Oh, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings! If there was a movie that I wish all of the goodwill in the world to, it’s to this film. Despite not having seen it yet, the film is giving me the impression that, while it isn’t going to be as revelatory for the MCU as Black Panther was, it is arguably the first true step into a post Endgame world. No longer relying on established characters from previous films, Shang-Chi is a new face with a new cast that looks to at least be somewhat separated from everything that has come before it. Its success is going to most likely determine where and how the MCU will go from here.
But, like, we all know it’s going to fail, right? We all know that it’s going to crash and burn worse than the Hindenberg, right?
The signs are all there but I don’t think anyone wants to acknowledge it. It would be easy to say that this failure is going to almost completely be attributed to “difficulties caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic” but I think the answer is a bit more complicated than that. That definitely plays a major part in it, but I think it also has to deal with the exclusion of Disney as a huge player in regions like China and how we may rapidly be approaching a burnout of sorts for traditional MCU fare.
First, for those who are unaware, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a series of firsts for Marvel. Like previously discussed, it’s the first original Marvel movie following Endgame that is genuinely going to ask the question about the validity of new characters in the MCU and how they get starring roles immediately. Metatextually, it’s the first MCU film to star an Asian actor, be directed by an Asian man, and starring a predominantly Asian cast. There’s a lot of positive representation in this movie, especially when you consider that one of the key concepts in the film is the reclamation of the character of the Mandarin, who in the comics was almost always an Asian stereotype, now taken and played by an Asian man instead of Sir Ben Kingsley.
So yeah, there’s a lot of goodwill that this movie has going for it, and even given my ambivalence towards the MCU, it is a landmark movie for the MCU. Whether or not it’ll be as culturally defining as Black Panther remains to be seen, but the film is trying to replicate that Black Panther magic. Fundraisers are occurring to try and organize trips for kids to see the movie on the big screen so little ones can see a superhero that looks like them, just like with that film. No matter how you slice it, that’s universally cool.
But Disney is treating this movie as an experiment. Disney is gauging how willing people are going to be to go to the movies again and see a theatrically exclusive Marvel movie. Marvel has become Disney’s big moneymaker unquestionably, with each movie earning around $1 billion before the COVID times. It surpassed a lot of their animated fare as well as Star Wars, which has been distilled to the point of being flavorless and as consumer-friendly as possible. For crying out loud, there was a time when Endgame was the highest-grossing movie of all time. Marvel = Money.
But for well over the past year, Disney has been experimenting with how it can release its movies. With theaters closed and in limited capacities, Disney can’t make billions at the movies. It’s just not physically or economically possible, let alone safe. So Disney tried three different models over the past year to see what worked. Pixar movies like Soul and Luca were released for free onto Disney+ for subscribers. Mulan was released exclusively onto Disney+ under its “Premier Access” label, where you were charged a still ridiculous $30 to stream the movie for three months before becoming free for all subscribers. Finally, Raya and the Last Dragon, Cruella, and Black Widow had a dual release in theaters and on Disney+ under the Premier Acces label, effectively allowing the consumers to choose how they wanted to consume their Disney offerings.
And all of those methods had their strengths and weaknesses. Sure, $30 is egregious for a single person to pay to see a movie, but families may find that a blessing. Having a choice in comfort between going to a theater and seeing it at home was a fair compromise, and I can’t think of anyone who would object to a new Pixar movie streaming for basically nothing. But there was one little problem with all of those methods; Disney wasn’t making a lot of money.
All of these methods bank on the fact that people will subscribe to Disney+ and keep their subscription, but the fact of the matter remains that if someone were to have bought tickets to see all six of those movies in theaters, it would have exceeded what that same consumer would have spent on a year’s subscription to Disney+. That’s why the Premier Access label was created in the first place. Disney knew it wasn’t going to make ALL of the money, so they had to create an artificial paywall to get more money out of people than they were already getting.
