In a report on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four films, 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.” After “Black Widow,” which hits the U.S. July 9, they are the next two MCU films in the line-up, releasing in North America on Sept. 3 and Nov. 5, respectively.
The omission might seem small, but its significance lies in its provenance: the channel is under the jurisdiction of China’s powerful propaganda department, which has the final word on film approvals.
China does not operate a free market in cinema. All foreign-made films seeking release in Chinese theaters must receive government approval and pass censorship. There are also separate quotas for films imported on flat-fee terms and those, such as Hollywood studio titles, seeking a more lucrative revenue sharing release through a state-owned distributor.
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While the China Movie Channel report is not hard evidence that the two titles will be banned from the China market, their omission could be an indication that something about them is troubling Chinese officials.
Both movies have a direct connection to China. “Shang-Chi” will mark the debut of Marvel’s first Asian superhero, played by China-born Simu Liu, alongside Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Michelle Yeoh, both household names in China. “Eternals” is Marvel’s first tentpole directed by a woman of color — China-born, Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”).
That the very two movies one might expect to resonate most with Chinese viewers are now the ones facing censorship concerns highlights the difficulty of navigating the world’s largest film market.
The odds are already more clearly stacked against “Eternals,” due to Zhao’s position as an unexpected persona non grata in China. A ban on “Eternals” would be shocking but not implausible, given the recent nationalist backlash that led to Zhao’s name and achievements being wiped from much of the Chinese web.
Chinese state media celebrated her best director win at the February Golden Globes, but by the time her historic three Oscar wins for “Nomadland” rolled around two months later, authorities imposed a media blackout on the news. The film’s scheduled April 23 debut in limited release was pulled, with no explanation or new date set.
Zhao’s troubles show that the trolling in China can have significant real-world consequences — at least when online pressure is aligned with the sentiments authorities wish to encourage, such as nationalism.
This could prove troublesome for “Shang-Chi,” which has been dogged by nationalist complaints for some time.
The Shadow of Fu Manchu
A number of issues have sparked discontent, although it is unclear which, if any, have actually influenced authorities.
First off is the character Fu Manchu, the villain from the original comics who turns out to be Shang-Chi’s father. The character, seen through the years as an embodiment of the “Yellow Peril” stereotype, has been written out of the new film to distance it from these racist connotations. He has been revamped as Wenwu, or “the Mandarin,” played by Hong Kong acting legend Leung.
But many online in China are unaware that the 2021 film has re-imagined the old Fu Manchu character, or simply didn’t care.
“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, many Weibo users echoed the sentiment. “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.”
Another of the most common complaints will certainly surprise American fans excited about the film as a landmark for Asian representation. Many online commenters have slammed 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 of all, many say Marvel cast them in lead roles because the studio “discriminates against Chinese people’s appearance.”
“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 wrote.
There’s also the vague possibility that Leung has somehow been blacklisted, potentially by taking on a role as politically charged as the Mandarin. Two corruption crime thrillers he stars in have completed production but languished, unable to release (“The Hunting,” “Where the Wind Blows”).
More broadly speaking, initial reaction to the film’s poster and trailer across Chinese speaking regions has been critical, with many commenters in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong agreeing that it seems prepared to deliver a “rather stereotyped” view of Chinese people and culture: full of kung fu, lanterns, pagodas and the color red.
“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.
On both the Hong Kong and Taiwan official Marvel YouTube channels, fans expressed similar frustration. “It feels like this will be on the same level as the live-action version of ‘Mulan,’” one wrote of their expectations for authenticity.
Liu, who was born in the Northern Chinese city of Harbin, acknowledged but headed off his haters with a video message posted to Weibo late last month in Mandarin.
He thanked fans for their support, before stating: “To all those other people who are earnestly hoping we will fail, I have nothing to say to you. Just wait and see.”