After ‘Free Man’ Received the Field Workplace, Hollywood’s Subsequent Pandemic Hit Is a Massive Query Mark

Which films remaining in 2021 will outperform their box office expectations? Barry Wetcher/WB
Ryan Reynolds’ 20th Century video game comedy Free Guy is unexpectedly over-performing at the box office with nearly $60 million in the United States in its first two weeks. Paramount’s Paw Patrol took in a decent $13 million in its opening weekend despite also being available on Paramount+. Dwayne Johnson’s Disney adventure Jungle Cruise is cruising (sorry) toward $100 million domestic.
Despite the warranted pessimism surrounding the box office at the moment, there have been a few pleasant surprises here and there. So rather than focus on the doom-and-gloom of the lumpy theatrical recovery (the 2021 year-to-date box office is still 70% off of 2019’s), let’s instead look toward a future of hopeful breakouts.
Which upcoming films stand the best chance at over-performing at the box office?
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore
In the new normal Hollywood currently finds itself, Dergarabedian is reluctant to examine cinematic success in such binary terms. He sees multiple paths that exist outside of just raw dollars and cents.
“Over-performing can take many forms right now,” he told Observer. “Even if a movie has a soft performance in theaters, it could be kicking ass on streaming. Consider that an over-performance can be a metric that ties together multiple elements of an ecosystem of sentiment that’s layered in and around the sheer numbers of streaming and box office.”
“Over-performing can take many forms right now. Even if a movie has a soft performance in theaters, it could be kicking ass on streaming.”
Any film that is well-received by critics, embraced by audiences, but doesn’t necessarily do all that great at the box office under these unprecedented circumstances can still be an overall win. (Here’s looking at you, The Suicide Squad.) But in terms of sleeper candidates that may be flying under the radar, Dergarabedian sees Dear Evan Hansen, Many Saints of Newark, Halloween Kills, Jackass Forever, Last Night in Soho, House of Gucci, West Side Story and Sing 2 as reasonable lottery tickets.
“One movie that is not a slam dunk is The Matrix 4,” he warned. “It’s been a long time since The Matrix franchise. But if it’s really good, there’s no reason it can’t reach $100 million domestic.”
Perusing the upcoming film lineup, the box office expert was impressed with the volume and scale of the features on the horizon: “With this lineup of movies, it feels like summer in the fall.”
Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Marvel Studios
Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro
Due in large part to the current age limitations of vaccines and higher caution among parents, Robbins sees a clear absence from the calendar of family-skewing movies with appeal to younger kids. In that void steps a number of high-profile branded biggies that could potentially soak up big box office totals—if all goes well.
“Considering the audiences who are showing up right now, films like Shang-Chi, No Time to Die, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Halloween Kills, and Dune each stand out to me,” he told Observer.
With the lack of family friendly biggies, the larger tentpole movies and their compatriots will have to endure some heavy lifting to expedite theatrical recovery. The hope is that a logjam of blockbusters will spur more consistent ticket sales the rest of the year.
“The movie business is still at the mercy of elements beyond its control, but it certainly isn’t alone in that challenge.”
“Still, those aforementioned movies are the best bets for the industry right now and they would provide healthy lead-ins to similarly targeted blockbusters like Eternals, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Top Gun Maverick, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the fourth Matrix as they’re currently dated through year’s end,” Robbins said. “For audiences that have already shown a willingness to come back, these are the kinds of movies that can generate a strong draw for the communal theatrical experience.”
These are all films that appeal to a young male demographic, and as it continues to venture out to theaters, these blockbusters need a healthy global marketplace to thrive. That’s one of the downsides to nine-figure budgets. Robbins explains that the industry is now at a point where studios are asking themselves if the risk-reward ratio of partial box office runs from a fractured global distribution favors the current plan to release them under status quo conditions or to delay anything again to later in the year or even into 2022.
“The movie business is still at the mercy of elements beyond its control, but it certainly isn’t alone in that challenge,” he said.
Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Sony Pictures Entertainment
Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations
Bock also sees a demo-specific surge that offers both opportunity and limitation to the current movie marketplace.
“The pandemic has been a return to ’80s filmmaking where seemingly every other successful was tailor-made for 13-year-old boys,” Bock told Observer. “When we look at the films that have had unexpectedly large openings—Mortal Kombat, Demon Slayer, Godzilla vs. Kong, Free Guy—a majority of them point to men 35 and under making up a sizable audience. So, for the time being, and since horror films have been really the only genre that has been pandemic-proof, it seems this trend will continue through the fall.”
“The pandemic has been a return to ’80s filmmaking where seemingly every other successful was tailor-made for 13-year-old boys.”
As a result, he highlights Malignant, Jackass Forever, Halloween Kills as films that have a clear path to success. At the same time, he sees larger films that demand adult audiences such as Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune as likely stragglers. Then there’s Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which was recently delayed (again) until Oct. 15.
“Venom 2 is an interesting dilemma; on one hand it caters to young men, but to truly bloom at the box office, it will rely heavily on families just as its predecessor did,” Bock said. “So, depending on how these COVID counts shake out this fall, it might not be the last move Sony makes with their superhero flick.”

