Shang-Chi: The Superhero of Superhero Movies

Author: Amalia Nichols, Graphics: Irina Sakharova

The BRB Bottomline

“Shang-Chi” is now the highest-grossing film in the US, and it was released exclusively in theaters. Now we just need to assess what this will mean for movies going forward.

Marvel Studios’ newest release, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” was a fantastic movie. It is “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 92% Tomatometer score and a 98% audience score. As a semi-Marvel fan who has seen all the movies and Disney+ shows, I loved it. As a half-Asian American, I loved it. Shang-Chi was a milestone of Asian representation in media, the first East Asian superhero on the big screen.

“Shang-Chi” was also a milestone in another way: it was among the first theatrical-only movies released since the pandemic began. Even more importantly, it was the first of Marvel’s, notorious for its box office successes. It’s now the highest-grossing domestic release of 2021, surpassing “Black Widow.”

Why Domestic?

Despite the box office success in the US, “Shang-Chi” has been less successful in the global box office than “Fast and Furious 9,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” and “Black Widow.” This is almost entirely due to the fact that “Shang-Chi” still doesn’t have a release date in China: the world’s largest theatrical market. All foreign releases in China must be approved by the government, and “Shang-Chi” carries some controversy. One such controversy stems from a 2017 interview of titular actor Simu Liu resurfacing where he referred to China as a “third world” country. Similar comments from director Chloe Zhao halted the release of eventual Oscar-winner “Nomadland.” Contention also stems from the character of Shang-Chi’s origins. In the comics, Shang-Chi was originally the son of racist stereotype Fu Manchu. While Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has spoken on how Fu Manchu hasn’t been a Marvel character for decades, this doesn’t relieve the controversy. However, the domestic successes of “Shang-Chi” are extremely significant on their own for a multitude of reasons.

Beating Black Widow

Marvel’s other 2021 release, “Black Widow,” came out on Disney+ for a $30 premium alongside the theatrical release. “Black Widow” had a strong $80 million three-day opening, and “Shang-Chi” trailed slightly behind at $75.5 million. However, as of September 25, “Shang-Chi” passed “Black Widow” to become the highest-grossing domestic release of the year: $196 million to “Black Widow’s” $183 million, which portends much about the movie industry moving forward.

Why Did “Shang-Chi” Beat “Black Widow?”

This can be boiled down to one word: “piracy.” After the first 10 days post-release, “Black Widow” had been pirated four times as much as “Shang-Chi.” This is likely due to the quality of pirating from streaming vs. pirating in a theater. It takes a couple minutes to an hour to copy a movie from a streaming platform, and 4k quality tends to be maintained. In other words, copying a movie from a streaming platform is extremely easy and can be done while maintaining extremely high quality. On the other hand, “Shang-Chi” and other movies released only in theaters are usually shot by hand with camcorders. The quality of such pirated movies is much poorer.

There are a few other potential reasons why “Shang-Chi” outperformed “Black Widow.” One reason might be “Black Widow’s” quick turnaround in becoming available for free streaming—just three months. Many Disney+ subscribers were likely willing to simply wait for free streaming. Another reason is how many people could watch with a single purchase. Rather than each family member having to buy a $10-15 movie ticket, an entire family could watch the movie for a $30 premium. In some cases, like my own family’s purchase, over 35 people watched on that $30. A third potential factor may be rewatching. Many Marvel fans are a bit zealous and will rewatch a Marvel movie at least twice in theaters. With the simultaneous release, Marvel fans could watch “Black Widow” an infinite amount of times with their one-time purchase. All of this might help to explain the 69% second-week drop-off in “Black Widow” sales.

What’s the Significance?

“Black Widow” vs. “Shang-Chi” was an experiment by Marvel and Disney on the simultaneous release vs. in-theaters-only releases. “Shang-Chi” was actually set-up with a disadvantage. Black Widow has been a major fixture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2010 when she appeared in “Iron Man 2.” “Shang-Chi” was Shang-Chi’s first cinematic appearance. Additionally, Scarlett Johansson, the lead actress in “Black Widow,” is much more of a household name than Simu Liu (Shang-Chi), who is relatively unknown. Despite the disadvantage, “Shang-Chi” has now outperformed “Black Widow.” This means that the conclusion of Marvel and Disney’s experiment is likely that in-theaters-only releases are more profitable.

Some side-effects of simultaneous releases include lawsuits. Scarlett Johansson, “Black Widow” lead, sued Disney for breach of contract for the simultaneous release. She argued that her salary was largely based on box-office performance and her contract guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release. She has since reached a settlement with Disney. Emma Stone, star of Disney simultaneous release “Cruella,” used the lawsuit to leverage a bonus to compensate for her simultaneous release losses upon signing on for a sequel. Not only are simultaneous releases underperforming, but these underperformances are further costing companies.

Future Film Releases

Following the success of “Shang-Chi,” Disney has decided to release the rest of its movies for 2021 in theaters only. This includes Marvel’s “Eternals” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” and the animated film “Encanto.” Sony seems to be following Disney’s lead with the in-theaters-only release of “Sing 2” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (which was just released). Universal is releasing the much postponed James Bond movie “No Time to Die” theatrically only as well. This signals a “return to normal,” and we can expect more exclusively theatrical releases.

Making Movie Theaters Happy

“Shang-Chi” is bringing back business to movie theaters. The National Association of Theatre Owners was outraged at “Black Widow’s” simultaneous release, publishing a statement that theatrical-only releases benefit all stakeholders involved much more than simultaneous releases. “Shang-Chi” proved NATO right. Now, with so many theatrical-only releases planned, movie theaters will hopefully begin getting steady business again. However, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “No Time to Die” are the next big tests that will indicate whether the trend of profitability from releasing movies only in theaters continues, and “Venom 2” is already doing well.

Take-Home Points

  • Marvel Studios’ newest release, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” was released exclusively in theaters, and has now passed “Black Widow” (a simultaneous release that also came out on Disney+ for a $30 premium) in being the highest-grossing domestic release of 2021.
  • “Shang-Chi’s” outperformance is largely due to piracy, “Black Widow’s” quick turnaround, and rewatches.
  • “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi” were an experiment by Disney and Marvel where the conclusion is that exclusively theatrical releases are more profitable.
  • Disney and Sony are going to move forward releasing their movies exclusively in theaters; Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” has already been released and is performing well.
  • The National Association of Theater Owners was upset over “Black Widow’s” simultaneous release, but they have been vindicated by “Shang-Chi’s” success.
  • Some production companies like Warner Bros. are still hesitant to release in theaters, so the next few movies released only in theaters will be another test.

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