- Captain America: the Winter Soldier grossed $115.6 million in China starting April 4, 2014
- The sequel is set to hit Chinese theaters May 6, Disney’s third day-and-date release in 2016
- The red-white-and-blue film will flout propaganda against too much Western content
- A Chinese army newspaper called Disney’s Zootopia “invisible propaganda”
If the U.S. is waging an “invisible propaganda” war against Beijing—as one Chinese military newspaper railed this week—then they appear to be winning, as Disney confirmed on Friday its Captain America franchise is heading back to China.
Disney’s official WeChat social media account said the studio will have its third day-and-date release in the Chinese market so far this year, when Captain America: Civil War follows Zootopia and The Jungle Book, onto China’s screens on May 6.
The announcement, which was widely expected, could be seen as an affront to the Nanjing-based professor at a People’s Liberation Army-backed academy who railed against the onslaught of American pop-culture on Chinese audiences.
“Hollywood has long been an effective propaganda machine for the U.S. by using blockbuster films to promote U.S. values and global strategy,” thundered the editorial in the PLA Daily on Wednesday.
“In a world of cruel reality, it is always a wolf that eats a sheep instead of the other way round. Such a fundamental concept that even a child could understand was easily turned around by Hollywood.”
It would be a mistake to consider the views of one PLA Daily article as representative of more than a marginal view in China. Users of leading Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat slapped the paper down, accusing it of overthinking things and needing to learn to relax.
But even positive reviews of Zootopia openly questioned why the allegorical tale hadn’t been censored. In an article titled “Zootopia, Pretty Much a Banned Film” one online portal Sina author, Wang Haitao, saw layers of meaning in the film.
The film exposes how a society may look peaceful and ideal on the outside, argued Wang, but at the same time contains many different levels of darkness and conspiracy on the inside. (The subtext? If the censors really understood it, they’d ban it).
The return of Captain America to China seems odd against the backdrop of official complaints that China’s schools are beset by subversive and potentially ruinous “Western ideas.”
As increasingly paranoid Chinese authorities crack down on “Western values” in textbooks, cinema screens are filled with examples of American soft power, even as officials release guidelines aimed at safeguarding “national cultural and ideological security.”
Last year’s superhero parody Jianbing Man may provide the clue as to why Beijing would invite Captain America back. If that film had any subtext, it was that China lacks a coherent ideology on which a superhero can pin his colors.
The Russo brothers, creators of the Captain America franchise, recently launched a startup studio whose aim is to partner with two Chinese entertainment companies to produce and create Chinese-language films. They may be able to help with a very specific kind of film, said Stanley Rosen, political science professor at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
“The Russo Brothers have been cultivating China for years and may be helping China learn how to make such films with Chinese heroes,” Rosen told CFI. “Despite the injunction on the importance of ‘socialist core values’—the priority of ‘social benefits’ over economic gains—box office still matters.”
Whether the Russos’ help will be needed remains to be seen. The first film in the Disney/Marvel franchise, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, grossed $115.6 million in China starting April 4, 2014, but Jianbing Man, the homegrown parody, grossed $186 million and a sequel is in the works for 2017.