China has ended its de facto ban on Marvel films, with superhero flicks Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania both locking in surprise release dates, after a three-and-a-half-year gap that has cost Disney hundreds of millions in ticket sales.
The films will be released in February, after Chinese new year, marking the first Marvel releases in the world’s second-largest theatrical market since Avengers: Endgame in 2019.
Foreign film releases are approved or denied by regulators at the China Film Administration, which is part of the Chinese Communist party’s propaganda department. The CFA routinely blocks the release of foreign films to maintain censorship and protect the domestic film industry.
The CFA has never explained why Marvel films have been blocked since mid-2019. Film industry analysts have raised several potential reasons over the years, including the presence of LGBTQ+ characters and symbols of US patriotism, like the Statue of Liberty; the hiring of the Eternals director Chloé Zhao, who was criticised for statements she made about her home country in interviews; and growing political tension between the US and China.
Marvel films have been box office hits in China in the past: the first Black Panther earned $105m in China in 2018, while Ant-Man and the Wasp grossed $121.2m that same year.
However, since 2019, the films Black Widow, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder have all been denied release in China.
There have recently been signs China is warming to Hollywood, with James Cameron’s Avatar sequel Avatar: The Way of Water being approved for release and for screening during China’s lunar new year holiday, which is typically reserved for domestic films only. Avatar: The Way of Water has earned $220m in China so far.
In 2022, it was reported that Spider-Man: No Way Home was denied a release after the CFA asked the film’s distributor, Sony, to remove the Statue of Liberty from scenes they deemed too “patriotic”. The studio declined.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was also reportedly denied a release due to the inclusion of a character with two lesbian mothers, and for a scene involving a newspaper kiosk that featured the Chinese characters for the Epoch Times, a newspaper critical of the Communist party.
In 2015, Chinese filmgoers were reportedly upset by clumsily translated subtitles added to Avengers: Age of Ultron.