Black Panther opened at the top of China’s box office last weekend, collecting an estimated $US62.8 million ($81 million), but a lukewarm audience response has seen ticket sales dive in the days since.
Many Chinese movie-goers have criticised the hit Marvel film — which has so far earned more than $US1 billion globally — for what they saw as its “political correctness”.
Black Panther has a majority black cast and was widely praised by Western critics and members of the African diaspora worldwide for its empowering characters.
In contrast, the film currently has a rating of 6.7 out of 10 on the Chinese movie reviewing platform Douban, and a rating of 7.1 out of 10 on fellow review site MTime.
“It is Hamlet marked with African tribal cultural symbols. If you replaced those human characters with animals, it would be The Lion King the sequel,” said one top-rated comment on Douban.
“I just dislike stereotyped political correctness.”
Chinese film critic Chu Mufeng wrote on his Weibo account that it appeared the film’s global success “seems to suggest the film’s social significance is greater than its content”.
Some commenters said they did not understand why the film was resonating with people of African heritage around the world, accusing those audiences of getting “special treatment”.
“Countless black people have won their status for several generations. [Asian people] have not yet even entered mainstream society,” one anonymous Douban user said.
“Why have Marvel and DC ignored the Asians and other ethnic groups? Why can only the black people have this kind of special treatment?” another user wrote.
‘Injecting ideas about American politics, values’
Jonathan Papish, the Chinese film industry analyst for trade publication China Film Insider, said Marvel’s popularity contributed to Black Panther‘s strong opening weekend, however this has not lasted.
“We saw pretty much right after it opened on Friday, word of mouth started spreading on WeChat and other social media outlets that this was not your typical Marvel movie, and the box office has kind of fallen off on this one,” he said.
Mr Papish predicted ticket sales this weekend might drop by as much as 85 per cent compared to its debut.
“I think for the most part Chinese movie-goers are not getting what they expected from a Marvel film,” he said.
After earning ¥397M ($62.8M) on opening weekend, not including ticketing fees, BLACK PANTHER added just ¥102M ($16.2M) from Monday through Thursday, and currently sits at ¥499M ($79M). BP will drop ~85% ($9.5M) this wknd despite a soft opening by TOMB RAIDER (~$25M). pic.twitter.com/ovsbK5VJfS
— China Box Office (@ChinaBoxOffice) March 15, 2018
“I think they felt that this movie was sort of injecting some ideas about American politics and American values into the story and into the film, and I think it just didn’t resonate with them.”
“Most of these Marvel films are very bright, very funny, sort of about saving the world, big explosions.
Mr Papish said this sort of criticism of major Hollywood films was relatively uncommon in his experience.
“The only other time I saw this with a Marvel film was Spiderman Homecoming. There was kind of this comment about [the female lead character] being black,” he said.”
“Chinese movie-goers felt that was a needless addition to the Spiderman universe,” he said.
‘Why does political correctness matter?’
Other viewers in China defended the film’s cast, and the value of its positive representations of black characters.
“The story is fluent, the music is great, and it’s a rare black superhero movie. I am also very interested in the African culture after seeing this movie,” one Douban reviewer said.
“Why does political correctness matter … Who can say that [popular films] can’t push history to move little by little?” another said.
A lot of media attention on China’s reaction to Black Panther has focused on audience reviews featuring racially insensitive comments.
One viewer review quoted on the website Quartz described the 3D version of the film as being “nearly a torture for the eyes”, due to the film’s casting and cinematography.
“Black Panther is black, all the major characters are black, a lot of scenes are black, the car-chasing scene is black – the blackness has really made me drowsy,” another Douban reviewer said.
Mr Papish said the comments had more to do with aesthetic taste than racism.
“There’s a complaint with Chinese movie-goers that 3D movies are too dark, and so this added to the kind of aesthetic of this movie that didn’t fit their palate,” he said.
China’s box office is the second-largest in the world, and is expected to eventually overtake the United States as the largest film market.