With a slate of autumn releases underway, many film pundits, myself included, have looked to certain releases that have been hotly anticipated and long-delayed as an indicator of what to expect for the winter box office season. Recent weeks have seen a turning point since the COVID-19 pandemic first began, with numbers also looking promising in the weeks to come, and it is two Canadians, Simu Liu and Denis Villeneuve, who are at the forefront of this historical shift.
While there is a slight sparsity in comparing the two, as one is an actor and the other a filmmaker, both are absolutely central to their respective films’ successes. This may be an obvious statement regarding Villeneuve, who has written, produced, and directed the upcoming Dune, and thus is the single most important person on the entire production, yet his influence also transcends these roles. Let’s not forget, Denis Villeneuve is one of only a few true commercial auteurs in the industry today, with his majestic touch apparent in his films’ intoxicating flurry of dramatic grandiose, sweeping cinematography, and masterful visual effects. Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 will go down as classics of science fiction, if they aren’t already, and fans have come to anticipate each and every genre piece from Villeneuve, much in the vein of other auteurs such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino.
Simu Liu, on the other hand, plays the titular role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, yet the significance of the role far surpasses that of Dune’s lead Timothée Chalamet. Before the Chalamites are up in arms over this statement, make no mistake that the role of Paul Atreides in Villeneuve’s Dune is highly coveted and Chalamet is one of the most talented actors of his generation. However, this is ultimately Villeneuve’s show, it is not a part of the most successful franchise in cinematic history, and it is hardly a watershed moment for a white actor to lead a sci-fi epic. When it comes to Shang-Chi, though, things are quite the opposite, as Disney/Marvel have made no secret of centring Simu Liu as the face of the movie, ushering in their first Asian lead and a new major player in the MCU. This, of course, is not to downplay the pivotal role of writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, who showcases some of the best direction seen in the MCU thus far, but his part is expectedly overshadowed by Liu’s breakout.
Liu and Villeneuve clearly bring different things to the table, but they now seem to share a united cause: the revival of the box office. This is no small feat, as several other movies have tried and failed to do so, such as Black Widow and The Suicide Squad. To be fair, both saw simultaneous releases on their respective production company’s streaming platform (that and The Suicide Squad is R-rated, meaning inherently lower numbers), yet the same can be said of Villeneuve’s Dune, which is also seeing a dual release on HBO Max and if the early international numbers are anything to go by, it is on track to not only surpass Shang-Chi, but also Villeneuve’s own pre-pandemic feature, Blade Runner 2049.
Obviously, these are only early numbers that could shift on a whim, especially as this is a staggered release intended for countries that do not have access to HBO Max (its official worldwide release is October 22nd), but they are nonetheless encouraging, as Dune has topped almost all the international markets in which it has screened thus far. While Villeneuve has come to terms with Dune’s dual release structure, he has been pleading with audiences to see the film in theatres, or more specifically, IMAX, as it is how he has always intended for it to be watched. With IMAX tickets accounting for 10% of the film’s current total gross, it’s clear that audiences are also on the same page, with many surely heeding Villeneuve’s words.
I could go on about the numbers for Shang-Chi by comparison, but I have already covered it last week. The only update that matters here is that for the third straight week Liu’s movie sits atop the domestic box office, having already grossed more than $300 million US worldwide, with few signs of forfeiting the top spot going into its fourth week, showing the best collective numbers for any movie release since the beginning of the pandemic. Just as Shang-Chi will likely begin to lose steam and drop down the charts, Dune seems poised to step in and assume that top position, continuing the revival of the theatrical box office by Canadians.