Fu Manchu and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Shang-Qi to join the MCU sees both enthusiasm and worry in China – though it is unfounded

By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large

December, 2018.

This is both a companion piece to our Inaugural Podcast on Castbox.fm and a response to Chinese netizen’s concerns on Weibo and other social media platforms in China, as reported by Sixth Tone – if you are not following them, you should!

With the announcement of the official development of Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe there has been both great enthusiasm and worry, by both the U.S. and China, of the character’s comic representation of villainous Chinese.  This concern is not directly related to the superhero character himself, who has always had a positive outlook, but that of the character’s father in the initial run of Marvel Comic’s Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu from 1973 through 1983.

Though Chinese netizens and American commentators have no need to fret over the “Rising of the Spirit” as a representation of the Yellow Peril in the form of Shang-Chi’s father.  Since his father Dr. Fu Manchu is no longer apart of the Marvel Universe and has been recently retconned from it.

Stan Lee and Marvel had originally hoped to acquire the rights to the hit TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine (in the Bruce Lee role) but after failing to obtained them, Marvel tasked Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin to create a fully original kung-fu inspired character resulting in the creation of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu!

To go along with this creation Marvel successfully licensed the right to the 1913 pulp super-villain prototype Dr. Fu Manchu.  A character created by British author Sax Rohmer, after he asked his Ouija Board what was the biggest threat to the “white man” – resulting in the “board” spelling out:

C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N

That’s really the story!!!

Yes, Dr. Fu Manchu is a fictional representation of the xenophobic Yellow Peril scare of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but what everyone seems to misrepresent, for flatly be unaware of, in the announcement of Shang-Chi joining the MCU.  Is Marvel allowed the licensing rights to lapse for the villain character in 1983 after the solo issue run of Master of Kung Fu was cancelled.

Meaning that Marvel does not own the rights to place Fu Manchu into any of its properties, and up until only recently they were not even allowed to re-publish any Shang-Chi solo storyline in any form (even as a free source) due to copyright disagreements with the Rohmer Estate.

In recent years Marvel Comics has retconned Shang-Chi’s father into Zheng Zu, an ancient Chinese sorcerer who discovered the secret to immortality.  A character that as far as I know is not fully fleshed out or developed as of yet, and how this will play out in the MCU is to be seen.  Like other MCU films, liberties will most likely be taken in the development of this character and how Shang-Chi fits into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A character that we may be seeing much earlier than expected, as the unnamed character being played by Remy Hii, who is of Chinese-Malaysian decent, in Spider-Man: Far From Home has been kept under-wrap.

One thing is for sure is that if Marvel pulls off yet another fantastic superhero film with this character, it could be that cross-over Hollywood-Chinese success Tinseltown has been after for the last decade.

Superhero films are big money in China, averaging out around $120MMUSD per film at their box-office which is a number actually referring to the average of all MCU films released in the Middle Kingdom.

Outside of the MCU superhero films still reign supreme, recently seen in Aquaman‘s amazing 42% drop in its second weekend of release in China. As Scott Mendelson over at Forbes highlights that it is on par with fellow superhero films Wonder Woman and Black Panther, both which saw a 43% drop in their second weekend.  Highlighting the legs that not only Aquaman has but those of the superhero genre as a whole.

Earning $189MMUSD in just ten days – ten days is the important box-office run metric to examine for China – and Aquaman having a few more weeks before the beloved-in-China Transformer franchise’s Bumblebee is released, we may see Aquaman beat WW‘s leggy multiplier from opening weekend to final tally, that would put Aquaman above $228MMUSD.  

Providing Aquaman with the potential to give Sony’s Venom a run for its money.  A movie that has made roughly $270+MMUSD at the China box-office, and one that saw a 54% drop in its second weekend showing a lower multiplier than what Aquaman may produce in China.

Shang-Chi not only has the benefit of being a Chinese superhero in the largest franchise ever released at the China box-office, but it has the potential of following in the footsteps of those who came before it:

Wonder WomanBlack PantherVenom, and most recently Aquaman.

These superhero films not only tap into China’s love of genre, but they have all fill a niche sub-genre markets as well:

  • WW tapping into the red hot female-superhero sub-genre, much like Ant-Man and the Wasp did earlier this year. 
  • Black Panther‘s African-American cultural phenom, mixed with the Afrofuturism sub-genre, resonated with Chinese moviegoers.  Even after a string of weirdly (and very Chinese) forms of racism appeared across Weibo immediately after the film was released.
  • To Venom and Aquaman being smartly marketed as, not just the next superhero movie to watch, but containing the sub-genres of Monster Movies and Fantasy films in them.  Helping to propel the two movie to staggering opening weekends and continued runs after that.

We should be seeing a continuation of this as Shang-Chi contains elements of multiple sub-genre, from 007 style spy films, Shang-Chi has been a MI6 Agent on occasion, to fantasy, and of course the wuxia / kung-fu genres. These elements, along with being a MCU superhero, the Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu may turn into the biggest superhero film ever released in China, supplanting Avengers: Infinity War ($360MMUSD).  Shang-Chi may even have the potential to be the first non-Chinese movie to rake in over half a billion dollars in ticket sales at the China box-office.

Of course, this is just speculation but all of the elements of Shang-Chi‘s future success in China are there.  Now only if they throw in a little Blaxploitation and introduce the Fiendish Dr. Wu from Black Dynamite then Shang-Chi would become the most sub-genre film ever produced with its – kung-fu trickery! – appeasing every faction of the Chinese movie going audience.

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About the Author
Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.