There is no greater testament to the power of China’s box office than Venom, a critically panned superhero movie about a man and the parasitic alien symbiote that threatens to eat him.
In the three weekends since Venom opened in China on November 9, the film has made an estimated $243 million in the country alone. That number is already higher than Venom’s domestic take of $211 million since its US debut, and it brings the movie’s worldwide total to about $822 million — over $600 million of which comes from its foreign haul, and over a quarter of which comes from China.
To put Venom’s global success in perspective, thanks to how well it has been received by Chinese moviegoers, the movie has now made more money worldwide than Warner Bros.’s Wonder Woman ($821 million worldwide), Fox’s Deadpool 2 ($734 million worldwide), and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp ($622 million worldwide).
Its $610 million foreign gross has also surpassed that of its fellow Sony superhero film Spider-Man: Homecoming, which last year brought in $545 million in foreign markets. That’s especially noteworthy because Spider-Man: Homecoming is a co-production from Sony and Marvel, and thus it received much more marketing attention than Venom did, due to its existence within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which Venom is not part of).
Even more noteworthy is that Venom has outperformed its superhero peers despite not having Wonder Woman’s critical success, Deadpool’s irreverent underdog status, or the backing of Marvel’s superhero hype machine like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ant-Man.
But what is it about Venom that has resonated in China to the degree that the movie is breaking the country’s superhero box office records?
Perhaps it’s the power of Tom Hardy’s pout as Eddie Brock and Venom, or Riz Ahmed’s smolder as the movie’s villain, Carlton Drake. Perhaps Chinese moviegoers recognize Michelle Williams, who plays love interest Anne Weying, for the cinematic treasure that she is. Or perhaps they simply prefer Venom over Spider-Man.
What we do know is that part of the calculus has to do with how the movie was marketed and how Chinese audiences, even before the movie came out, turned the film into its own kind of phenomenon.
Abacus News, a Hong Kong–based news site covering China’s tech scene, reported earlier this month that a fan-made comedic meme depicting Venom as a socialist hero who just wants everyone to join the Chinese Communist Party — a sardonic take on American movies that make a point to cater to Chinese audiences — went viral.
The joke-within-a-joke underscores just how important it is for American movies to get released in China, but also how Chinese moviegoers view American movies where that importance becomes obvious. There’s nothing about Venom that feels particularly tailored to or pandering to China, unlike many other films that have courted the country’s interest. It’s set in San Francisco; the main characters are played by Americans or Brits; and there’s no pronounced reference to China other than a scene that takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But the fan-made meme that imagined the movie as just the latest example of American movies trying to woo Chinese moviegoers clearly captured attention nonetheless.
Additionally, prior to the film’s release, Venom was also marketed in China in a unique way: by depicting the movie’s anti-hero alien as an object of desire. Sony’s official Chinese social media marketing campaign portrayed the titular symbiote as a loving and caring boyfriend. Never mind that the more obvious interpretation of the film’s story has nothing to do with romance.
If you’re willing to look past its parasitic tendencies and the risk of the alien symbiote consuming every fiber of a loved one’s being, then it could do nice things for you, like help you take selfies or keep you dry from the rain:
These are from Sony Pictures’ official Chinese Weibo account, explaining why Venom would make a good boyfriend.— Darren Mooney (@Darren_Mooney) September 25, 2018
I kinda want THIS movie. pic.twitter.com/xQzouqN5Pb
Chinese memes about Venom, combined with the silliness of Sony’s charm offensive and Venom’s depicted earnestness, seem to have generated huge interest in the movie from Chinese audiences. And before we throw stones at Chinese teratophilia, you have to remember that there are plenty of Americans who want to do bad things with the symbiote too.
The real lessons here are that Sony potentially missed out on piles of domestic box office cash because it didn’t lean into the monster boyfriend angle hard enough in the US, and that a powerful Chinese box office — no matter the reason — can turn a movie into a box office monster.