Saturday 19 October 2019

James Dempsey: Made in China - why Iron Man is going all out to conquer Chinese market

James Dempsey

WHAT does Iron Man rely on to revitalise his energy?

Is it the arc reactor core found in the centre of genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist’s chest, or is it Gu Li Duo, a milk drink from an Inner-Mongolian dairy? Well that’s what the specialised Chinese version of Iron Man 3 would have you believe, with a huge advert introducing the Marvel superhero’s new release across the People’s Republic today.

In the three years since Robert Downey Jr. last led a superflick while flying solo, a lot has changed in the Chinese market. While Iron Man 2 only grossed $8m in China in 2010, the nation’s prosperous economy has seen thousands of new multiplexes open, pushing the country into the number two spot in global cinema consumption. Last year’s Avengers Assemble, of which Iron Man 3 has already toppled its foreign territory opening-weekend box office, brought home a very healthy $84m in China, helping to push it past a billion dollars, and then some. And while the release of Iron Man 3 will test Marvel’s mettle in the communist state, hopes are very high.

While the poets would have you believe that hope springs eternal, it’s best sprung when diverted by meticulous planning and localised pandering, and Marvel has therefore made efforts to maximise the broad appeal of Tony Stark’s robotic alter ego to Chinese viewers. No easy feat, all things considered, as Iron Man 3 is a sequel to a franchise that most Chinese cinemagoers have never seen. Not to mention that the film’s principal antagonist, played with gusto by a scene-stealing Sir Ben Kingsley, is The Mandarin – who in the 60s’ comic books emerged as Chinese-born aristocratic megalomaniac genius, an expert of martial arts, bejewelled with magical rings and racial stereotyping.

The first thing, obviously, was to rebrand the baddy, with The Mandarin becoming Man Daren. Easy peasy. But you don’t break a billion dollars just by dropping the definite article, in every sense of the word. Instead, attract some of the biggest stars of Chinese cinema to appear in the film, while filming a number of scenes in China, and collaborating on the film with DMG, a China-based production company. Then simply recut the entire film, adding four and a half extra minutes designated for Chinese audiences only. Iron Man 3, A box office hit, assembled?

Yes and no. On the one hand, the film has already broken box office records across China, at Wednesday night midnight screenings. At the very beginnings of May Day, the workers of the communist state united at their local cinema to the tune of $2.1m. But Chinese bloggers and users of Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, were scathing in their criticism of the indulgent marketing scheme that the extra Chinese scenes amount to.

The renowned actor Wang Xueqi had spoken in interviews about the significance of his work in the film, “a very challenging role,” playing the “very complicated individual.” If you’ve seen the film, you may be asking yourself, “Dr. Who?” I’ve seen it twice, and it took a Google search to refresh my knowledge of the 10-second appearance Dr. Wu makes in the opening minute of the film. In China, he gets an additional second act phone call to Tony Stark, as well as a last minute Mandarin-language scene with Fan Bingbing, one of China’s superstar actresses. In the international version, they say nothing, and are wearing masks.

Instead of the triumphant collaboration Marvel had planned, many Chinese observers are coming down strongly against the cheap use of product placement in the film (the giant TCL corporation’s electronic products feature prominently throughout the Chinese scenes). Not to mention the location shots filmed at the famous Yongdingmen Gate in Beijing, and seen in the trailer, being entirely cut.

Of the whole affair, director Shane Black was typically unfazed, noting that he and Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t filmed the China-based scenes, but that he’s seen them, and they met his approval. The cast and crew of the film did complete a publicity tour through China last month, however, and while the critics have been vocal, in China it’s the money that talks loudest. Time will tell whether Marvel’s specially prepared bonus footage will be enough to win communist audiences over to perhaps the most capitalist superhero there is.


Follow James: @James_Proclaims


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