Local drama Lighting Up the Stars easily won a third consecutive weekend at China’s box office, selling $27.8 million worth of tickets for an impressive total of $186.3 million and counting. But the sentimental Chinese film, which tells the story of a surprising bond formed between a funeral director and an orphaned little girl, didn’t face much market competition — mostly because Marvel’s Norse god Thor was entirely missing in action.
China’s film regulators haven’t granted Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder a release date yet — and it’s beginning to look as if they never will. Sources at two major cinema chains in China tell The Hollywood Reporter that they expect Thor 4 will face the same fate as Pixar’s Lightyear: denied censorship approval because of fleeting moments in the movie involving LGBTQ characters.
Beijing’s censors never explain nor comment publicly on their decisions, but industry participants inside and outside of China scrutinize such moves carefully and backchannel with authorities to ascertain where the lines are drawn. In Lightyear‘s case, a same-gender kiss involving the character Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) and her partner was believed to have forestalled any chance of release in China, where LGBTQ storytelling is mostly banned from screens big and small (the movie also was banned in the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia).
Thor 4 is similarly believed to be stuck in China’s censorship process because of some brief LGBTQ moments, including suggestions that the character Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson) is bisexual and that the character Korg is gay (Thor’s fervent bromance with his hammer and ax is perhaps borderline ).
Thor: Ragnarok earned $112 million in China back in 2017, so losing the Middle Kingdom market will certainly ding Love and Thunder‘s worldwide sales total. More significant for Disney, however, is the fact that Thor is far from the only Marvel hero to face China’s censors’ wrath. After nearly a decade as arguably China’s favorite Hollywood film franchise, Marvel has seen its last seven Hollywood tentpoles go unreleased in the country. Industry watchers have hypothesized different reasons for why each film fell afoul of regulators — but the longer the trend continues, the more it has begun to look like a deliberate effort to dim Marvel’s local popularity.
Black Widow was the first Marvel title in the streak not to get a release in China; some speculated that China passed on the film after Disney released it straight to Disney+ because of the pandemic, while others said the film’s vague depictions of communism via the Red Guardian character upset regulators.
Oscar-winning Chinese director Chloe Zhao’s Eternals was the next one blocked, in this case because of a year-old statement the filmmaker made in an interview that was interpreted as being critical of China. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings then was thought to suffer a similar fate because of a past interview star Simu Liu gave in which he talked about China as a “third world” country. Spider-Man: No Way Home supposedly featured the Statue of Liberty too much for Beijing censors’ liking, while Venom: Let There Be Carnage got axed due to old comments from Tom Hardy which were seen as racially insensitive to the Chinese people.
Prior to Thor 4, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness was the most recent to be met with ire, reportedly because of the inclusion of the gay character America Chavez and an extremely brief sequence that showed a pro-Taiwan newspaper on a city magazine kiosk.
Occasionally, Hollywood studios have cut queer characters from their films to appease China’s censors — and reaped millions more in box office revenue in the process. Before its takeover by Disney, 20th Century Fox shaved off all mentions of Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality Bohemian Rhapsody in order to secure a China outing, and Warner Bros. cut dialogue referring to a gay relationship from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore earlier this year.
However, Disney has recently taken the stance that it does not remove gay content to appease censors in the territories where it distributes its theatrical films. The studio refused to trim a “gay moment” from the live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017 when Malaysian content regulators objected, and it stood firm on Lightyear in the various markets where the movie was blocked.
Adding insult to injury Thor 4′s case, China’s theatrical earnings potential has finally begun to recover in recent weeks after a lengthy downbeat period of COVID closures in major cities. Emperor Motion Pictures’ crime thriller Detectives vs. Sleuths came in second behind Lighting Up the Stars over the past weekend with a healthy $23.1 million debut. Universal’s Jurassic World Dominion slipped to third place, meanwhile, adding $6.3 million for a China total of $144.3 million.