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What does Shang-Chi’s box office win mean for Marvel movies on Disney Plus?

shang chi and the legend of the ten rings
(Image credit: Marvel)

Unlike Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings did not stream on Disney Plus as it hit theaters. And that may have surprised some who have been watching headlines about the Delta variant spreading everywhere, but Disney's decision seems to have paid off. 

Shang-Chi did very well at the US box office, with $94.4 million pulled in from the four-day Labor Day holiday weekend (its $146 million international earnings are even more impressive). 

That beats Black Widow's $80 million domestic box office, and nearly doubled the $50 million tracking estimates (via Variety). And it raises an interesting question: is Disney going to keep betting on in-theaters only releases? The studio's next upcoming Marvel movie, Eternals, could go either way.

How big was Shang-Chi's success?

Shang-Chi's success is so impressive because the doubters were out there. Box Office Pro projected it would earn between $35 million to $55 million, and those numbers (which would have been the lowest ever for a Marvel movie) were smashed. 

We can also look at Shang-Chi's success as impressive because it was the character's first ever appearance in the MCU. The only MCU character known to be in the movie was Wong (Benedict Wong), and there isn't much Marvel movie connective tissue (until the post-credits scene, that is) to the film.

That said, credit is likely due to the routinely underserved Asian-American audience, which were believed to have propelled the rom com Crazy Rich Asians to great heights in 2018.  Shang-Chi is the first Marvel movie to feature an Asian star, and star Simu Liu has been laughing all the way to the bank online. The African-American audience was credited similarly with Black Panther's box-office success.

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Why Marvel movies could stay off Disney Plus Premier Access

Shang-Chi's new-ness to the MCU means it has a lot in common with Eternals. Even though Marvel's November 2021 movie is filled with stars (Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, Kit Harrington and Brian Tyree Henry to name a few), the Eternals have no history in the current Marvel cinematic galaxy. 

Eternals Marvel movie

(Image credit: Marvel)

That said, the Eternals does have an award-winning director to make people interested. Plus, all those stars (Shang-Chi has a great cast, but Eternals are on another level when it comes to Hollywood A-listers). That wattage could prove enough to get people curious enough to go to the theaters, though who knows how the public will respond to any new Covid-19 variants.

But if Shang-Chi's box office success is seen as a triumph internally at Disney and Marvel Studios, it's not hard to think they're likely to continue to let it ride. Disney CEO Bob Chapek famously referrenced "the practicality of last-minute changes," for Shang-Chi not being on Disney Plus Premier Access release and also referred to the 45-day release window as "an interesting experiment for us."

Lastly, let's not under-value the potential ripple effect of Scarlet Johansson's lawsuit against Disney for releasing Black Widow online and reportedly breaching her contract. Shang-Chi's success is great, but now word is spreading that the Russo Brothers directing duo may not do another MCU movie because of concerns stemming from that lawsuit.

Why Eternals could still wind up on Disney Plus Premier Access

There's one reason, though, why Eternals could hit Disney Plus Premier Access. The desire for more revenue streams.

Black Widow managed to do great on both US box office and Disney Plus Premier Access (which costs $30 per film) — with $60 million via Disney Plus on top of the $80 million in theaters. 

This matters because of the want to recoup what was invested. Shang-Chi's reported $150 million budget is three quarters of Eternals' $200 million budget, and having more ways to make money (how much money does Disney think they'll lose to people who aren't comfortable theater).

The next big test for Shang-Chi is about to come

shang chi and the legend of the ten rings

(Image credit: Marvel)

Shang-Chi's second weekend at the box office is the next big test of the film and Disney's theaters-only gambit. According to Insider, Black Widow and Fast and Furious 9 had disastrous second-weekend performances, with drops of 67.9% and 67.2%, respectively.

If Shang-Chi can avoid that kind of problem, then Disney's clearly got a winner on its hands. Of course, the quality of the film will say a lot for how word of mouth (which has been strong during our morning meetings at Tom's Guide) can help Shang-Chi stay strong at the box office.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past six-plus years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.