Shang-Chi Just Became the COVID Era’s Biggest Hit

Photo: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Over its surprise fourth weekend atop the North American box office, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings flexed its superpower to continue conjuring significant audiences, surpassing fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Black Widow as the biggest hit of both 2021 and the COVID-19 era. The wuxia-surged $200 million action-fantasy, which stars Canadian Kim’s Convenience actor Simu Liu as superherodom’s most skilled martial artist/valet parker, came in ahead of industry estimates with a three-day total of $13.2 million — racking up a cumulative $196.4 million since its release, according to Comscore, to handily overtake Black Widow’s $186.7 million domestic record. (Although, caveat, the Scarlett Johansson stand-alone prequel has taken in an additional $125 million via paid rentals on Disney+.) Shang-Chi also upset the only other major title entering wide release this weekend, Universal’s poorly reviewed big-screen blowup of the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen, which earned an abysmal $7.5 million in 3,364 theaters to claim the No. 2 spot.

Such box-office overperformance is particularly notable in light of Shang-Chi’s pile-on of filmic firsts. The superhero-origin story has delivered the MCU’s highest Rotten Tomatoes audience score to date (98 percent) and overturned conventional industry wisdom over its Labor Day debut by pulling in a robust $90 million to shatter box-office records for what is generally one of the quietest and least lucrative release corridors on the movie calendar. Shang-Chi also arrives as Marvel Studios’ first foray into martial-arts action; the first superhero feature directed by an Asian American filmmaker (Destin Daniel Cretton of Short Term 12 fame); and, perhaps most impactfully, the first megabudget, comic-book-based movie ever to feature an Asian lead and predominantly East Asian cast.

“When you get this mix of a new Marvel movie with landmark representation, this unique genre that Marvel hasn’t played with yet, gorgeous fight choreography, and an ensemble cast of fresh up-and-comers and veteran actors like Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, you have this audience that is coming out for it, that is loving it, that is telling their friends,” says Erik Davis, Fandango’s managing editor. “And right now word of mouth is more important than it’s ever been. The Delta variant is still out there. There is still a little bit of hesitancy on the part of audiences. But never underestimate the power of a neighbor telling you they saw something good and that you should go see it. That was happening a lot on this film.”

Viewed a certain way, Shang-Chi’s success is a validation of Disney head honcho Bob Chapek’s “interesting experiment” — as he called the film’s release strategy on a recent quarterly earnings call with investors, prompting a Twitter retort from Liu — of rolling out the 25th MCU entry exclusively in theaters for 45 days before moving the title to Disney+. Although there is little doubt Shang-Chi suffered financially from reaching multiplexes in the immediate aftermath of peak pandemic pandemonium, the film has outgrossed more recognizable IP such as A Quiet Place Part 2, F9, and Godzilla vs. Kong, which toppled one pandemic-era record after another over the last few months. And it fared better than Black Widow, a much more high-profile and high-stakes presumed blockbuster for the studio that hit theaters and Disney+ concurrently in July, was widely pirated, and saw its box-office prospects drop off a cliff in the movie’s second week of wide release (also prompting Johansson to sue the Mouse House for breach of contract to the tune of $50 million in lost wages).

As if to drill down on this received wisdom, a week after Shang-Chi’s Labor Day breakthrough, Disney announced that its upcoming slate of 2021 films including Marvel’s Eternals, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story, The Last Duel, and The King’s Man will get 45-day exclusive theatrical runs. And in another studio vote of confidence, Sony moved up the release date of its latest comic-book adaptation (aimed at the same 17- to 34-year-old moviegoing demographic as Shang-Chi), Venom: Let There Be Carnage, from October 15 to October 1.

“If you have a film that simultaneously debuts at home and in theaters, data shows its chances of staying at the top of the box office are not as strong as they would be for an exclusive theatrical movie,” says Davis. “Right now, studios are experimenting so they have all the necessary data to make decisions in the future. But what I think Shang-Chi demonstrates is that communal moviegoing for an event title is still meaningful. I think that Shang-Chi is proving that a movie can still become a cultural moment, can remain at the top of the box office for several weeks because it’s an event — it’s something important in people’s lives. Because their only option is to see it on the big screen with an audience.”

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