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Shang-Chi's Record Debut Shows a Pandemic Won't Stop People Showing Up for Marvel

Disney's first theatrical-only release since 2019 had a lot of factors against it—and didn't just overcome them, it practically somersaulted over them.

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Simu Liu's Shang-Chi punches a thug flying as his friend Katy (Awkwafina) watches.
Shang-Chi takes on some thugs, or maybe a dramatic rendition of his movie punting past box office records into next week.
Photo: Marvel Studios

The movie industry is still in an extended period of recovery as the ongoing effects of the covid-19 pandemic make bringing audiences back to theater seats—and even just getting movies made and out to those theaters in the first place—a challenge. But in spite of that, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has proved that Marvel Studios’ continuous grasp on the collective cultural psyche can overcome even a lot of the weirdest challenges the last 18 months has thrown at the box office.

Final figures for Destin Daniel Cretton’s martial arts adventure over the Labor Day weekend have come in (via Deadline), and Shang-Chi has drawn in just over $90 million for its four-day debut. It was previously estimated to pull around $50-60 million, due to the extenuating factors. That includes relative audience hesitancy to return to theaters as rising cases of the Delta variant of covid-19 have seen mask mandates and vaccination card checks hit key theater markets over the past few months. The figures are record-breaking, not just for the pandemic-era box office, but full stop: Shang-Chi is now the biggest Labor Day weekend opening at theaters since 2007's launch of the Rob Zombie Halloween remake, nearly tripling its take of $30.6 million.

Internationally, the film has been harder to judge. Current totals stand at around $146 million for Shang-Chi, which is still very impressive, but not as seemingly grand as other pandemic releases recently, including Marvel’s own Black Widow. While Shang-Chi did better domestically (Widow opened to $80 million in the U.S.), Black Widow performed slightly better internationally, earning $158 million across 46 international territories. But there are extenuating factors here as well: Shang-Chi opened in slightly fewer international markets (42), and neither movie was released in the Chinese market, which has become increasingly valuable for Disney. But in Black Widow’s case, the film also debuted simultaneously on Disney+—and is now currently at the center of a major legal battle between its star Scarlett Johannson and Disney because of it—as part of the streamer’s $30-a-movie “Premiere Access” option, which the studio leveraged in box office reporting to give Widow a combined $215 million opening weekend total.

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Whether or not Shang-Chi will see the same rapid drop-off as Widow did at the box office in the weeks to come remains to be seen. But no matter which way you slice it, it’s very good news for a movie whose release Disney previously touted as an “experiment” for the studio to test the waters of audience confidence (to the ire of star Simu Liu), as the covid-19 pandemic continues across the world. Its success has already had an impact beyond Disney itself—yesterday Sony announced that instead of delaying the release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage again as previously rumored, it would instead shift the release of its Marvel movie forward two weeks, to an October 1 debut. Even as the uncertainty around the rest of the fall movie release window seems to remain as in flux as it has for the past 18 months, Shang-Chi’s overwhelming defiance of expectations has provided a shot in the arm to an industry still trying to navigate its way to a future beyond the current “new normal” of the pandemic.

Or simply continued to prove, perhaps, that maybe people will always want to turn out for Marvel, as they have done for the past 13 years.

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