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‘Thor’ Cements Marvel’s Theatrical Recovery, With One Caveat — China

‘Thor’ Cements Marvel’s Theatrical Recovery, With
Illustration: VIP+: Adobe Stock; "Thor" Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Between “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi,” “Eternals,” “Doctor Strange 2” and now the fourth “Thor” film, Disney has had an enviable comeback at the box office thanks to its Marvel projects.

Yet one well remains untapped.

After opening to $143 million domestically and another $159 million in international markets last weekend, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is still without a confirmed release in China, allegedly due to perceived LGBTQ+ themes that didn’t fly with the global superpower’s film regulation committee.

The new “Thor” has itself been accused of “queerbaiting” — i.e., alluding to LGBTQ+ themes in lieu of more literal on-screen representation — but this suspected censorship in China would be consistent with why Disney’s “Lightyear” failed to get a release there, as the Pixar film contains a same-sex kiss.

Furthermore, “Love and Thunder’s” potential failure to pass Chinese censors would follow the same treatment for all other Marvel films released since the onset of the pandemic. Even 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the first global top-10 grosser since 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” was not approved for China and likely lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars more for Sony.

Universal’s “Jurassic World Dominion,” the third entry in its rebooted dinosaur-action franchise, is the only Hollywood film to have reaped at least $100 million from Chinese cinemagoers so far in 2022, per Comscore. By contrast, Disney has only brought in $23 million via animated film “Encanto” and Poirot mystery “Death on the Nile,” the only films that have been approved for China this year.

To put it bluntly: Woody Allen film “A Rainy Day in New York” is currently beating Marvel when it comes to earnings from what for the last two years has been the biggest film-exhibition market in the world.

China’s success stemming from homegrown films “The Eight Hundred” and “My People, My Homeland” in 2020 to massive successes in 2021 such as the republic’s all-time grosser “The Battle at Lake Changjin” alongside “Hi, Mom” helped it overtake Hollywood as the leader of cinema in the first two years of the pandemic, with last year seeing China nab a $2.8 billion lead over North America.

The trend of internal Chinese box office smashes has continued in 2022. “The Battle at Lake Changjin 2” currently leads the market, with “Jurassic World Dominion” having yet to gross even a quarter of the propaganda franchise’s second outing despite being the most successful Hollywood film there this year.

Still, estimates from business-research company Artisan Gateway pin the U.S. as being on track to take back the top spot at the global box office in 2022 with a $1 billion lead as of the first half of the year. As successful as China’s widespread push of propaganda films has been for its box office, strong lockdowns in response to new COVID outbreaks have hindered Chinese gross repeatedly.

Politics have played a role in the country’s absence of Marvel films as well. Sony’s failure to get the new “Spider-Man” past Chinese censors was reportedly due to their insistence that the Statue of Liberty be removed from the film’s entire climax, a request that was impossible to meet. Likewise, the blocking of “Eternals” followed prior discontent over Chinese-born director Chloé Zhao’s negative comments toward the republic, while “Shang-Chi” never released there after local social media users unearthed comments and footage from Chinese-Canadian star Simu Liu that were interpreted as anti-China.

That said, the supposed LGBTQ+-driven backlash to “Thor” can be called into question given that “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” still released in China. Rather than block the film, China simply had censors remove dialogue regarding the titular character’s homosexuality, which had long been acknowledged by “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling but not depicted in any media.

This suggests the issue with “Thor” might just be its identity as a successful Marvel film that could potentially match China’s local fare in prominence, rather than the identity of any of its characters.