Let the games begin. The Marvel-NetEase announcement mentions other content but leads with video games, a larger potential market than comics and less likely to be a flashpoint in regards censorship.
NetEase, based in China’s tech hub of Guangzhou, has built a game-optimized network that also delivers content around education, music and ecommerce. The company is also in the very sensitive position of being between content providers and Chinese consumers, and obviously under the close eye of the Chinese government.
"Having admired the work Marvel has created over the years, we are excited to incorporate these beloved stories and characters into world-class entertainment content for global fans," said William Ding, founder and CEO of NetEase. "Adhering to NetEase’s brand statement of ‘Passion of Gamers’, we will work hard to deliver the type of high-quality content that game players and Marvel fans will be pleased to see."
"We are thrilled to expand Marvel’s presence in China with NetEase," said Jay Ong, EVP, Head of Marvel Games and Strategic Lead of Marvel Asia. "Our biggest mobile game ever, Marvel Contest of Champions, recently launched in China with NetEase to great fanfare and excitement – and we are eager to see all that’s still to come from this relationship."
Contest of Champions is a mobile fighting game set in the Marvel Universe, but notably heavy on action relative to story. NetEase publishes Blizzard’s World of Warcraft in China, and likely knows this terrain pretty well.
What’s the bigger story? The announcement gets more interesting and less specific on other fronts like TV series and comics developed for the Chinese market. "We can’t wait to share more about the exciting new games and other content that will be developed with this partnership," said Dan Buckley, President of Marvel Entertainment, who seems, nevertheless, ok waiting to share those details for now, since none were forthcoming in the release.
On one hand, it’s not hard to see what the partners have in mind. The latest MCU blockbuster, Avengers: Endgame, brought in a staggering $610 million of its $2.62 billion in China to date, making it by far the highest-grossing foreign film ever in that market. Avengers: Infinity War didn’t do so badly either, indicating that Chinese movie-goers are not so different from the rest of the world, at least in their love for Captain America, Iron Man and the gang.
But China exerts a famously heavy hand on its own creators and on foreign companies wanting to access their lucrative entertainment market. It is particularly touchy about negative portrayals of the Chinese government, Chinese culture and Chinese policy toward Tibet, which the country occupied by force in 1951 and now claims as part of its territory. Last year, The New York Times lifted the curtain on some of these practices, including an example where Marvel changed the ethnicity of Doctor Strange’s mentor The Ancient One from Tibetan to Celt "out of fears of offending the Chinese government and people" – a characterization of events disputed by Marvel.
There are good reasons to avoid trafficking in nasty or shopworn stereotypes about China in popular culture notwithstanding the views of their government, but it wouldn’t be a good look for the publishers of Captain America to submit to prior restraint from a foreign competitor.
Remember when Disney hired Henry Kissinger to manage the diplomatic fallout from Kundun, Martin Scorcese’s 1997 biopic of the Dalai Lama, which ruffled China’s feathers so much that the country torpedoed the release of Mulan two years later in retaliation? Anyone think that will happen again?
A complicated dance. This week’s issue of The Economist features a cover story on the “new Cold War” between America and China over trade. The repercussions of that dispute are already being felt in the comics and gaming industry (see “Games, Books, Periodicals, Toys Targeted in New Round of China Tariffs”) and in the culture at large, where politics reduces a lot of complicated issues to “us vs. them” battles.
In the area of popular culture, it’s especially tricky. China has historically admired American entertainment and creativity, but its government reportedly fears its potency in subverting traditional culture and authority. Chinese media, entertainment and technology companies see the energy and the money created by superheroes at the box office and through merchandise licensing deals worldwide. Like others outside of comics culture, they see the costumes, the special effects, the formulaic storytelling and the action as the selling points, and recognize how the stories appeal to mass audiences across every media platform, even if they don’t understand exactly why they appeal.
Consequently, Chinese companies have moved in to strike up partnerships with content owners and publishers as a pure business play, absent any cultural overhead. In 2017, Chinese-owned investment company DMG (run by an American, Dan Mintz), acquired Valiant Entertainment. I have been told, perhaps in jest, that they were partially influenced by a story in Forbes that accurately but misleadingly identified Valiant as the owner of the “third-largest corporate owned superhero universe.”
Last year, a relatively unknown Chinese company called Vanguard Visionary Associates led by former Disney executive Stanley Chung, took a significant stake in Dark Horse to capitalize the company’s move into film and television production. Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group acquired Legendary Pictures for $3.5 billion, including its comic publishing division.
Marvel’s new collaboration with NetEase does not sound like one of those deals. Marvel and its parent, Disney, don’t need anyone’s money and seem to be doing fine in China with or without partners. That said, you can’t be too careful when it comes to a market of 1.3 billion people.
Let’s hope Marvel and its new partner use this as an opportunity to collaborate in ways that move the US-China story forward – respecting the integrity of Marvel’s US-based comic storytelling as well as China’s concerns over subversive content - rather than simply trimming out the tricky bits and pocketing the money.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.