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Marvel films are returning to China after three years of an apparent ban

HONG KONG — Marvel films are set to be released on screens in mainland China for the first time in more than three years, the endgame for an apparent ban in the world’s second-largest movie market.

The surprise news will come as a boost to fans as well as Marvel owner Disney, which has missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” will appear in theaters on Feb. 7, Marvel said Tuesday on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, while “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will follow on Feb. 17, the same day it comes out in the United States.

They are the first Marvel movies since 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” to be shown in China, where there is strict censorship and the release of foreign films is limited in order to promote domestic ones. A slew of the studio’s superhero movies have been shut out of Chinese theaters since then, including “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Eternals,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Marvel’s first film with a predominantly Asian cast.

The China Film Administration, a division of the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda department that approves all foreign film releases, gave no official explanation for the blocking of those films. Experts have speculated the reasons could include the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, comments critical of China by people involved in the films like “Eternals” director Chloé Zhao, and broader U.S.-China tensions over trade and other issues.

Marvel’s brief announcement did not mention the earlier films or say why “Black Panther” and “Ant-Man” were being released. In 2018, the first “Black Panther” movie made $105 million in China, while the second “Ant-Man” movie took in $121 million, according to figures from Box Office Mojo. “Avengers: Endgame” made $632 million, making it the most successful foreign film in China ever.

Marvel fans in China welcomed news of the two new releases.

“Do you know how I lived the past few years without you?” read one comment on Weibo.

Others lamented the films that had not made it to Chinese theaters.

“Can you rescreen ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Doctor Strange’ as well?” one Weibo user wrote.

China overtook North America as the world’s largest film market in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic depressed ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada, but dropped back to second last year as outbreaks of the highly transmissible omicron variant prompted mass lockdowns under China’s strict “zero-Covid” controls.

China could regain the top spot as it emerges from pandemic isolation, said How Wee Ng, a lecturer in contemporary China studies at the University of Westminster in London. Though China’s film import policies can reflect changes in diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries, he said, the government also has an economic incentive to get moviegoers back into theaters.

“While there are signs that China will improve ties with the U.S. in 2023 despite continuing tensions, a more tolerant stance towards crowd-puller and innocuous Marvel films can contribute to post-pandemic recovery, which is currently in line with the party-state’s agenda,” Ng said via email.

Both Marvel movies are being released after the Lunar New Year, China’s biggest holiday, which regulators typically reserve for war epics glorifying the Chinese military and other domestic films. 

Among the biggest films hitting Chinese theaters for the holiday, which officially starts this Sunday, are “Full River Red,” a comedy by internationally renowned director Zhang Yimou, and “The Wandering Earth 2,” a prequel to the 2019 sci-fi hit.

In another positive sign for Hollywood, the James Cameron blockbuster “Avatar: The Way of Water” will remain in Chinese theaters during the holiday, having earned more than $200 million since it was released there last month.

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