‘Shang-Chi’ Could Be the Least Harmful Martial Arts Film Ever Made

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Marvel Studios
“You are a product of all those who came before you,” says Jiang Nan (Michelle Yoh) to her nephew, the hero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), as she begins to train him to defend his late mother’s ancestral village from an invading army led by his father, the power hungry Wenwu, aka The Mandarin (Tony Leung).
Well, yeah — with special emphasis on “product.”
For his much-hyped Marvel Studios debut, the formerly independent film director Destin Daniel Cretton, known for social justice movies like 2013’s Short Term 12 (starring his regular collaborator Brie Larson, aka Captain Marvel) and 2019’s Just Mercy, has crafted a shiny, inoffensive commodity of a film.
Sanitized by copious computer-generated special effects and washed clean of blood, sweat or any of the other grimier byproducts of the candy-colored, kid-friendly violence at its center, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may take the title as the least dangerous martial arts movie ever made.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS ★★1/2(2.5/4 stars)Directed by: Destin Daniel CrettonWritten by: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew LanhamStarring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony LeungRunning time: ### mins.

And yet, while the film’s overall sheen of corporate sterility may disappoint those whose love affair with Kung Fu flicks developed through midnight movies and UHF matinees, Cretton’s film still makes notable contributions to the genre.
The director wisely keeps his camera back from the action and uses longer takes, giving the fight scenes an elegant, dance-like quality, especially early on. Then there is his skilled, charming, almost all Asian cast — an ensemble that levels up from good to extraordinary thanks to the presence of Hong Kong legend Tony Leung as the movie’s chief antagonist.
Playing a thousand-year-old warrior both irredeemably corrupted and made all but immortal by his possession of ten rings of mysterious origin and unimaginable power, Leung is suave, restrained and powerful. He is able to convey centuries worth of rage and heartbreak with the slightest of glances.
The 59-year-old star of more than 85 films exudes a magisterial sexual charisma that is palpable to the point of distraction. Yes, it points to his singularity as one of the most magnetic presences in international cinema over the last four decades, but it also shows by comparison how chaste the rest of the film is.
Which is not to say the Chinese Canadian actor Simi Liu does not make a hunky and affable central presence as the hero of the title. It’s that even when he is dispatching a bus full of assassins employing a martial arts mastery which had laid dormant in the character for a decade or so, his energy is avuncular and demure to the point of being passionless and staid.
The Kim’s Convenience star does have a lively and free-flowing comic repartee with Awkwafina, who plays Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend and protector who joins him on a globe-hopping adventure as to confront his father and reunite with his estranged and aggrieved younger sister Xialing (the Chinese actor Meng’er Zhang, making her feature film debut). But even here you are confronted with what could be rather than what is; the two are never given free rein to truly break loose with their comedic riffs.
With its evocation of a magical city torn from the pages of Chinese folklore and filled with fantastic creatures and all sorts of magic, the film is reminiscent of Black Panther’s depiction of Wakanda. But where Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film was an act of defiant Afrofuturistic imagination against the imperialist forces that have stripped Africa of its sovereignty, Shang-Chi’s invocation of a culture protected from the outside world by a magical forest is comparatively regressive and pointedly apolitical.
Marvel studios majordomo Kevin Feige has said that, with Shang-Chi, “we swing for the fences as we always do.” In truth, the film seems so similar to the studio’s past products — including a momentum halting final act showdown so overrun with computer effects that you can almost hear the servers humming beneath Joel P. West’s score — that, its remarkable cast aside, the movie is closer to a bunt down the third base line.
Shang-Chi certainly deserves credit as a groundbreaking step of representation in mega-budget filmmaking. You just desperately wish that the terrain it treads upon didn’t feel so safe.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Shang-Chi’ Proves We Don’t Have to Fear About Marvel Shedding Its Superhero Mojo

