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Marvel’s first superhero movie with an Asian lead character, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, generated $90m in US ticket sales over the holiday weekend, making it the most successful Labor Day release on record.
The popularity of the movie was a milestone for Asian-American representation on the big screen, with ticket sales estimates from ComScore showing Shang-Chi easily surpassing previous Labor Day record-holder Halloween, which generated $30.6m over the same Friday to Monday period.
With $71.4m of ticket sales between Friday and Sunday, Shang-Chi was also the second-highest earning film to open in the US during the pandemic after Black Widow, another Marvel superhero. It was the biggest pandemic release in the UK, where it generated £5.76m over the same period.
Disney took a risk with the release of Shang-Chi, which was the first film from its Marvel Studios subsidiary that debuted exclusively in theatres since the start of the pandemic. Black Widow, for instance, was released simultaneously in cinemas and on the Disney Plus streaming platform, where it was available to rent for $30.
The film’s strong opening offers a glimmer of hope to cinemas that have struggled during the pandemic, and suggests movie-goers are prepared to return to theatres at a time when the Delta variant is spreading rapidly — even on a Labor Day weekend when ticket sales tend to be lacklustre.
Shang-Chi tells the story of its eponymous superhero, played by Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, and his quest to save his villainous father from his own destruction. It has garnered a positive critical reception, scoring 92 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie reviews aggregator, and an ‘A’ ranking from CinemaScore.
“The significance is really not about . . . box office records,” said Christian Oh, president of the Asian Pacific American Film festival, who added the movie would serve as a “beacon” for Asian-Americans seeking greater prominence on the big screen.
Michael Tran, a sociologist specialising in race and media at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Anything for us by us is a good thing. Something for us by us at this level is a great and an exceptional thing.”
Asian-Americans in film have had a banner year in 2021. Steven Yeun became the first Asian-American to be nominated for best actor at the Oscars for his performance in Minari, while Chloe Zhao was the first Asian woman to win the Academy Award for best director for Nomadland.
However, the movie’s release comes against the harrowing backdrop of an increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, fuelled by claims that China is responsible for the Covid-19 virus.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University examined the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in America’s 16 largest cities. The centre found that the number of hate crimes targeting Asians in the first quarter of 2021 increased to 95, 164 per cent higher than the same period in 2020.
Tran said the depiction of Asian-Americans in film and on television had the capacity to influence broader race relations in the US, adding that “misrepresentation and lack of representation in mass media affect how people see each other in real life”.
Historically, Asian-Americans have been under-represented on screen, making up 6.5 per cent of all Hollywood acting roles and accounting for 4.3 per cent of directorships. Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the US, representing 7.2 per cent of the total population.
In 2016, Marvel faced criticism for “whitewashing” its Doctor Strange movie by casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan man in the original comics. Shang-Chi’s first appearance in the Marvel comics in 1973 was full of racist undertones that were removed from the movie.
Even as movie casts have slowly become more diverse, studio executives are overwhelmingly white. In 2020, 91 per cent of CEOs at the top 11 Hollywood studios were white, according to a report by Tran.
“We are marketable. We are economically viable,” Oh said. “That’s what I think is going to be a big revelation to a lot of the non-Asian Hollywood executives in charge.”