Marvel’s superheroes began their return to China’s massive movie market after an apparent ban of nearly four years on Tuesday, with fans streaming into cinemas to watch “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”.
The Disney-owned studio’s hugely popular franchises have been absent from Chinese screens since 2019, with no explanation.
Marvel blockbusters have raked in billions globally, and their return to one of the world’s biggest movie markets means hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings for Disney — the first Black Panther film alone took in $105 million at Chinese cinemas.
“I’m super excited,” said a woman named Chen, beaming as she lined up to enter a packed theater in Shanghai for the midnight premiere of “Wakanda Forever”.
“I’ve had to use streaming sites to watch the last couple of movies… But I hope this means I’ll watch Marvel movies more often in theaters now.”
The end of the apparent block on Marvel films has coincided with China’s loosening of the strict zero-COVID policies that disrupted its entertainment industry for years.
China’s communist rulers have also recently eased a tech crackdown, including on the lucrative gaming sector.
“Because of COVID, it’s been a long time since we’ve been to the cinema,” said hospital worker Kun, 25, who came to the Shanghai theater to watch “Wakanda Forever” with his friends. “We still have to work tomorrow but it’s a rare opportunity so we came here.”
For one mother-and-son duo at the Shanghai cinema, the return of Marvel revived a family tradition.
“He’s always been a Marvel fan — during the Avengers series, we would always watch the midnight screening,” said Lin Fan, with her visibly excited 13-year-old son Jiang Xiaoyi.
Next up for Chinese Marvel fans is “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”, set for release on February 17.
“Spider-Man: Far from Home” was the last Marvel film released in China, in July 2019.
The China Film Administration, affiliated with the Communist Party’s propaganda department, has not given a reason for the absence of Marvel films from cinemas.
During that period, Disney declined requests by censors to remove references to same-sex relationships in Marvel films, including 2021’s “Eternals” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” a year later.
However, the global media giant has also faced accusations of bending to Beijing’s will.
Its remake of “Mulan” faced boycott calls after it emerged that some of the scenes were filmed in China’s Xinjiang, where widespread rights abuses against the region’s Muslim population have been widely documented.
An episode of “The Simpsons” that refers to “forced labor camps” in China is nowhere to be found on the Disney+ streaming service in Hong Kong amid growing censorship concerns in the city.
Hong Kong once boasted significant artistic and cultural freedoms compared to mainland China, but authorities have clamped down on dissent following democracy protests in 2019, including stepping up film censorship.
Episode 2 of the U.S. animated hit’s 34th season included the line: “Behold the wonders of China. Bitcoin mines, forced labor camps where children make smartphones, and romance.”
“One Angry Lisa”, which first aired last October, could not be accessed on Disney+ using a Hong Kong connection but is available elsewhere, AFP confirmed.
It is the second time in three years that the streaming service’s Hong Kong version has dropped a Simpsons episode that satirized China.
The previously affected episode showed the Simpsons visiting Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — the site of a deadly 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters — finding a sign there that read: “On this site, in 1989, nothing happened.”
The Hong Kong government and Disney did not immediately provide comment.
In 2021, Hong Kong passed censorship laws forbidding broadcasts that might breach a broad national security law that China imposed on the city. Censors have since ordered directors to make cuts to their films and refused permission for others to be shown.
While those rules do not cover streaming services, authorities have warned that online platforms are still subject to the national security law, which criminalizes the broadly defined crimes of subversion, succession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
In recent years, Hollywood has been accused of bending to China’s censorship regime to tap into its vast consumer base and billion-dollar box office.
Disney is not the only company accused of bowing to censorship requirements in China, a multi-billion-dollar media market.
A 2020 report by the anti-censorship group Pen America said Hollywood studios changed scripts, deleted scenes and altered other content to avoid offending Chinese authorities.
The report said they had to completely avoid sensitive issues including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the portrayal of LGBTQ characters and Taiwan — a self-ruled island China considers its territory.
© 2023 AFP