The Perfect Enemy | Marvel movies are set to return to China, but Covid could weigh on ticket sales - CNBC
February 2, 2023
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Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
Disney

Marvel films are returning to China in February, marking the first time in nearly four years that Disney’s comic book cinematic universe landed a release in the country.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” will hit Chinese theaters on Feb. 7, and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will arrive Feb. 17. The reopening of the Chinese market is likely a boon for Disney in the long term, but box office analysts worry these upcoming February releases may not provide substantial ticket sales due to online piracy and a recent Covid surge.

China has been a crucial distribution hub for Hollywood blockbusters, especially those connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2012′s “The Avengers,” China has been the second-highest-grossing box office market for all Marvel movies, just behind the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s a welcome dose of positive news for Disney and the industry as a whole considering how much money has been left on the table without China releases for recent Marvel films,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Global releases can’t truly be global when such a major market is absent.”

The last Marvel film to open in China was 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” The de facto ban started in 2021, when “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” became the first film in the MCU not to be granted approval for distribution in the country, and only the second not to be released in the region. The underlying controversy stemmed from the film’s casting and the perception of the comic book series that “Shang-Chi” is based on.

The 2021 release of “Black Widow,” coincided with a blackout period in China in which the country leaves theaters open for local productions and boxes out foreign films. Therefore, while it was approved for distribution, it did not make it to Chinese theaters.

In addition, “Eternals,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” were not approved for release in China, nor was the Sony-Disney coproduction “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” will break that pattern. Yet, since it was released in other markets in November, it likely experienced a surge in online piracy because it was unavailable to the Chinese public. While moviegoers will still attend screenings, the film may not see the same number of ticket sales that it might have if it was released earlier.

There are also concerns about muted ticket sales from China as the coronavirus once again roils the region since the government lifted its “zero Covid” policy. The market was slated to be a major source of revenue for releases like Disney and James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but has underperformed expectations there.

At present, the film has generated around 11% of its total global gross from China, or about $214 million. For comparison, the first “Avatar” collected around $250 million in ticket sales during its run in 2009 and 2010.

If the Covid wave ebbs in the region, “Quantumania” could get a welcome ticket boost. The previous two Ant-Man solo films generated 20% of their box office from China.

Additionally, while previous Ant-Man films have tallied smaller global box office numbers in comparison to other flicks in the MCU — 2015’s “Ant-Man’ scored $519 million and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” snared $622 million — “Quantumania” is expected to pull in more moviegoers because it features the MCU’s newest major villain, Kang.

Kang, played by “Lovecraft Country” star Jonathan Majors, is the next overarching villain of the MCU and is expected to remain a looming threat throughout the Multiverse Saga, which includes phase four, five and six of the franchise. He was introduced in the Disney+ show “Loki.”

“The feature film debut of one of the most dynamic and intriguing characters in the MCU, Kang the Conqueror in the film could push its potential global revenue into the $1 billion realm which would be a first for ‘Ant-Man’ films,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “And with the addition of the China market, the planets could align to make ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ the first global mega-hit of 2023.”