Marvel Studio's Phase 4 may not be up to a good start as Shang Chi, and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals might not be getting released in China. In a report on the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Phase 4 movies, the CCTV6 China Movie Channel aired a list of the U.S. release dates for eight of the ten scheduled titles but conspicuously left out "Eternals" and "Shang-Chi." The channel is under the jurisdiction of China's powerful propaganda department, which has the final word on what films and TV shows are approved for release in the country. Shang Chi and The Eternals' omission from the report could be an indication that something about them is troubling Chinese officials and holding up approval.
According to Variety, the two movies' chances of a release in China might be in jeopardy. That could mean missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in box office earnings. Marvel movies have their biggest audience in China – it was the Chinese market that pushed Avengers: Endgame's box office earnings past the $1 billion mark.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Marvel's first Asian superhero, played by China-born Simu Liu; his co-stars include Awkwafina, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and Michelle Yeoh, both household names in Hong Kong and China. The Eternals is Marvel's first blockbuster directed by a woman of color, China-born Chloé Zhao, who just won an Oscar for directing Nomadland. Both movies could be part of Disney's bid for box office supremacy in China. They should be no-brainer wins, two projects that, on the surface, held some appeal to the Chinese audience.
Then things turned very quickly.
How Eternals May Have Become a Hot Potato
The Eternals should have been a PR win: a Hollywood superhero blockbuster directed by a daughter of China. That was how Chinese state media celebrated Chloe Zhao's win for Nomadland at the Golden Globes, which indicated her path to her Oscar wins. Then Chinese social media found remarks she made in interviews in 2013 that were allegedly unflattering about China, and everything changed overnight. A backlash against her exploded on Chinese social media. The April theatrical release of Nomadland was pulled indefinitely; her name has been scrubbed from all mention on the Chinese internet. The Chinese release of The Eternals is now in question.
Shang Chi and the Fu Manchu Problem
Bleeding Cool actually pointed out back in 2018 that the Shang Chi movie was always going to be problematic. This was before cast, screenwriters, or director were even announced. Fu Manchu was Shang Chi's father in the original comics when Marvel had the license to the character. Fu Manchu was always a racist trope, a Yellow Peril archetype created by British pulp writer Sax Rohmer who actually knew nothing about Chinese culture and made up all the tropes out of thin air. Marvel no longer has the rights to use Fu Manchu, so they changed Shang Chi's father in the movie into Wenwu, or "the Mandarin," played by Hong Kong acting legend Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who has starred in movies directed by John Woo and Wong Kar Wai, whose arthouse movies put Leung on the world map. It looks like the movie has Leung playing the Mandarin as a Shaw Brothers villain, but the Yellow Peril taint on the character remains.
"Although 'the Mandarin' is not the same person as Fu Manchu, it still is under the shadow of 'Fu Manchu,'" the official Communist Youth League paper China Youth Daily warned back in 2019. "Even just the announcement of the characters has caused huge controversy in China. Marvel wants Shang-Chi to earn money from global audiences… [, but] faces a big challenge. The film itself will decide whether it will end in tears or laughter."
This week, Weibo users in China have finally picked up on the history of Shang Chi and Fu Manchu. "So you change the name, and it's not Fu Manchu anymore? The Mandarin is inherently a character that blackens the image of the Chinese people," one wrote. "I hope China Film and the [censorship authorities] won't be bought out by this; this kind of film is not worthy of coming to China to make money off us while calling us fools."
Shang Chi: Accusations of Orientalism and Inauthenticity
While Asian-American fans hail the Shang Chi movie as a landmark for Asian representation, Chinese social media have a dimmer view. They slammed Simu Liu and Awkwafina for not meeting the typical thin-chinned, high-nosed, pale-skinned, double eye-lidded standards of ideal Chinese beauty. In one of the most toxic arguments, many say Marvel cast them in lead roles because the studio "discriminates against Chinese people's appearance." In other words, Chinese fans are complaining that the stars of Shang Chi don't look like the pretty manga-faced actors and actresses who all look like they were sent to the same plastic surgeon in Shanghai. Unrealistic expectations of beauty are now also rife in China because of Film and TV in similar ways to the West.
"Foreigners just love to deliberately cast Asian actors with squinty eyes! There are many actors in China and Asia with big eyes and prominent features," one commenter wrote.
Social media commentators in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong also feel that the Shang Chi movie delivers a "rather stereotyped" view of Chinese people and culture: full of kung fu, lanterns, pagodas, and the color red. Accusations of Orientalism and exoticism abound.
"These are characters created solely for the purpose of getting a slice of the big cake that is China's enormous box office – there is no soul in them at all! The hodgepodge of Asian elements in the movie are unintelligible," one mainlander wrote.
Another commenter wrote, "It feels like this will be on the same level as the live-action version of Mulan." The live-action remake of Mulan bombed in China because audiences could tell the movie was Orientalist and entirely inauthentic. They felt Disney tried to pull one over their eyes with a fake-authentic movie that did not have a single Asian, let alone Chinese, screenwriter, designer, or director, helming the production.
Shang Chi star Simu Liu, who was born in the Northern Chinese city of Harbin, addressed both his fans and haters with a video message posted to Weibo late last month in Mandarin. He thanked fans for their support and added: "To all those other people who are earnestly hoping we will fail, I have nothing to say to you. Just wait and see."
At least Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has Asian-American screenwriters and an Asian-American director, but that points to one subtext that many have missed: that the movie might be an Asian-American story, not necessarily a Chinese story per se. This might lend the story some authenticity, but as the fate of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell in China showed, Chinese audiences are utterly uninterested in Asian-American stories or themes. How Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fares in China remains to be seen, if it opens in China at all.