After ‘Ne Zha’ is China Ready for Their Own Superhero Universe?

Ne Zha has become only the 7th film ever to cross $700MMUSD worldwide and only the 2nd to do so at the China Box-Office, making it the second highest grossing film ever there behind Wolf Warrior 2.

By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large

Sept. 2019


With the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Shared Universe model has attempted to be replicated by multiple studios, to less fanfare than they would have imagined possible. With Warner Bros / DC Ent. even struggling to create their own, from an already established shared DC Comic Universe.

Like the other studio attempts, this shared universe did not have a singular creative mind behind it, as its architect. Rather, it had meddling from studio execs, and divergent creative heads, with an absence of an editorial mind to converge all the pieces together in long-term vision and plan.

As Hollywood begins to get dismayed in their, rushed, attempts to create their own franchised shared universe successes, another emerging film market has been looking at this business model.

The China Box-Office. Where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already made $2.8BnUSD and with the upcoming release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we could be looking at $3.3Bn-$3.5BnUSD for the MCU in the Middle Kingdom.

China already has their own history of serialization in the form of serial fiction, the literature version of the film serial. A common form of cinema that saw its Golden Age in the 1930s and 40s, and it has been argued that the MCU is the modern day version of the serialized movie. 

Legend of the Condor Heroes, by Jin Yong (the Lord of the Rings of Chinese literature)

Jin Yong, Gu Long, and other wuxia novelist have had their stories published in serialized formats in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, in magazines and newspapers, before making their way to book form.

With Jin Yong selling over 100M books, not including the bootlegged copies sold in Mainland China. Where he is regarded as, one of their most famous writers.

While Tencent’s China Literature’s entire business model (based on Qidian’s – the first Freemium online publishing site in China), is made up of releasing stories in the serialized format, one chapter at a time.

Designed not only in a way to profit more heavily through micro-purchases of each chapter, but it fits into the busy smart device on-the-go consuming nature of the modern urban Chinese. While also being a format, from the print world, that is familiar to Chinese in the recent past.

snippet of Legend of the Condor Heroes Ming Pao magazine

Starting in the 1930s up through the 1940s, it was common to have short cartoons (Looney Toons / Tom and Jerry / early Disney), short-form films (The Three Stooges), and serialized pictures to be shown before the beginning of the featured matinee. An early studio model that was utilized in way to get people coming back week-after-week. With such iconic characters such as, Batman and Shazam! (then called Adventures of Captain Marvel) having their first onscreen appearances in serial films.

This in itself stems from the serialized nature of storytelling in the heyday of radio (something that is having a small resurgence in the podcast sphere – which sounds exciting!), which also utilized comic book superheroes in their tales. 

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We even saw a small revival of short format films from Marvel themselves, in their Marvel One-Shots, to fill in the gap between the Marvel Cinematic Universe serial movies. Something that I personally loved, and other than the audio commentaries, were the reason to even purchase the Blu-ray upon its release.

So, why have we not seen something like this in China? Some may argue that we have! In the form of incredibly long television story-arcs, to which I disagree. Even though in TV we do have serialized storytelling, it is not the same.

A television show may have a beginning, middle, end, and can have a serialized nature to it, most recently seen in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They are not serials.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. promo logo

Television shows are series, as film serials & serialized novels, are designed to be open ended; even though they have an ending. Something similarly seen in comic book universes, since Marvel modernized the industry in the 1960s. While TV series are designed to eventually come to an end, and have a definitive stopping point at that time. Or, it will leave a sour taste in its audience, who has spent, potentially years, invested into its narrative.

Though, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Arrowverse over at the CW, began taking serial format to heart, particularly after their first seasons, but neither were designed from their conception to be a serial picture, but a series itself.

TV or streaming shows in China, which though they have a serialized narrative, are still series in that they always have a conclusion, in some form or another, at the end of their run.

This does not need to be the case in China, especially in their film industry. We the beginning of a serialized cinematic universe (movie serial) in the form of Huayi Bros’ (pretty-good) Detective Dee franchise from Hong Kong director, Tsui Hark. But, not one of a shared cinematic universe.

Cover of the original Mingy Dynasty Detective Dee story that went on to be adapted by European crime novelist into the Detective Dee series we know today

During the closing credits of the prequel-sequel Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon were graphic illustrations hinting to other upcoming adventures from the Detective Dee franchise. A series that has a long history in China, and in the West, as it was originally a Gong’an detective novel from the Qing Dynasty in the 18th Century, and later readapted by Dutch diplomat turned novelist, of the modern day Judge Dee series.

A series that became akin to its Western counterparts, Sherlock HolmesHercule Poirot, and Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, but with an “orientalist” twist.

Huayi Bros have the opportunity to create their own shared cinematic universe, by taking their already proposed movie serial franchise, Detective Dee and building upon it from the wealth of stories already available in print.

Detective Dee was the blueprint that Ne Zha followed in that it took a famous Chinese story and modernized it with Chinese familiar elements, adding them together with those of the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero trope.

Another genre that teeters on the edge of Chinese-ness and those of Western superhero elements is the Tomb Raider genre in China, that Mojin: The Lost Legend and its sequels best represent.

A film that began as a serialized story on Tencent’s China Literature, as Ghost Blows Out the Light, before moving to the big and small (streaming video) screen, and one where you can see its genres elements help propel both the superhero films of Aquamanwhere we discuss in our podcast – and Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider at the China Box-Office.

Ne Zha with over $700MM at the China Box-Office, the three film franchise of Detective Dee, along with the Tomb Raiding genre that saw Marvel Comics teaming with NetEase Comics to launch the Chinese Superhero Sword Master in China and now here in the U.S. We may finally be seeing the rise of the Chinese Superhero Genre and over the next decade we also could be seeing the Chinese Superhero finding his own voice, just as we saw with the superhero of Japan finding their own in like of Ultraman, and those of manga and anime such as, My Hero Academia.

Stay Tuned China Watchers!

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About the Author

Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.