It’s no secret that Disney’s Bob Chapek would rather have released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as both a theatrical and Premier Access title. Even if the $30-per-lease offering hasn’t resulted in ginormous amounts of revenue alongside the theatrical box office, Chapek has been big on direct-to-consumer distribution. Moreover, it’s a reasonable alternative strategy when Covid is still raging, and most kids (including anyone under 12) remain unvaccinated. The Disney CEO remarked in a Thursday earnings call, “On Shang-Chi, we think it’s going to be an interesting experiment. It only has a 45-day window for us. The prospect of taking a Marvel title to the service after just 45 days would be an interesting data point…” That led to Shang-Chi star blasting Chapek on Twitter, declaring that, well…
First, I think it’s past time we started treating MCU movies, even ones featuring “not a white guy” leads, as underdogs. But the statement above is rooted in a misinterpretation, willful or otherwise. If this were a standardized test, the question would be “What did Bob Chapek call “an experiment?” and the correct answer would be C) the prospect of taking a Marvel title to Disney+ after just 45 days. In no way was Chapek referring to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as an experiment in the sense of being the first (and overdue) MCU movie centered around an Asian superhero. Nor did he imply that the movie had to “prove” the box office bankability of a superhero movie centered on Asian heroes and villains.
Crudely speaking, Simu Lui’s reaction would be akin to someone discussing the difference between delivery and pick-up with a response arguing that they were insulting the quality of the pizza. While Disney has its issues, this feels like another manufactured controversy whereby Disney, which at the very least is producing big-budget “not-a-white-guy” blockbusters as a matter of their brand, has been embroiled in an online controversy over something that turned out to be not true. No, Mulan wasn’t cut out of Ralph Breaks the Internet. No, the live-action Mulan was not going to feature a British white guy love interest. No, Disney wasn’t going to cast a bunch of white people in Aladdin. Chapek wasn’t arguing that Shang-Chi was an experiment because it had an all (or mostly?) Asian cast.
That all being said, it’s likely that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, co-starring Awkafina, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, will likely make less money theatrically than it would have had it opened sans Covid in February of 2021 as intended. The film is unofficially tracking for a $35-$55 million debut weekend over Labor Day. It could, depending on reviews and buzz, obviously “overperform.” However, an opening anywhere near the $58 million debut of Ant-Man (which had beloved comic movie star Paul Rudd as the lead) would be a relative win for Shang-Chi even in non-Covid times and an outright triumph next month. It stinks that the first Asian MCU movie is opening under such compromised circumstances. It’s also par for the course since the pandemic began.
Quick: What do Spiral, A Quiet Place 2, Cruella, In the Heights, F9, The Forever Purge, Zola, Black Widow, Old, Snake Eyes, Space Jam 2, Jungle Cruise, The Green Knight, The Suicide Squad, Respect, The Protégé, Candyman and Shang-Chi have in common? They are “big” summer movies fronted by “not a white guy” leads. This summer movie season was almost entirely fronted by films featuring the same demographics that Hollywood liked to argue were proverbial box office poison. Conversely, the likes of Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Top Gun: Maverick, No Time to Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home were moved outside of the summer season when it was presumed conditions would improve. That’s a pattern that has been in play since the start, or at least since Tenet.
Last year, Chris Nolan’s Tenet (starring John David Washington as a James Bond-ish action hero lead in a $200 million movie that didn’t “require” a Black protagonist) was tasked with making theaters safe for blockbusters. On that same Labor Day weekend, Niki Caro’s Mulan (starring an entirely Asian cast) being the first biggie to go the Disney+ Premier Access route. Moreover, on Christmas Day, Soul (Pixar’s first flick with a Black lead) was tasked with seeing how a Pixar toon would play as a Disney+ exclusive. That same day, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman 1984 (the most expensive, by default, movie ever made by a solo female director) was burdened with testing how an otherwise surefire blockbuster sequel would play as a theater/HBO Max combo release.
The reason most/many of the movies that ended up on streaming platforms or ended up in theaters during this weird summer were “not-a-white-guy” flicks is because that’s what Hollywood was offering before the pandemic. 2020 was supposed to be the year with four big DC/MCU movies all helmed by female directors and starring female protagonists. Still, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (which, sadly, bombed just before Covid) mostly didn’t get the red carpet treatment they deserved. However, it’s telling that Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds (who previously co-starred alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek in this June’s The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard), is the first big summer movie of 2021 fronted by a white male actor.
Mulan, which was tracking for an $80 million domestic debut before Covid, became the first big Disney+/Premier Access title specifically because it was an A+ release. Even if you argue that the film had the benefit of featuring actors who likely didn’t have backend deals and/or wouldn’t complain about losing box office-related bonuses (see also: Raya and the Last Dragon), it was also likely to be one of Disney’s biggest hits in a “normal” 2020. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 was the sacrificial lamb of AT&T’s “put all of our upcoming movies for 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max” plan precisely because it was such a hugely anticipated film. Shang-Chi is a “test” for a 45-day window precisely because it’s an MCU movie.
So, no, Disney’s Bob Chapek wasn’t arguing that Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was an experiment by virtue of being an all-Asian MCU superhero flick. We know this because he said exactly what he meant, that it was about a Marvel movie getting a 45-day window in our current scenario, in the following sentence. Yet, on the whole, it has been… interesting to see this complicated summer season play out with big movies mostly fronted by “not a white guy” actors. Without arguing conspiracy or malicious intent, because there were some real hits (Quiet Place 2, Old, F9, Wrath of Man, etc.) this summer, there has undoubtedly been a pattern in what played theatrically this summer versus what was held until later.
Henry Golding’s Snake Eyes was thrown into summer courtesy of Paramount so that Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick could thrive in November. Part of the reason Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow opened this summer was so Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye Disney+ show could air on schedule. I might argue Black Widow, Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are being released now to allow for the eventual releases of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder and Ant-Man: Quantumania (along with, to be fair, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Marvels). By coincidence or design, Dom Toretto and Black Widow took the hit this summer hoping that cinemas would be safe for James Bond and Spider-Man.