As we’ve sadly seen for years, diversity is a very big deal only when its in relation to a movie or brand audiences already want to see.
Marvel and Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings earned $2.448 million on Monday, an understandable 87% drop from its previous Monday which was a jaw-dropping $19.4 million Labor Day gross. And it has earned $3.2 million yesterday, a decent 31% jump from Monday. That’s a decent jump even by pre-Covid “cheap ticket Tuesday” standards. It’s also double the 15% “day 12” Monday-to-Tuesday jump for Black Widow in mid-July. Moreover, not only is the film past the domestic total of Sonic the Hedgehog ($148.9 million in early 2020), it has passed the $150 million mark at the domestic box office. That makes it just the fourth film to do so in 2021 and the fifth in all of 2020 and 2021.
Its current domestic total puts it behind only After We Fell 2021 ($160 million), F9 ($173 million), Black Widow ($184 million) and Bad Boys for Life ($204 million as of January 2020). If it can avoid this weekend’s meltdown, Simu Liu/Awkwafina/Tony Leung’s fantasy must surpass $200 million domestic rights when Venom: Let There Be Carnage hits the city on October 1. Unfortunately, it may take more than just this weekend to get past Black Widow ($184 million). My summer bet pool (mostly bragging rights, natch) was cut off after September 19, and I placed Shang-Chi in second place between F9 and Black Widow, Maybe as hard as the film Dune (2021) comes out that position will change.
The good news is that the film is showing the value of theatrical windows and the mere notion that folks will show up pretty much as they always would have if the movie is something they really wanted to see before the pandemic. Give or take variables related to shorter windows, day-and-date releases and/or Covid variants, the likes of A Quiet Place part II (which earned 90% of its predecessor’s $341 million global gross), F9 and Black Widow grossed about as much in North America as they otherwise would have. After We Fell (2021) arguably overperformed worldwide ($460 million) while Free Guy is, I would argue, playing best-case-scenario box office in (at least) North America ($102 million so far) and China ($77 million-and-counting).
The bad news is that A) the movie is not a “rising tides lift all boats” blockbuster and B) the film is showing the frustrating limits of onscreen/off-screen representation. First, Shang-Chi Movie earned $34.7 million last weekend, making up 57% of the $61 million cumulative weekend total. While it’s not remotely the film’s responsibility to drive consumers to its theatrical competition, it’s a reminder that the theatrical business is driven, now more than ever in a streaming-centric era, by what’s playing and if audiences want to see that specific movie in a theater right now. The “go to the movies just to go to the movies” crowd defected to streaming six years ago. This is why, hence, Peter Rabbit 2, Spiral and Snake Eyes didn’t lead to a full-on theatrical recovery.
Snake Eyes ($28 million domestic and $37 million worldwide on an $88 million budget), opened six weeks before Shang-Chi and a month after In the Heights ($29 million/$44 million/$55 million). Henry Golding, Andrew Kuji and a mostly Asian cast starred in a ninja action flick that doubled as a G.I. Joe reboot. But because audiences didn’t care about another G.I. Joe movie, the #representationmatters angle didn’t matter. Jon M. Chu’s acclaimed In the Heights earned about as much domestically as Free Guy did on opening weekend. Audiences flocked to Black Panther but not Pacific Rim: Uprising, Annihilation, Gringo or even Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. At best, audiences only care about diversity when it’s concerning a movie, television show or (in rare cases) an actor they already want to see.
That’s why, among other variables, Star Wars: The Force Awakens earned $2.068 billion worldwide while Terminator: Dark Fate earned $252 million. It’s why we spend more time demanding that the MCU be more LBGTQIA-inclusive rather than devouring the already LGBTQIA-friendly “ArrowVerse.” Granted, Black Panther was better than Pacific Rim: Uprising, while Shang-Chi 2021 was better than Snake Eyes. But it would be nice if A) comparatively inclusive films didn’t have to be four-star classics to be hits and B) more “inclusive not because we have to be but because we want to be” flicks could themselves become hits alongside comparative “Diversity: The Movie” sells. A guy who looked like Simu Liu had to play Shang-Chi, but a guy who looked like Henry Golding didn’t have to play Snake Eyes.
The cruel irony is that Hollywood finally got off its ass in this regard right as the general moviegoing audience was migrating to streaming. The late-90s likes of The Birdcage, Anaconda, Rush Hour and Waiting to Exhale suggested a more inclusive Hollywood studio slate. Hell, Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop grossed $234 million domestic in 1984 to become the biggest non-Spielberg/Lucas earner ever until Batman in summer 1989. But that was before the post-9/11 deluge of four-quadrant fantasy franchise blockbusters (usually starring a hetero white guy as “the special”) became Hollywood’s preferred all-purposes blockbuster. By the time Hollywood stopped trying to turn every handsome white guy into the next Tom Cruise, audiences no longer cared about movie stars and now longer gravitated toward new-to-you big-screen entertainments.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi 2021 Movie is a win for diversity (and the best movie I’ve seen in a theater this year), but so too should have James Wan’s Malignant, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s The Darkest Minds (a YA fantasy starring Amandla Stenberg as “the special”) and/or Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights. Of course, the correct counterpoint is that Hollywood shouldn’t have spent 20 years chasing the successes of Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek at the expense of everything else. However, if diversity generally only matters (outside of cheaper horror) if the IP (Star Wars), brand (Fast Saga) or marquee character (Wonder Woman) is big enough to drive audiences to multiplexes, well, that’s not a long-term strategy for debunking 40 years of conventional wisdom. It’s, I hope, just the first step.