If Hollywood needed a sign that diverse content sells, it got one in 2018.
It started with the blockbuster “Black Panther,” which smashed box office records and went on to win three of the six Academy Awards for which it was nominated. The superhero flick, which had a predominantly Black cast, rang up more than $1.34 billion in ticket sales at the global box office.
Six months later, Jon Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” shattered expectations. The film tallied more than $238 million in ticket sales on a budget of $30 million, making it one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies ever.
It was a wake-up call to an industry that had largely been reluctant to stray from tried-and-true Hollywood formulas. Studios quickly discovered that more diversity means more money.
Three years later, Marvel is introducing its first Asian superhero, the legendary Shang-Chi, and the film has the chance to become the next “Black Panther” at the box office.
“It’s not only the right thing to do,” said Rolando Rodriguez, chairman, president and CEO of Marcus Theaters of the pushes for more inclusivity in Hollywood. “Frankly, it’s important to do from a business perspective.”
Rodriguez, who is also the chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said that together minorities make up a large chunk of the moviegoing public.
For example, while Hispanics represent around 18% of the population, they make up about 24% of the attendance at movie theaters, he said. Add African American and Asian audiences, which represent 17% and 7% of audiences, and that’s nearly 50% of business.
And films like “Black Panther,” which features a predominately Black cast, don’t just resonate with Black audiences. Other minorities turned out in droves to see the film, Rodriguez said. The same is expected to happen with “Shang-Chi” in September, as well as other films like “In the Heights” and “Eternals,” which feature diverse casts.
‘Create inspiration and drive aspiration’
When Disney released “Black Panther” in 2018, it had the highest opening weekend of any Marvel film up until that point. Domestically, the film hauled in $292 million over its first seven days in theaters, $22 million more than the team-up film “Avengers” garnered during its first week in 2012.
It was the first time Marvel featured a Black superhero as the lead. According to Comscore, 37% of the opening weekend audience was African American, more than double what that demographic usually represents for other Marvel films.
A similar result was seen from audiences that went to see “Crazy Rich Asians” in theaters.
“Black Panther” also benefited by being a critically well-received film. It garnered a 96% “Fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes and won three Academy Awards.
Led by the late Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther” told a deeply emotional story of a man coming to terms with the death of his father. Not only must he take on the mantle of king, but he must face the mistakes that were made by the man he idolized and protect his family and his people. This narrative was woven into the context of a superhero film, making the feature more than just an action flick, but an emotionally resonant piece of popular culture.
“Black Panther” paved the way for Marvel to produce other inclusive stories, including the recent launch of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” in which Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) must grapple with what it means for a Black man to be Captain America.
Rodriguez noted that “Shang-Chi” will do for the Asian community what “Black Panther” did for the Black community.
“These films create inspiration and drive aspiration,” he said.
A long path to ‘Shang-Chi’
Due out on Sept. 3, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” follows the titular Shang-Chi, a skilled martial artist who was trained at a young age to be an assassin by his father, but walked away to live a normal life. However, Shang-Chi can only run from his past for so long.
The film stars Simu Liu, a Canadian television star, as part of a predominantly Asian cast that includes Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Ronny Chieng and Florian Munteanu.
Tony Leung has been confirmed as The Mandarin, the villainous leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will remember Ben Kingsley portrayed a fake version of this character in “Iron Man 3.”
Behind the camera is director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) and Chinese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham. Cretton and Andrew Lanham are also credited as writers on the film.
The character of Shang-Chi was conceived in 1972 after Marvel failed to acquire the rights to adapt the “Kung Fu” television program. So, the company created its own.
In the ’80s, Stan Lee reportedly met with Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, who had been used as a model for Shang-Chi, about the possibility of a Shang-Chi television series. However, Lee’s death on the set of “The Crow” put a halt to these plans.
Twenty years later in 2002, “Blade” director Stephen Norrington was reportedly attached to a Shang-Chi feature film. However, he retired after making “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” an infamous box office flop.
A handful of other directors were connected with the project over the next decade but nothing solidified until 2018 when Marvel announced it had tapped Callaham to write the script.
“Films like ‘Shang-Chi’ can have enormous influence,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore said. “It can open the minds of moviegoers. [The] preconceived notions of what constitutes a superhero can be redefined, challenged and reevaluated.”
“Cultures and peoples that have traditionally been left out of the superhero equation can find much to celebrate in the fact that they too are being represented as iconic heroes on the big screen,” he said.
Disney is already touting its confidence in the film, as well as the movie theater industry as a whole, by committing to a 45-day exclusive theatrical window for the new superhero film. The studio has been using a variety of release strategies over the last year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, Disney has placed films that would have gone to theaters in a pre-Covid time directly on its streaming service for free. In others, it has offered films for a $30 rental charge as part of Disney+ Premier Access. More recently, the company has decided to release blockbusters in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on the same day.
That won’t be the case for “Shang-Chi.” The superhero film will only be available at cinemas. The decision stems from a recently loosening of pandemic restrictions around the country, a rise in vaccination rates and a decline in the number of Covid-19 cases.
Notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear face masks in most settings. That recommendation should help give the public more confidence about returning to normal activities and allow states to lift capacity restrictions at movie theaters.
Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has long discussed a desire to increase representation in the MCU, not just in front of the camera, but behind it. The Phase 4 slate of Marvel films and shows has more diverse voices and stories than ever before.
In fact, according to the Incredible Hulk himself, Mark Ruffalo, Feige was willing to lay down his job to boost diversity in the MCU.
“When we did the first ‘Avengers,’ Kevin Feige told me, ‘Listen, I might not be here tomorrow,'” Ruffalo said in an interview with the Independent last year. “And he’s like, ‘Ike [Perlmutter] does not believe that anyone will go to a female-starring super movie.’ So if I am still here tomorrow you will know that I won that battle.'”
Perlmutter is the chairman and CEO Emeritus of Marvel Entertainment and has long had a reputation for frugality.
Ruffalo added that Feige wanted Black superheroes, female superheroes and LGBT superheroes in the MCU. And he’s gotten his hard-won wish.
After the events of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” series on Disney+, the MCU now has a Black Captain America. A second “Black Panther film” arrives next year and a series based on a young Black superhero named Riri Williams, who takes the mantle of Ironheart, is slated for Disney+.
“Black Widow,” which arrives in theaters in July, will be Marvel’s second female-led feature. Its third will arrive Nov. 11, 2022, with “The Marvels,” a sequel to “Captain Marvel” that will feature Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel, a newly powered-up Monica Rambeau, and Kamala Khan, who is Muslim, as Ms. Marvel.
Behind the camera, Marvel has hired Anna Boden to co-direct “Captain Marvel” alongside partner Ryan Fleck; Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao helmed “The Eternals,” which is due out in November; Cate Shortland directed “Black Widow;” and Ryan Coogler is returning to direct the sequel to “Black Panther.”
“‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is truly an important film,” Dergarabedian said. “And like the trailblazing ‘Black Panther’ before it, should further the idea that diverse characters indeed have broad appeal to global audiences.”