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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Breaks Box Office Records in a Huge Win for Asian Representation

We break down the opening weekend attendance for Marvel’s latest superhero movie and look at where and why it’s such a success.
Shang Chi
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on September 6th, 2021

Welcome to our weekly box office report, which we do a little differently. Rather than focusing on the money, FSR senior editor Christopher Campbell is more interested in the estimated attendance — or number of tickets sold. Because the value of money changes over the years, but the value of actual moviegoers remains the same. This week, we look at the opening box office attendance numbers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

A lot of box office records are relative. Maybe the grosses are just higher than in the past because of inflation. Maybe a certain movie’s success is because of changes to release strategies. Blockbusters are now opening at times they hadn’t before. Ever since superhero movies and particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe started output of multiple, spread-out titles per year, more movies have been breaking very specific records.

Surprisingly, it’s taken this long for a movie as big as an MCU entry to open on Labor Day weekend. In the context of a time typically reserved as a dumping ground at the end of summer, it’s not a shocker that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings busted the Labor Day record wide open. But its three-day gross of $75.4 million, which translates to ticket sales of around 8.2 million, is still something worth celebrating.

It is, after all, the best debut ever for a Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast.

Asian Casts and the American Box Office

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the most successful Hollywood movies directed by an Asian or Asian-American filmmaker. Director Destin Daniel Cretton joins Ang Lee, James Wan, and Justin Lin among the ranks of highest-grossing helmers of East Asian descent. Lee’s own Marvel Comics adaptation, 2003’s Hulk, sold around 10.3 million tickets. And Wan and Lin’s Fast & Furious movies have drawn opening weekend crowds of even greater numbers. Also, star Simu Liu joins Keanu Reeves, Dwayne Johnson, and Jason Momoa among the ranks of top-grossing leads of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.

But with 7.8 million tickets sold, Shang-Chi does have the distinction of having the best debut in North America for a movie with mostly Asian representation on screen. Reportedly, its percentage of Asian actors is as high as ninety-eight percent. Prior to the MCU entry, Hollywood’s biggest movie with Asian protagonists and an all-Asian cast was Crazy Rich Asians. The Jon M. Chu-helmed adaptation debuted to a crowd of around 2.9 million. Before that, Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club opened in limited release and sold around 38,000 tickets. Its biggest weekend after going into semi-wide release was 906,000 tickets.

Shang-Chi and the Labor Day Box Office Record Books

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opened on Labor Day weekend, which means we also need to look at its attendance over its first four days. (Plus Thursday night, of course.) The movie’s four-day weekend gross is a whopping $94.7 million, which translates to about 10.3 million tickets sold. The previous movie to hold the Labor Day weekend record was Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, which debuted in 2007 with a crowd of only around 4.4 million. The record holder before that was the Jason Statham sequel Transporter 2, which drew 3.1 million in its debut two years earlier.

This goes to show that if you have a movie that people want to see, they’ll go see it. I’ve never really understood why Labor Day weekend couldn’t be another time for big box office returns. But even if that was simply the trend, it’s one that’s in the past. Just like how Valentine’s Day weekend doesn’t have to just be for mediocre rom-com releases. Looking at the all-time chart for the weekend’s releases, last year’s Tenet is the only other “must-see” title, but unfortunately, it opened when very few moviegoers felt safe going to the theater. Now that people are vaccinated, attendance is up. Not to pre-pandemic levels, but enough.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Box Office

Compared to the last entry in the MCU, Black Widow, which opened in July, Shang-Chi might seem like a box office disappointment. The Scarlett Johansson-led installment sold about 8.8 million tickets in its first three days. And that’s with the movie also being simultaneously available to rent at home on Disney+ for $30. There are lawsuits filed due to the perceived relatively low theatrical attendance for Black Widow. Yet Shang-Chi‘s audience was smaller over the same amount of time. Their respective first Saturday attendances were very, very close, however.

Despite even the COVID-19 factors, though, Shang-Chi didn’t have the same sort of built-in appeal as Black Widow had. Sure, both movies are their main character’s first “solo” adventure. But Black Widow has been an established character in the franchise for a decade. And has been a co-lead of some of the biggest movies of all time, the Avengers tentpoles. Shang-Chi and its star were comparatively unknowns, with moviegoers only having the attached brand to go by in terms of familiarity. All things considered, the fact that it still topped the film debut of Captain America, not to mention Ant-Man, it’s a big win.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Opening Weekend Attendance