But now that theaters are reopening, Disney could potentially make those billions back. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has become the sacrificial lamb to see if theater exclusive movies can still make money. As Disney CEO Bob Chapek infamously called it, the film is “an interesting experiment.” It’s the canary in the coal mine not just for Disney, but for most other movie distributors. You better believe that Sony, Universal, Warner Bros, among many others, are eying Shang-Chi’s box office to see how it fares. Sure, small movies like Candyman may be fine but don’t forget, major movies like No Time To Die, West Side Story, and Eternals are theatrical exclusives at this time. They’re not going to turn a profit off of their opening weekends anytime soon. If Shang-Shi fails, then I guarantee you Disney is going to rush out to make Eternals a Premier Access title within days.
Given that it’s releasing during the Labor Day weekend, there’s a good four-day range for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to make a decent chunk of change during its opening weekend. But there are some elements that will most certainly impact its bottom line. The Delta variant is one, but don’t forget that this is also a new MCU character making their debut. The last time we had a feature film where a new MCU character debuted was Doctor Strange and while it did make quite a lot of money, it was the second-lowest grossing Phase Three movie.
And then you have China. Disney has not been doing well in China. At all.
Disney, like most other major American studios, recognizes the value of the Chinese market and has tried hard to cater films to them. Last year it actually overtook the North American box office for the first time ever, and it certainly wasn’t because of Disney. They engineered Mulan to appeal almost exclusively to the Chinese box office, but it bombed hard and was mauled by critics and viewers. It’s easy to claim that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is going to be a repeat of that, an amalgam of Chinese trends Westernized for easy consumption by Americans without any authenticity, despite the heavy Asian presence of the film. That is, if the film even releases in China. Without the Chinese market, they can kiss commercially viability goodbye.
So the odds are stacked against it actually making its money back, but the other giveaway that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Tens Rings is going to underperform can already be seen in the reviews. While our review is coming later in the week, many other outlets have already published theirs. Because of that, the arrived consensus, as of this writing, is that the movie continues the Marvel mold and doesn’t rock the boat. It has a 7.1 on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t awful but isn’t a rousing endorsement.
The fact of the matter is, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings just doesn’t look all that exciting when compared to the other Marvel products that have released in 2021 alone. Both WandaVision and Loki received heaps of praise for subverting the Marvel formula and adding new flavors to the MCU in the form of some multiversal shenanigans. The style those shows had gravitated audiences towards then while Black Widow received more muted praise and success. That film underperformed at the box office and suffered the biggest second-week decline in the MCU’s history, and I think it mostly has to do with people not finding it exciting.
The experimentation that drew people to those two shows isn’t present in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s another Marvel movie, and one that seems to be cut from the same mold as Black Widow and nearly all of the solo features. There’s less excitement for this movie, plain and simple. Look back to just about a week ago. The internet exploded over the trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home and that was just for a trailer. That’s palpable hype. This is just understated anticipation.
The best evidence I have is to just look at your local movie theater. I took a look on my AMC app to see what the screenings were like at my four local theaters for the first Thursday night screenings of the film. For the record, AMC no longer blocks off seats for social distancing and isn’t limiting theater capacity, so keep that in mind when I tell you these numbers. At the dine-in theater near me, one theater of about 40 seats was almost at full capacity, which is good, but nearly all of the other theaters barely scraped 40%. Even the huge theater that has over 250 seats had only two dozen filled. Those pre-ticket sales should be extremely worrying for Marvel and Disney.
I know that I’m generally out of the MCU as it were and not really tuned in to the world of Marvel at all these days, but even an outsider like me knows that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in trouble. Can it succeed? I’m sure it can, but it has a lot stacked up against it. People are still worried about going to the movies. Its viability in global markets is questionable. It’s not generating much excitement from the usual Marvel zombies. Combined with Black Widow’s severe disappointment at the box office AND not making too much more from Disney+, these two movies may be the harbinger of future problems not just for the MCU but the prospect of pure theatrical releases for the industry.
If Marvel can’t succeed, who can?