Tickets for a movie on Dec. 16, 2022, in Yiwu, China Getty Images/Photo by Mao Xuqian/VCG
The China Film Administration (CFA) lifted its four-year ban on Marvel films this week by announcing release dates for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania. The films will be the first Marvel movies shown in China since Avengers: Endgame (2019).
As an arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department, the CFA is infamous for banning foreign films, particularly American ones, for material that contradicts Chinese propaganda. While some view their recent approvals as a sign of improving U.S. relations, recent trends suggest otherwise. Radio Free Asia reports China only approved 136 foreign films for release in 2019. That number dropped to 73 in 2021 and then 38 by October 2022. China has censored movies for decades, but officials have tightened restrictions recently, enacting a 2021 law “banning films it deems are against China’s national security interests.” Violators under the law can receive three years’ imprisonment and a $130,000 fine.
Vice Minister for Propaganda Sun Yeli affirmed the Communist Party’s stance on non-Chinese films, telling a 2022 news conference, “Our principle, position, and attitude toward exchanges between the Chinese and foreign movie industries are consistent, clear, and remain unchanged.” Sun continued, “We are ready to introduce foreign films from any country as long as it can produce the good films that cater to the needs and interests of Chinese audiences.”
Some critics speculate the Chinese movie scene is dying and in need of foreign films to stay afloat. Given the protests against the nation’s recently annulled zero-COVID policy, the government might be attempting to curry more favor with jaded citizens by permitting fan-favorite Western films.
Marvel’s unwillingness to censor films played a major role in China’s embargo on the franchise. Chinese officials requested Sony edit out the Statue of Liberty for the China release of Spider-Man: Far from Home, judging the symbol as too patriotic. When Sony refused, China barred the film. Many also suspect Marvel’s collaboration with outspoken China detractor Chloé Zhao may contribute to China’s refusal to show Marvel films. Disney has experienced some recent rebuffs from the CFA for its frequent use of LGBT characters. Officials rejected Pixar’s Lightyear for its inclusion of a same-sex couple with an on-screen kiss. The CFA does not release public guidelines or feedback on exactly how and why it makes its decisions, but a basic understanding of Chinese culture and the Communist Party makes its reasons fairly obvious.
Chinese ticket sales make up a large chunk of box office earnings for filmmakers. The first Black Panther earned $105 million from Chinese audiences in 2018. Ant-Man and the Wasp grossed $121.2 million in the same year. James Cameron’s Avatar: Way of Water was released in China in December, grossing $220 million so far. That already exceeds the total gross for the China run of the original Avatar within one month of opening. Given the profit potential from Chinese audiences, many filmmakers face the decision of bowing to CFA requests or losing out on millions. Warner Bros. famously removed two lines from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which confirmed a same-sex romance between two adult men, to meet Chinese censorship standards.
Even seemingly benign scenes received the ax for the sake of a China run. In Adam Sandler’s 2015 film Pixels, a final action sequence shows aliens smashing iconic landmarks including India’s Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument, parts of Manhattan, and the Great Wall of China. To appease Chinese film officials, Sony and Columbia removed the Great Wall from the fictitious destruction sequence.
Hollywood bowing to China’s requests has also landed other filmmakers in trouble with other countries. Last year, the Philippines banned Columbia Pictures’ Uncharted for depicting a nine-dash line across a map of the South China sea demarcating China’s claim on it—boundaries which Manila vigorously rejects. The Philippines also banned the 2019 cartoon Abominable for sketching in the same dashed line.
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Christina Grube is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute student course.
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