- Amarsanaa Battulga
Who can save China's superhero fans?
Politics triumphs pandemic as a greater danger to Hollywood.
2020 marked the first time that Marvel Studios did not release a film in the last thirteen years. What the filmgoers in mainland China did not expect, however, is that 2021 might just be the same for them.
Despite Marvel’s plan to release four superhero tentpoles in the second half of 2021 and Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage scheduled for October, none of these films have a release date in China at the time of writing.
Black Widow, whose release was postponed four times before the film finally hit US theaters and Disney+ on July 9, was approved for release in China by the censorship authorities as early as March.1 It did not make it to Chinese screens, however, due to its timing: July is an all too important month for domestic blockbusters (especially so this year given the Party’s centennial anniversary). A delayed release would have led to a considerable box-office compromise since earlier simultaneous release on streaming inevitably exacerbated online piracy.
How to get cancelled in China?
Both Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (released internationally earlier last month) and Eternals (domestic release scheduled on November 5) find themselves in much hotter water than Black Widow.
Simu Liu, who plays the eponymous protagonist of the former, and Chloe Zhao, the Academy Award-winning director of the latter, have fallen out of favor with the Chinese authorities after their remarks on China in old interviews have resurfaced.
Whereas Liu mentioned his parents’ memories of “third world” China “where you had people dying of starvation” in a now-deleted 2017 interview,2 Zhao discussed in a 2013 interview her experience of growing up in China, “a place where there are lies everywhere”3 – a comment that saw her partially banned on the Chinese internet.
Moreover, despite Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s assurances of respect for Chinese people and culture in an exclusive interview with the prominent Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou,4 the film was heavily criticized in a Global Times article and comments on Douban, China’s IMDB.5 The fact that Shang-Chi’s father in the comics was Fu Manchu, a Yellow Peril-era power-hungry caricature villain, did not bode well with both the Chinese filmgoers and the authorities.
Who decides what goes: the audience or the authorities?
In a yet more complicated situation is Sony’s Venom sequel. On the one hand, China’s Tencent Pictures has co-financed the film as it did the first installment, which was a huge success in China, raking in a hefty $269,196,633 – more than the domestic box office and nearly one-third of the film’s worldwide revenue.6
On the other hand, Tom Hardy's 2012 interview in which he used the word “Chinaman” has resurfaced, and many Chinese moviegoers are calling for a boycott of the film on charges of “insulting China” (辱华 ruhua). “I’ve seen Shanghai Teahouse of the Rising Sun, or whatever it’s called, where he plays the Chinaman?” says Hardy when talking about the Marlon Brando’s films he has seen.7
“Chinaman” has pejorative connotations in modern dictionaries and modern usage, and even Hardy’s Chinese fans seem to be against the film’s theatrical release in the country. However, the official Sina Weibo account of Taopiaopiao, the country’s largest online ticket sales platform, has posted the film’s Chinese character posters on September 20 – a telling sign that it might be shown in theaters there despite the boycott.8 The emphasis is on the word “might” here. After all, Woody Allen’s 2019 film A Rainy Day in New York, approved for release and Chinese posters made public in April, is still waiting for a release date.
Even if the Venom sequel hits Chinese screens, it will have to be later than its October 1 release in the U.S. since October marks another critical “domestic release protection month” (国产保护月guochan baohu yue) because of the week-long National Day holiday. With Dune and No Time To Die already scheduled on October 22 and 29, respectively, there simply is no time slot to release another Hollywood tentpole. Although Venom will be exclusively released in cinemas in the U.S. (thereby avoiding Black Widow’s faith in China), this delayed release in China is a huge gamble and could still mean a considerable loss in box office revenue (that is, again, if the film is shown in theaters at all).
As for the last Marvel superhero film of the year, Spider-Man: No Way Home, no signs of trouble can be seen so far. Tom Holland has a significant fanbase in China and, as far as we know, the film's story remains unlikely to be accused of “insulting China.” But who knows, maybe Tom Holland said something about China some time ago that can somehow be found fault with. Hard is it to be both a Marvel fan and a patriot in 2021’s China.
References / To go further
Rebecca Davis, “‘Black Widow’s’ China Delay Rings Alarm Bells for Hollywood,” Variety, July 9, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/black-widow-china-box-office-troubles-1235016323/.
“'Kim's Convenience' star Simu Liu thanks his immigrant parents for his Canadian life,” Wayback Machine, last modified March 3, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20180901203900/http://www.cbc.ca/2017/whatsyourstory/kim-s-convenience-star-simu-liu-thanks-his-immigrant-parents-for-his-canadian-life-1.4007124.
Scott Macaulay, “Parting Shot: Chloé Zhao,” Filmmaker Magazine, January 20, 2016, https://filmmakermagazine.com/96999-parting-shot-chloe-zhao/.
Rebecca Davis, “Marvel President Kevin Feige Addresses China’s Biggest ‘Shang-Chi’ Concerns,” Variety, August 18, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/marvel-kevin-feige-shang-chi-1235043910/#recipient_hashed=ca6bf125ba1d9e0643825bb798806510a6792220ab8ce995c97069e04442b39b.
Global Times环球时报, “美媒：这部美国电影若无法在中国上映，影响会很大！” WeChat, September 3, 2021, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/8FPGvFX2nYZB6M9tVVu-4g.
“Venom,” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt1270797/?ref_=bo_se_r_2.
Tom Hardy, “A Candid Tom Hardy at Cannes on Beards, Beer, Batman, and Brando,” interview by Kyle Buchanan, Vulture, May 22, 2012, https://www.vulture.com/2012/05/tom-hardy-dark-knight-lawless-mad-max-china.html.
Taopiaopiao (@淘票票), “#毒液2角色海报# 所以，何时定档？[doge],” Sina Weibo post, September 20, 2021, https://weibo.com/taobaodianying?topnav=1&wvr=6&topsug=1&is_all=1&is_search=1&key_word=%E6%AF%92%E6%B6%B2#1632468695842.