Marvel Studios didn’t give anyone other than attractive white men the top billing on a movie until almost 10 years into the life of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the 2018 release of Black Panther.
It was a historic box office winner. Now, in 2021, we’ve had Scarlet Johansson headline a Black Widow that earned almost $80 million dollars, despite being released during a pandemic with a simultaneous streaming premier on Disney+. And here we are again, a couple months later, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a Marvel interpretation of wuxia cinema led by Simu Liu, shattering the all-time U.S. Labor Day box office record.
Over the three-day period from Friday to Sunday, Shang-Chi earned an estimated $71.4 million in North American ticket sales. It added another $56.2 million from overseas markets. Neither of these numbers — which Comscore’s report notes “obliterated” previous estimates — account for Labor Day, which is currently projected to add another $10-15 million to the global total.
Shang-Chi‘s North American total is a box office record for Labor Day, with its $71.4 million more than doubling the previous record set by 2007’s Halloween remake, which earned $30.6 million over the four-day weekend. So yeah, Ten Rings is doing pretty all right numbers.
We love to see it. Marvel may be late to inclusive top billings, but that doesn’t devalue the success of releases like this one. Black Panther was a box office monster, and it still ranks as the second-highest earner among MCU releases in North America. Shang-Chi‘s opening is considerably smaller, but it’s also Marvel’s first-ever release for the typically sleepy Labor Day weekend.
We can only wonder what the weekend would’ve looked like if there was no global pandemic. But Marvel’s theatrical fortunes have been a rare bright spot in 2021’s COVID-addled box office. With not even one full weekend in the books, Shang-Chi immediately slides into the year’s top 10 earners, between Free Guy and the Space Jam sequel. (Black Widow is currently #1.)
There’s something to be said for the star power inherent in a Marvel production. Shang-Chi isn’t the most well-known comic book superhero, and until this movie Liu was better known for his TV work. But with the Marvel stamp (and the MCU stamp specifically) on Ten Rings, both the character and the star who plays him get an immediate boost. That’s a win for everyone.
There have been plenty of missteps along the way, make no mistake. The franchise’s first canonically gay character, for example, didn’t show up until more than a year after Black Panther, and it was a bit player appearing in just one scene. Even as recently as 2021, there are still signs that Marvel isn’t ready to center anything other than heteronormative representations of love and relationships.
There’s also Black Panther itself. The MCU kicked off with Iron Man in May 2008. Black Panther released in Feb. 2018, almost a decade later. There were 17 movies before it, worth billions in ticket and home video sales. And while there was some Black representation in the MCU prior to 2018, it’s hard to make the case that Marvel was banking on anything other than the power of its brand and its predominantly white, male stars to propel the franchise.
Since then, we’ve gotten Captain Marvel, led by Brie Larson. We got the Disney+ series WandaVision, led by Elizabeth Olsen. There was also the Captain America and the Winter Soldier streaming series, which delved directly into racial issues (albeit imperfectly) and introduced Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, who is Black, as the next Captain America.
There’s more coming, too: A Ms. Marvel series starring the young up-and-comer Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan; a She-Hulk series starring Tatiana Maslany as the eponymous green-skinned lawyer for superhumans; a Moon Knight series starring Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector, who is Jewish (somewhat problematically, Isaac has Jewish heritage though he wasn’t raised that way); and more beyond that, including a Black Panther sequel and a Disney+ take on Ironheart, led by Dominique Thorne. There’s also November’s Eternals, which features a diverse ensemble.
I’m not trying to sit here and say Marvel Studios is perfect with this stuff, or that it’s going to get things right every single time. But if Shang-Chi, which centers Asian and Asian-American perspectives for the first time in the MCU, can dominate at the box office during the historically chill Labor Day weekend, and while we’re still mired in a devastating pandemic, maybe it’s a sign Marvel is learning how to actively leverage its immense power over the entertainment industry in positive ways.