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Marvel Studios
It shouldn’t be possible. None of it. Not for this long at least. And yet here we are on the verge of yet another dynamite go-around. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will introduce Marvel’s first new lead character since 2019’s Captain Marvel and serve as the MCU’s first linear origin story since 2015’s Ant-Man, puts to bed any concern fans might have had about a drop off in Phase IV of the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the MCU is the single-most consistently successful creation in Hollywood history. No other series or franchise has enjoyed the same uninterrupted string of critical and commercial victories. Thirteen years, 24 feature films, $23 billion at the worldwide box office and the superhero genre’s first-ever Best Picture nomination. It’s like Mount Olympus and Mount Rushmore combined forces for pedestal supremacy.
Yet after the decade-in-the-making Infinity Saga culminated in Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time, a resetting of expectations was the only logical next step. Not every title could be a billion dollar grosser or an Oscar nominee. As we moved away from Iron Man, Captain America and the other founding members of the MCU, it’s only natural that interest would wane for new characters. Momentum is a finite resource.
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But Shang-Chi is shockingly good, emphasizing a deep commitment to themes of family and inherited legacy, while also perhaps being the funniest Marvel movie since 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (Awkwafina is a scene-stealer start to finish). Steeped in martial arts and mysticism, it boasts the best fight choreography this side of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Daredevil. Marvel’s pedestrian action sequences can often leave you waiting impatiently for the next quip to be fired. But like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler before him, director Destin Daniel Cretton infuses the set pieces with a real sense of style and fluidity (though Shang-Chi is plagued by some shoddy CGI). Star Simu Liu gives Marvel a homegrown non-powered human ass-kicker that needs to be trotted out for punch ’em ups on a regular basis starting now.
Refreshingly, Shang-Chi allows its characters to be flawed and hide shameful secrets without bending over backwards to fix our heroes or ameliorate their mistakes. It also features the single weirdest third-act climax in Marvel history. In a sea of sameness, this critic respected a swing-for-the-fences move in the pursuit of something new, but it’s sure to lose certain viewers.
The script doesn’t do Shang-Chi the character many favors, doling out the best lines and bits to his surrounding compatriots. But by doing that, it also uses the character as Marvel’s best audience surrogate in recent memory. There is a hilarious dynamic to be further mined from Liu’s bewildered badass playing against other familiar MCU heroes used to the daily grind of abnormal shenanigans.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021.
Most importantly, Shang-Chi continues to defy expectations for Marvel. It closes out an unofficial trilogy of groundbreaking new solo lead films that began with Black Panther, a touchstone of blockbuster representation with a predominately African American cast, and continued with Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first female-led superhero title. Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first Asian-led film. Beyond the much-needed infusion of diversity, it helps prove Marvel’s knack for character and world-building. Just when we thought momentum might slip with core characters threatening to overstay their welcome, the MCU crafts a compelling new hero that firms the support beams of the future.
Much like serialized television, it’s difficult to introduce new characters after a couple seasons in and earn the same level of audience affection and critical acclaim that the originals accrued. Yet Marvel keeps rolling out successful new iterations of our hero archetype, each with their own unique backstory and characterization. Instead of growing stale with its constant self-reference and inward exploration, the MCU manages to twist and recreate that dynamic by balancing it on the edge of a new character that brings something fresh to the franchise. In this case, the mysticism of Shang-Chi promises further inviting adventures that will intersect with other corners of the series in exciting ways.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t just a good movie (it is). It’s a thesis statement for the post-Infinity Saga Marvel universe. As long as new would-be franchise-starters can be this creative and entertaining, we need not worry about Phase IV and beyond.