Flying high in China

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it a Chinese box office smash?


Red head: Amy Adams plays Lois Lane in the new Superman movie

To distinguish the 1978 version of Superman from earlier attempts to dramatise the superhero story, the producers persuaded Marlon Brando to play Jor-El, Superman’s father. Brando’s price was a heavy one – 12.5% of the box office gross after the cinema take – which meant he collected at least $13 million for 12 days of work. By contrast, Christopher Reeve, the relatively unknown actor in the lead role, was paid $250,000 for starring in the film.

Henry Cavill, the latest actor to play Superman, will be getting a lot more than that and last week he became one of the most talked-about subjects on weibo after an appearance in Shanghai to promote Man of Steel, which made its debut in China last Thursday.

Reviews in the West have been unforgiving, with the Financial Times giving the film only 1 star out of five, saying that the script is “devoid of wit, drama or development”. But few in China seem to have paid much heed. Man of Steel took $5.9 million the day of its Chinese released (and $27 million within a week).

The reviews online have been overwhelmingly positive too. Some netizens were soon comparing Man of Steel favourably to other superhero films from the United States, including Marvel’s Iron Man franchise.

“Although I’m reluctant to admit it, Iron Man is really weak compared to Superman… The fight scenes and special effects were explosive, and I recommend that you watch the film in cinemas. I give it five stars,” one netizen enthused.

China’s love affair with Superman began as early as 1985. Although the original Superman franchise starring Reeve and Brando was released in 1978, the film wasn’t shown in China until seven years later. For those who could find cinemas showing it, the film had an even more sensational impact than in the US. First audiences were transfixed by its (then) groundbreaking special effects – for an audience used to boring propaganda flicks, scenes of Reeve flying through the air were a revelation. Then there was America itself – the film being packed with skyscrapers and scenes of material wealth. These were an eye-opener to a people still living the proletarian dream.

Tickets sold out almost immediately. At some cinemas, crowds dallied around the entrances hoping someone might have a spare ticket they could buy. Southern Weekend even suspects that the number of people who watched Superman surpassed that of Titanic, the breakout blockbuster that took China by storm in 1999.

Why did the superhero prove so popular? For a start he was a novelty: back in the mid-1980s Hollywood imports were close to non-existent. Beijing was extremely cautious about screening Western films and foreign fare had to go through vetting that makes the current review process look positively welcoming. That made Superman’s appearance particularly exciting to Chinese audiences, although Superman’s initial run didn’t go completely unchallenged. The day after it opened in the capital city of Beijing, it was hit by a barrage of political denunciation in the local press. Far from being a hero, Superman was “a narcotic that the capitalist class gives itself to cast off its serious crises”, the Beijing Evening News determined, seemingly most disturbed by a scene in which Reeve’s character flew around the Statue of Liberty.

“This blatantly exposes the director’s intentions,” the article protested, detecting a none-too-subtle subliminal image at work.

But the main reason why so many Chinese got to see Superman was because of its reach and longevity. The original movie made it to the big screen in many parts of the country. And it kept being shown. Even in the early 1990s, cinemas in the countryside were selling discounted tickets to Superman shows to lure audiences, which might explain why so many Chinese can still recall the experience of watching the Last Son of Krypton soar through the sky.

“Superman has always been a part of my childhood memories,” another netizen wrote on weibo last week. “The boys love him because he stands for justice and courage, and girls love him because of his good looks!”

If nostalgia counts for anything, Man of Steel might turn out to be Hollywood’s most successful export to China this year.

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