RankMovie TitleOpening Weekend AttendanceTotal Domestic Attendance
1Avengers: Endgame (2019)38.6 million92.7 million
2Avengers: Infinity War (2018)28.3 million74.5 million
3The Avengers (2012)26.1 million78.3 million
5Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)22.7 million54.4 million
4Black Panther (2018)22.2 million76.8 million
7Iron Man 3 (2013)21.4 million50.3 million
6Captain America: Civil War (2016)20.7 million47.2 million
8Captain Marvel (2019)17 million47.4 million
9Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)16.3 million43.5 million
10Iron Man 2 (2010)16.2 million39.6 million
11Iron Man (2008)13.74 million44.4 million
12Thor: Ragnarok (2017)13.68 million35.1 million
13Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)13.05 million37.3 million
14Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)11.6 million31.8 million
15Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)11.5 million40.8 million
16Thor: The Dark World (2013)10.5 million25.4 million
17Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)10 million42.2 million
18Doctor Strange (2016)9.8 million26.9 million
19Black Widow (2021)8.8 million19.9 million
20Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)8.32 million23.8 million
21Thor (2011)8.29 million22.8 million
22Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)8.23 million10.3 million
23Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)8.204 million22.3 million
24The Incredible Hulk (2008)7.7 million18.8 million
25Ant-Man (2015)6.8 million21.4 million

Shang-Chi Box Office vs. Expectations

In addition to breaking a number of expected box office records, Shang-Chi also exceeded its exact expectations. According to Box Office Pro, the movie wasn’t tracking nearly as well as it performed. Last week, the site predicted an opening weekend gross of less than Ant-Man even. Their firm forecast figure equated to about 5.7 million tickets. And a range of possibilities between 4.9 million and 6.6 million. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Box Office Pro foresaw Shang-Chi pulling in, at most, 6 million moviegoers. And, at least, just 3.8 million, which would have been a record low for the MCU franchise.

Shang-Chi Critical and Audience Reception

Should it be surprising that Shang-Chi is so successful? The reviews for the movie are great even for a Marvel movie. In addition to built-in brand awareness for Marvel movie fans, and the chance that it drew Asian-American audiences for its representation, Shang-Chi also benefitted from its critical reception. (See our own positive review of Shang-Chi here.) Out of twenty-five installments of the MCU, Shang-Chi is tied with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy for the franchise’s fifth-best-reviewed (per Rotten Tomatoes with a 92% score) or it’s the ninth-best-reviewed (per Metacritic with a 71 score).

And its audience scores at Rotten Tomatoes (98%) and at Metacritic (7.8) are pretty substantial as well. The former is currently the best for the entire MCU. According to Cinemascore polling, opening night crowds gave Shang-Chi an A grade. That’s not uncommon for the MCU and isn’t as amazing as Black Panther or the first or fourth Avengers movies (all of which earned an A+ grade). But it’s still very strong and shall equate to very positive word of mouth for the coming weeks. Unlike Black Widow, this movie will be exclusive to theaters for forty-five days and should have decent legs.

Cinemascore Grades for the MCU:

The AvengersAvengers: EndgameBlack Panther — A+

Ant-ManAvengers: Age of UltronAvengers: Infinity WarCaptain America: The Winter SoldierCaptain America: Civil WarCaptain MarvelDoctor StrangeGuardians of the GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Iron ManIron Man 2Iron Man 3Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsSpider-Man: HomecomingSpider-Man: Far From HomeThor: Ragnarok — A

Ant-Man and the WaspBlack WidowCaptain America: The First AvengerThe Incredible HulkThor: The Dark World — A-

Thor — B+

Shang-Chi won’t be streaming for a while. So the only way moviegoers can see it is on the big screen until at least October 18, 2021. Next weekend’s attendance for the movie should be interesting to look at. I presume we will see a smaller drop in ticket sales compared to most of the movies out this year, especially those on streaming services, such as Black Widow.

Box Office Attendance for September 3 - September 5, 2021

RankMovie TitleWeekend AttendancePer-Screen Attendance Labor Day Weekend 4-Day AttendanceTotal Domestic AttendanceStudio
1Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings8.2 million191410.310.3 millionWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
2Candyman1.1 million3151.4 million4.5 millionUniversal Pictures
3Free Guy0.97 million2501.2 million10.3 million20th Century Studios
4PAW Patrol: The Movie0.4374 million1420.6 million3.5 millionParamount Pictures
5Jungle Cruise0.4372 million1450.6 million11.7 millionWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
6Don't Breathe 20.25 million1150.3 million3.1 millionScreen Gems
7Respect0.14 million640.2 million2.4 millionMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
8The Suicide Squad0.0996 million640.1 million6 millionWarner Bros.
9Black Widow0.085 million1130.1 million19.9 millionWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
10The Night House0.06 million560.1 million0.7 millionSearchlight Pictures

*Initially box office grosses are estimated and then are later updated for actual figures.

** Ticket sales and attendance figures are determined with each year’s average ticket prices. Currently, for 2021, that average is $9.16.

All box office gross figures are sourced from Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, and Box Office Pro unless otherwise stated.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.