One week from today, we will be dissecting the Thursday preview grosses for Marvel and Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The Destin Daniel Cretton-directed MCU fantasy, starring Simi Liu, Tony Lueng and Awkwafina, is all-but-certain to break the record for a Labor Day opening weekend. That’s technically not saying much, as the biggest such debut remains Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake with a $26.5 million Fri-Sun/$30.5 million Fri-Mon debut in 2007. Chris Nolan’s Tenet tried its best last year, but it “only” nabbed $20.4 million over an 11-day Labor Day week release (while performing much better overseas).
Nonetheless, with strong reviews, solid buzz and around $6.6 million in pre-release sales already in the till, we may be looking at, by default, the first Labor Day weekend blockbuster and yet another #GoldOpen. For those so inclined, Gold House has kicked off a Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings Gold Open Community Fund. The non-profit is raising money to help fund theater buyouts and related screenings to help API moviegoers see the movie either for free or for minimal inconvenience when it opens theatrically beginning next week. We’ve seen this sort of effort being made with Marvel’s Black Panther in early 2018 and with Crazy Rich Asians in summer 2018, and while it’s more about spreading awareness and ensuring certain folks get to see the film than juicing the opening weekend box office, every bit helps.
Although, especially on a Covid curve, anything close to Ant-Man’s $58 million Fri-Sun debut even over its Fri-Mon opening frame would be a solid win for this flick. Delta infections have created a scenario whereby we now look at the glorious run of Godzilla Vs. Kong ($460 million worldwide in March/April of 2021) as almost aspirational. There are no vaccines yet approved for kids under 12, which is a big factor in why the likes of Clifford and Hotel Transylvania 4 have been delayed or sold to streaming. While Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be the first big Disney flick (not counting the 20th Century/Searchlight releases) to go exclusively theatrical since the pandemic began, that only helps so much in an uncertain environment.
Moreover, Shang-Chi is not an exceptionally well-known MCU property. Truth be told, there may be a ceiling for these “first time out” MCU franchise-starters that don’t hit a kind of zeitgeist-y sweet spot. Prior to Black Panther ($1.346 billion in 2018), no solo, sans-Tony Stark MCU origin story had out-earned Doctor Strange ($677 million in 2016). Captain America had earned $376 million in 2011 while The Incredible Hulk had earned $267 million in 2008 and Ant-Man had grossed $519 million in 2015.
Even Ant-Man and the Wasp “only” grossed $216 million domestic and $620 million worldwide despite opening right after Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Black Panther ($1.346 billion in 2018) and Captain Marvel ($1.128 billion) crushed that curve. It’s incredibly encouraging that the last two “new” MCU franchise-starters soared far above the average for Marvel’s “part one” adventures. However, we can’t automatically presume that every new MCU franchise is going to act like the “next Black Panther” or the “next Captain Marvel,” even if they too are highlighting an underrepresented demographic.
That’s doubly true as most of the folks in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are relative unknowns to the general populace (especially outside the film nerd bubble). While Simu Liu is arguably no less of a “newbie” than was Chris Hemsworth before Thor, that 2011 flick opened when the very idea of a splashy Marvel comic book superhero movie was an event unto itself. Thor’s $449 million global cume was, at the time, the biggest ever for a comic book superhero movie not starring Batman, Wolverine, Spider-Man or Iron Man. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man had well-known comic movie star Paul Rudd in the lead. Captain Marvel featured recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson (also geek-friendly from the likes of 21 Jump Street and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) in the lead role.
Irony alert, she broke out partially thanks to the dynamite Short Term 12, directed by… Destin Daniel Cretton, who then cast her in The Glass House and alongside Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy. Thor had a murderer’s row of a supporting cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Rene Russo and Idris Elba. Black Panther ”actors known to generic non-Black audiences” supporting players like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. They also got “lucky” when Daniel Kaluuya became an Oscar-nominated sensation in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a film that opened several months after he was cast in the MCU flick.
As much as I would love to say general audiences saw and loved In the Mood for Love, Lust, Caution and Infernal Affairs, Leung isn’t a known quantity to most North American moviegoers. Kim’s Convenience is the kind of show that (like, say, Mad Men) earns oodles of coverage and free media but around 1 million to 2 million viewers per episode. Shang-Chi is banking more on being the next MCU movie, with “added value elements” related to demographic representation and/or the martial arts hook, than any MCU movie since Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor. With good reviews and strong buzz, Shang-Chi can open about as well as Ant-Man and still be considered a solid win.
Ant-Man opened with $58 million in July of 2015 and legged out to $181 million, still the second leggiest MCU movie behind Guardians of the Galaxy ($333 million from a $94 million debut in August of 2014). Shang-Chi is going to be theatrically exclusive for at least 45 days, and Venom 2’s departure to October 15 means Shang-Chi has the four-quadrant tentpole market to itself until No Time to Die on October 8. And, yeah, Fri-Mon debut close to Black Widow’s $80 million Fri-Sun debut would have been “good enough” in normal times, but now it would be a near-miracle. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, “watch this space.”