With around $406 million domestic and around $922 million worldwide as of Friday, Spider-Man: No Way Home will spend Christmas Day swinging past the $1 billion mark. The film is both the biggest global grosser of 2021 (ahead of the mostly-in-China $904 million gross of The Battle at Lake Changjin) and the first billion-dollar earner since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ($1.073 billion) in December 2019. Moreover, while the likes of Detective Chinatown 3 ($690 million), Hi Mom ($837 million) and The Battle at Lake Changjin offer up a picture of a China that no longer needs copious Hollywood tentpoles to thrive, Sony and Marvel’s $200 million superhero sequel is already the rare blockbuster to cross $1 billion without a penny from China. It is the 49th film to pass $1 billion worldwide in unadjusted global grosses, but it is just the fifth to do so sans China.
It sits alongside Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($1.066 billion in 2006), The Dark Knight ($1.004 billion in 2008), Alice in Wonderland ($1.025 billion in 2010) and Joker ($1.073 billion in 2019). Most entries on the list did not need China to pass the milestone. But the rise in $1 billion-grossing flicks did coincide with A) the rise in post-Avatar 3-D upcharges and B) the emergence of China as a major moviegoing marketplace. It goes back to the general purpose of China for Hollywood. It’s not about turning flops into hits, but about artificially juicing (in a huge market where Hollywood only gets back 25% of the ticket price) the already large grosses of already successful worldwide tentpoles. Even Transformers: Age of Extinction would have earned a still-huge $804 million worldwide (more than Guardians of the Galaxy that year) without its $301 million Chinese haul.
If/when Spider-Man: No Way Home opens in China (it may already have governmental approval), it will only do its part to help the Tom Holland/Zendaya MCU actioner get closer to the global total of Frozen ($1.45 billion), The Lion King ($1.66 billion) or Avengers: Infinity War ($2.048 billion). Likewise, No Time to Die earned $613 million overseas (and $774 million worldwide) with “just” $60 million from China. Now there are franchises that still “matter” in China, such as The Fast Saga (F9 earned $203 million out of $721 million in China), the MonsterVerse (Godzilla Vs. Kong earned $188 million out of $469 million in China) and Spider-Man (Far from Home earned $199 million out of $1.131 billion in China in summer 2019). Likewise, I would argue Disney/20th Century Studios is relying on Chinese interest in Avatar 2 (Avatar’s reissue in 2021 earned $55 million) to mitigate drop-off elsewhere.
With Covid-impacted domestic earnings and China’s growing disinterest in Hollywood flicks, there was cause to wonder if Rise of Skywalker would be Hollywood’s last $1 billion grosser at least until Avatar 2. That Spider-Man: No Way Home has zoomed past the milestone in just over two weeks without China is the very definition of hope. And it again highlights a key variable in a complicated relationship. China does not make Hollywood tentpoles into blockbusters. China merely makes already-successful Hollywood tentpoles into global monsters. Once No Way Home passes $1.074 billion, it will be the biggest grosser since Frozen II. Once it zooms past $1.131 billion, it will be the biggest Spider-Man movie ever (having already passed the $402 million unadjusted domestic cume of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) and Sony’s biggest grosser ever. And once it passes Black Panther’s $1.347 billion cume, it will be the biggest solo superhero movie ever.