Disney sci-fi franchise is still far, far away from popular acceptance in China.
Disney may have had new hope for the Star Wars film franchise in the world’s largest movie market, but a subpar opening weekend in China suggests cinemagoers are feeling less than nostalgic for “The Last Jedi.”
The eighth chapter of the beloved sci-fi series made a disappointing $28.7 million in its China debut last weekend — far less than its two most recent predecessors, stand-alone title “Rogue One” and seventh episode “The Force Awakens,” which raked in $30 million and $52 million, respectively.
For China’s small but enthusiastic subculture of Star Wars fans, the latest film was a visual feast hampered by a protracted plot and uninspired characters. On popular review website Douban, the new film is rated a fairly weak 7.3, based on over 43,000 reviews. The most upvoted review complains that “the whole film really insults the IQ of its audience,” and demands to know how the universe could possibly be ruled by such an incompetent Galactic Empire. “In Star Wars, it seems only Darth Vader had a brain — it’s such a shame he’s already dead,” the reviewer concludes.
Throughout the weekend, Star Wars did not appear among the trending topics on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog site. Instead, Weibo users seemed more interested in a domestic film, “The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes,” a romantic comedy that brought in an impressive $86.7 million on its second weekend.
Star Wars has struggled to gain traction in China since the original trilogy was permitted to screen in the 1990s, more than a decade after the first film’s release in 1977. Disney’s 2015 series reboot, “The Force Awakens,” failed to lure the Chinese masses, even with a huge marketing push that involved 500 stormtroopers marching along the Great Wall.
This time, however, Disney kept its marketing mettle in check, to fans’ apparent relief. Under a trailer posted to the official Star Wars Weibo account, one highly upvoted comment pleaded: “No. 1, please don’t get any ‘little fresh meats’ to act as ambassadors anymore. No. 2, could you leave enough space for the black dude?” In “The Force Awakens” promotional posters for the Chinese market, the image of Finn — played by John Boyega, a British actor with Nigerian ancestry — was greatly reduced in size compared with the same poster for the U.S. market.
Chen Tao, a project manager and longtime Star Wars aficionado who runs the fan forum Star Wars China, told Sixth Tone that the franchise has failed to live up to expectations in China because it arrived late to the market: Many potential viewers, upon hearing that a recently released film is actually the seventh or eighth in a series, feel they have too much catching up to do.
Other factors, according to Chen, include Chinese audiences’ preference for physically attractive protagonists and stories rooted in reality. He points out that, for example, superhero films from Marvel — a Disney cash cow that has enjoyed great success in China — feature recognizable settings, such as New York and even China, and are filled with larger-than-life leads who meet the public’s aesthetic standards. The Star Wars characters, meanwhile, look ordinary by comparison.
“These actors aren’t very beautiful, which may deter a lot of Chinese from seeing the recent films,” said Chen. “We fans often joke that if Finn were played by Will Smith, Chinese people might be more inclined to watch it — because he’s very handsome.”
Like the heroic Rebel Alliance, China’s Star Wars fans are a small but feisty bunch, said Chen — mostly university-educated urbanites with some English ability, in his observation. Chen meets with other fans only a couple of times a year, usually in groups of fewer than 20, at cosplay-heavy events such as Shanghai Comic Con or just for a no-frills meal out.
Wang Jiachen is a kindergarten teacher by day and a self-styled “real-life Jedi” by night: He meets weekly with fellow enthusiasts from the Shanghai Jedi Order to spar with lightsabers. The group, whose members on social media app WeChat exceed 200, occasionally perform choreographed battles at shopping malls and private events. New members are welcome, provided they bring their own lightsabers as well as their own Jedi or Sith costumes — depending on their affiliation with the competing factions in the saga.
“I’m a Jedi,” Wang explained, “so I bought a lot of Jedi lightsabers, but our group doesn’t strictly force members to belong to either the light or dark side.” He told Sixth Tone he joined the order in 2015, when he was looking for others to join him in seeing “The Force Awakens.”
To watch the new film in style, many Star Wars fans, including Wang and his troupe of cosplaying warriors, organized private screenings to which they could show up in full Rebel or Empire regalia, with their arsenals of weapons in tow.
Echoing the sentiments of many fellow fans, Wang and Chen both described the new film as visually appealing but riddled with issues such as atypical behavior from established characters. Luke Skywalker was particularly disappointing to Wang, who felt that the character’s brooding behavior didn’t jibe with the resilience and fearless optimism of the young Luke he had come to know from the original trilogy.
While last year’s film, “Rogue One,” wasn’t a box office success either, it was still enthusiastically received by China’s Star Wars fans. Chen appreciated the film’s positivity and its prevailing sense of hope. “For a lot of fans, the story of ‘Rogue One’ made us think of our own country’s revolutionary history,” he said. “A lot of characters in it were just like the Communist Party members who sacrificed themselves for the revolution.”
Despite the latest film’s well-publicized shortcomings and low Chinese box office earnings, Wang isn’t too down on “The Last Jedi.” “Overall, I still think the movie does have its innovative aspects,” he said. “I can see that it wants to break free from the old mold and remake itself.”
–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.