Toy story

Latest Hollywood hit to earn big merchandising bucks via Alibaba

Actress Scarlett Johansson wears a Versace dress as she arrives at the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood

Scarlet Johansson: plays Black Widow in the Avengers’ sequel

“If the Stan Lee group thinks they can come into China and make superheroes along Western lines, they’ll be disappointed,” William Brent, president of China Entertainment Network, a media consultancy in Shanghai, told the New York Times in 2000. “If they can find a way to develop home-grown superheroes here, they’ll have a better chance.”

Fast forward to today and it appears that Brent couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though Chinese audiences never grew up reading Marvel comics, they have embraced the blockbuster films based on the superheroes Stan Lee created like Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk.

Look no further than the box office result of the latest Avengers franchise, Age of Ultron. The film took China by storm when it hit screens last Tuesday, scoring the country’s second highest-grossing debut in history, behind only Fast and Furious 7. The superhero sequel is close to surpassing Rmb1 billion ($160 million) in its first six days.

Despite the strong box office takings, the Hollywood blockbuster is not without its critics. One says the film feels like CCTV’s (widely-watched but widely-panned) Spring Festival Gala – that is, “lively but a bunch of nonsense”. Hong Kong filmmaker Wang Jing also wrote on his weibo that the fight scenes are so long that “even after going to the bathroom twice, the story hasn’t moved one bit”. (Though his view may not reflect the mainstream: as proved by Transformers, Hollywood has rightly concluded that Chinese audiences love big fight scenes that involve robots, superheroes and dizzying special effects.)

Still, the biggest complaint about the film has nothing to do with the plot or the characters. Many say the subtitles are so confusing that some of the meaning was lost.

For instance, in one scene, the character Thor says, “I am the son of Odin,” but the Chinese subtitles read, “I am Odin”. In another, Iron Man tries to rally the troops to fight to the death with the line, “We may not make it out of this,” but for some reason this is translated in Chinese as “Let’s back off now”.

As one film critic puts it, “The translations are such a mess that while the superheroes fight on screen, I’m battling with great efforts to resist reading the Chinese subtitles.”

Some netizens quipped that the translation for Avengers 2 was probably done using Baidu Translate (an online translation software, equivalent to Google Translate). But others said even Baidu Translate would have done a better job: “The subtitles are so terrible that any translation software would have been better than the Chinese translators. Many lines that are meant to be humorous were so badly butchered by the Chinese subtitles that they become as bland as tap water,” one netizen wrote.

It is not the first time translators have become a target of criticism for cinemagoers (see WiC258). When Marvel’s popular superhero epic Guardians of the Galaxy debuted in China last year, many complained that the dialogue produced by translator Jia Xiuyuan was so bad that the film didn’t make any sense (in fact, the film’s title was translated as “Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team”). The new Avengers epic was reportedly translated by Jia’s mentor, veteran Liu Dayong, who also worked on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Avatar and Titanic.

Still, Beijing Youth Daily says audiences should cut the translators some slack. Liu is said to have had only 10 days to finish translating the entire film. Once the translations were done they were quickly made into subtitles so he didn’t even have time to double-check his work.

Legal Evening News also says many translators are overworked and underpaid. The newspaper reckons that translators might receive only a few thousand yuan for their work on a movie, which typically requires turning 20,000 English words into Chinese. “It is even less than what most white-collar workers would make for 10 day’s work,” the state-run newspaper says. Moreover, translators are usually given no more than a fortnight to finish the job. One cinema boss says to put all the blame on Liu is not fair.

E-commerce giant Alibaba now hopes that the subtitle fiasco won’t deter more Chinese from watching the film. That’s because Tmall, its business-to-consumer site, has inked a deal with Disney to distribute Avengers merchandise online. Goods will not just be available on Disney’s flagship store on the site – Tmall has also helped a few of its biggest vendors to secure licencing rights with the studio to sell other branded Disney products on the platform.

The partnership with Disney marks the first film-related deal for Tmall which says it is pleased to be working with Disney to bring “genuine movie merchandise to our online consumers”.

The move is also important for Disney. In markets like the US, Disney actually makes more money from selling movie merchandise than from ticket sales. And while the box office in China has grown greatly over the past few years, film studios have missed out on merchandising because of rampant local counterfeiting. Alibaba’s Tmall, meanwhile, with its huge user base, can now position its e-commerce site as a reliable source for purchasing licenced Avengers merchandise, says Entrepreneurs’ Daily.

“From now on, fans can put on the same Taobao order movie tickets and other film-related merchandise and then dress from head-to-toe as a superhero,” says the newspaper. The timing looks to be good since demand for Disney products is demonstrably soaring. It opened its biggest retail store globally in Shanghai this week and welcomed such epic crowds that the outlet had to be shut after an hour (see Photo of the Week). At least now they can shop instead at Tmall…

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