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What Shang-Chi’s Success Means for Movies in 2021

Photo: Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premiered over the Labor Day weekend, a release corridor the movie industry generally regards as a cinematic dumping ground for subpar fare. So it was a surprise when the 25th Marvel Cinematic Universe entry (which was well-reviewed) went on to set a new record for the four-day holiday frame and obliterate COVID-era financial expectations to rake in $90 million in its North American debut.

The Simu Liu–starring action-fantasy clocked the second-biggest opening of our N95 times, its $75.5 million three-day bounty ranking ahead of F9 and coming in behind only Marvel’s Black Widow, which took in $80 million domestically in its first three days in July. “This is a fantastic opening on a traditionally quiet Labor Day weekend,” David A. Gross, who runs the consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, said in an email. “The three-day number is a record breaker for the holiday and a positive finish to the summer, after moviegoing levels ran at roughly half of 2019 for the season. This is a sensational weekend for the industry.”

Shang-Chi’s success arrives at a time when moviegoers’ enthusiasm for the theatrical experience is waning once again due to spiking infection rates for the Delta variant, resulting in lackluster attendance for such recent presumed blockbusters as The Suicide Squad and Jungle Cruise. Unlike Black Widow, which bowed simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ (for a $30 rental charge on top of subscription fees), Shang-Chi’s distributor Disney chose to hold the martial-arts epic to a 45-day theaters-only run before making it available for PVOD on Disney+, a maneuver Disney chief executive Bob Chapek described as an “interesting experiment” in a July quarterly earnings call, prompting Liu to fire back on Twitter, “We are not an experiment.”

With its predominantly East Asian cast (which includes Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, and Michelle Yeoh), plotlines inspired by Chinese folklore, and dazzling martial-arts setpieces, Shang-Chi arrives as both the first Asian-led stand-alone superhero movie and the first MCU entry directed by an Asian American filmmaker. (He is Destin Daniel Cretton, who broke through in Hollywood with the 2013 indie drama Short Term 12.) Although the character Shang-Chi, also known as the Master of Kung Fu and Brother Hand, made his debut in Marvel Comics in 1973, a high-profile movie project centered around him was on nobody’s radar through the MCU’s first three phases. In the summer of 2014, the dearth of Asian MCU heroes prompted Liu — then a character actor and stuntman who would later become a regular on the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience — to fire off a provocative tweet:

Cut to 2019’s San Diego Comic-Con, where Liu filled in the details of his Cinderella-like Shang-Chi casting. “I was like a social experiment,” the actor said from the stage of the SDCC’s cavernous Hall H. “Ordinary guy living in Toronto. I got four days to prep. I auditioned on Tuesday, screen-tested on Sunday in New York. And I’m here today. I can’t describe how I feel about this.”

Opening in 4,300 theaters across the continent on Friday, Shang-Chi handily crushed the existing Labor Day box-office record of $30.5 million set by director Rob Zombie’s 2007 reboot of Halloween. Internationally, the Marvel movie racked up an additional $56.2 million, opening in such crucial markets as Japan, the U.K., Spain, and Italy (Shang-Chi does not have a release date in China yet) for a $146.2 million cumulative haul to date. And if you consider Shang-Chi’s $29.6 million opening-day success removed from 2021’s ticket-selling chaos, it would still likely be considered a relative hit for Disney, eclipsing the $22.6 million opening of Ant-Man in 2015. As BoxOffice Pro’s chief analyst Shawn Robbins points out, it came in just 9 percent shy of Doctor Strange’s $32.6 million three-day start in November 2016.

Just as the “soft” debuts for The Suicide Squad and Jungle Cruise scared Hollywood studio executives into evasive action, pushing or indefinitely delaying the release days for upcoming films including Clifford the Big Red Dog (which has not been rescheduled), Top Gun: Maverick (from November to May 2022), Mission: Impossible 7 (from May to September 2022) and Jackass Forever (from next month to February 2022), Shang-Chi’s surprise over-performance had an immediate effect. On Monday, Sony announced it was once again moving the rollout of its much-delayed, megabudget superhero sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage — but to an earlier date, from October 15 to October 1, in a clear bid to draft on the Marvel movie’s breakthrough appeal. It all prompted Liu to fire off another provocative tweet on Monday:

The takeaway: In the immediate aftermath of one of moviedom’s darkest periods, which saw U.S. ticket sales plummet by 86 percent in 2020, the calculus of pandemic-era movie distribution may have fundamentally changed again. To be sure, Disney is rethinking its strategy of releasing tentpole titles such as Black Widow and Jungle Cruise simultaneously in theaters and on its own streaming platform (particularly now that the widespread piracy of Widow is understood to have significantly eroded its theatrical drawing power). Further, although family films remain a tough sell in Delta variant times, as Shang-Chi demonstrates, movies aimed primarily at the 17–34-year-old male demographic can still do solid business in the face of continuing infection surges.

What Shang-Chi’s Success Means for Movies in 2021