'Spider-Man' Smashes Record Held by Chinese Movie—Despite China Blackout

Spider-Man: No Way Home became an instant Hollywood blockbuster when it took only two weeks to top 2021's box office charts, in the process defeating a patriotic Chinese war epic that is also the country's most successful film of all time.

Sony's highest-grossing movie to date—$1.37 billion across all markets, according to IMDb's Box Office Mojo—is also the best performer in phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just three weeks since its release, it's already the 12th highest earner of all time worldwide and the 10th highest in the North American domestic box office.

Toward the end of the year, the Chinese Communist Party-commissioned Battle at Lake Changjin had broken China's box office records to become its most successful movie ever. Having grossed $902 million almost entirely from its own moviegoers alone, the historical action-drama was on course to become the biggest box-office movie of the year worldwide before No Way Home edged it out over the holidays.

Lake Changjin is a Chinese retelling of the Korean War's Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which American-led United Nations troops were forced into a strategic retreat.

It led the charts for weeks following its release on October 1 to coincide with China's National Day holidays. The film's $200 million budget is the largest in the country's history.

No Way Home's success is made even more impressive by the fact that China—the world's biggest movie market for two years running—has yet to contribute to its ticket sales. Spoilers and screengrabs from Tom Holland's third solo outing as Peter Parker have flooded China's main social media service, Weibo, over the Christmas and New Year period, but fans are still waiting for the government to green-light a release date.

In fact, none of Marvel's phase 4 flicks—starting with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow—have graced Chinese movie theaters. Despite much anticipation among Chinese audiences, neither Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings nor Eternals was approved for release. Marvel-Sony project Venom: Let There Be Carnage also didn't make the cut.

In the case of Shang-Chi, fans pointed to previous critical comments by lead actor Simu Liu as well as the movie's comic origins, which some viewed as racist against East Asians despite its full retcon for the MCU. Venom protagonist Tom Hardy appeared to be in the same boat as Simu Liu.

The absence of Eternals was perhaps more predictable. Its director, Beijing-born Chloé Zhao, had already fallen foul of Chinese censors in March, shortly after her success at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, when local media outlets unearthed a 2013 interview in which she was critical of China's political atmosphere.

Internet regulators in the country worked overtime to remove congratulatory content a month later when Zhao won an Oscar for Best Director and her movie Nomadland bagged Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards. Observers guessed then that China would likely shun her MCU directorial debut Eternals, too, despite the general popularity of Marvel movies among Chinese audiences.

Still, it doesn't mean there's no hope for China's Spider-Man fans. Sony released a Chinese poster for No Way Home in 2021, and the movie is free from controversy thus far. However, Marvel and its owners at Disney cannot help operating under an atmosphere of political tensions between the United States and China, with the latter naturally inclined to restrict American soft power imports.

While it does mean some uncertainty for Marvel's 2022 big-hitters including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the performance of No Way Home should go some way toward reassuring Disney that China may not be the one market to rule them all

Spider-Man Beats Chinese War Epic's Box Office
(L-R) Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya and Tom Holland attend Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man: No Way Home" Los Angeles Premiere on December 13, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. It took "No Way Home" only two weeks to top 2021's box office charts following its December 17, 2021, theatrical release, defeating "The Battle at Lake Changjin," a Chinese war epic that is also the country's most successful film of all time. Amy Sussman/Getty Images