacific cast. Marvel has always struggled with diversity in their heroes as the comics themselves were published during a time of fierce nationalism and harsh anticommunism. This heavy slant in the comics turned into a multibillion-dollar franchise built on the foundations of white, American men. Shang-Chi looks to change this trend and succeeds wildly. The movie hosts actors from Malaysia, Hong Kong, and China, as well as others of ethnically Asian backgrounds.
Beyond the cast themselves, the movie’s aesthetic concerns itself with East Asian culture and art. The idyllic landscape of Ta Lo showcases creatures, clothing, and architecture that reflects early Chinese history and shows an effort on Marvel’s part to present other cultures in a newer, more appreciative light (as opposed to its more derogatory source material). This departure from their America-centric storylines gave fans something to talk about and kept them coming back. “[Shang-Chi has had] the biggest non-opening weekend gross since the $72 million second-weekend gross of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in December 2019” reports Forbes in an article discussing Shang-Chi’s place among its box office counterparts.
Marvel’s risk taking also caused a ripple effect in Hollywood as a whole. Sony moved the release of its movie Venom: Let There Be Carnage up two weeks in light of the MCU’s success. Disney now promises to replicate this style of release in their upcoming 2021 movies. Instead of the conjoined release (online and in theaters), Shang-Chi’s success tells the industry that theaters are not gone and that after a worldwide pandemic people still want to come back to the red velvet aisles. While Marvel might have just reignited its own cinematic potential, it may have consequently revived the movie industry as a whole.
That is, if China gets behind it.
When criticism arose around Disney’s rerelease of Mulan for its connection to Uighur Muslims and their oppression in China, the movie got blacked out. The Chinese government caused the live-action remake to flop and make a mere $40 million in the Chinese markets.
Shang-Chi also faces some resistance in breaking into perhaps its most lucrative market. “When first introduced in 1973, Shang-Chi's father was Fu Manchu, a character now considered to have perpetuated racist Asian stereotypes” reports Travis Clark from Insider. While seeing the problematic past of Shang-Chi as an issue, Chinese media also took issue with Simu Liu’s 2017 comments where he called China a “third world country” and recalled his parents who described those “dying of starvation” under the Chinese government’s (CCP’s) rule.
These comments, while somewhat unimportant to the common viewer of the MCU, comes as another iteration of the CCP’s media censorship for anti-Chinese sentiments. Just a few weeks ago the media targeted BTS, a popular Korean pop band, for the femininity of their male singers—which undoubtedly does not align with the CCP’s vision of males in China.
What remains to be seen is how Disney and other movie-makers will respond to this apparent blackout of movies in Chinese theaters. Will Hollywood become lapdogs to the CCP in the hopes of breaking through the media censorship (and reaping the monetary rewards), or will they continue to take risks? If Shang-Chi showed the industry one thing, it’s that movies that are willing to push the envelope can bring back the movie magic we all thought would never recover.