'Shang-Chi' broke box office records, but a more inclusive Marvel is the real win

Marvel Studios gave only attractive, white men the top billing for a movie until the Marvel Cinematic Universe's 10th anniversary of its creation. The 2018 release of Black Panther was the latest example of this.
It was a box office success. In 2021 Scarlet Johansson was the Black Widow's star, earning almost $80 million, despite it being released during a pandemic and simultaneously streaming on Disney+. We are back again, a few months later, with Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This Marvel-based wuxia cinema starring Simu Liu broke the U.S. Labor Day record.

Shang-Chi made $71.4 million in North American ticket revenue over the three-day period Friday through Sunday. The overseas market added $56.2 million. These numbers, which Comscore notes "obliterated", previous estimates, do not account for Labor Day. It is currently projected that Labor Day will add $10-15 million to the global total.

Shang-Chi's North American box office total surpasses $30.6 million set by 2007's Halloween remake. Ten Rings is doing well.

It's a joy to see. Marvel may not have received the inclusive top billings in time, but that doesn’t diminish the popularity of films like this. Black Panther was a box-office success and still ranks second among North American MCU releases. Shang-Chi's opening was much smaller than the average Labor Day weekend release. However, it is Marvel's first-ever release.

It is hard to imagine what the weekend would have looked like without the global pandemic. Marvel's theatrical fortunes are a bright spot in the COVID-addled 2021 box office. Shang-Chi, who has not had a weekend off, immediately moves into the top 10 earners for the year, joining Free Guy and Space Jam 2. (Black Widow is currently at #1.

Marvel's star power is something that can be appreciated. Shang-Chi may not be the most famous comic book superhero. Liu, prior to this movie, was more well-known for his TV work. The Marvel stamp, and specifically the MCU stamp on Ten Rings, gives both the character of Shang-Chi and the actor who plays him an immediate boost. This is a win-win situation for all.

It was not without its faults. For example, the franchise's first gay character was not introduced until more than a decade after Black Panther. It was only a small player in one scene. There are still signs that Marvel doesn't want to focus on heteronormative representations or love and relationships, even in 2021.

Black Panther is also available. Iron Man was the first to launch the MCU in May 2008. Black Panther was released in February 2018, nearly a decade after Iron Man. It was one of 17 films that preceded it and made billions in ticket sales and home video sales. While there was some representation of Black characters in the MCU before 2018, it is difficult to argue that Marvel relied on any other factors than its brand and its male stars, who are predominantly white, to propel the franchise.

We have since acquired Captain Marvel, a series that Brie Larson has led. The Disney+ series WandaVision was created by Elizabeth Olsen. The streaming series Captain America and Winter Soldier explored racial issues directly and introduced Sam Wilson (Black) to Anthony Mackie as the next Captain America.

There are more: A Ms. Marvel series featuring Iman Vellani, a young actress, as Kamala Khan; an She-Hulk series with Tatiana Maslany playing the eponymous superhuman lawyer; and a Moon Knight series that stars Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector. (Somewhat problematically Isaac is Jewish, but he was not raised that way). The November's Eternals series features a diverse cast.

I don't mean to imply that Marvel Studios is perfect at this stuff or that they will always get it right. If Shang-Chi's film, which centers Asian-American perspectives and is the first to be shown in the MCU, does well on Labor Day weekend and while the world is still ravaged by a terrible pandemic, it could be a sign that Marvel is learning how best to leverage its enormous power over the entertainment business in positive ways.


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