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Why ‘Wolf Warriors 2’ Had a Record-Setting Roar in China

Hollywood’s summer slump left international audiences craving a hit, and the plot was what Chinese fans wanted

With $775 million and counting as of Aug. 21, director and star Wu Jing’s “Wolf Warriors 2” has easily become China’s highest-grossing movie ever, thanks to a favorable schedule, a massive audience salivating for something worth going to the theater for — and a distinctly Chinese approach to a shoot-‘em-up epic.

The film, which stars Wu as Leng Feng, a special-ops soldier who attempts to rescue trapped Chinese civilians from the midst of an African civil war, passed Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid,” which was the first homegrown Chinese film to break the $500 million mark at the country’s box office. “Wolf Warriors 2” is also the only Chinese movie to crack the all-time worldwide top 100 in box office gross.

While U.S. box office has endured an abysmal summer, why has director Wu Jing’s adventure been so dominant? Here are three key factors behind the unprecedented success of “Wolf Warriors 2”:

China’s summer blackout period served its purpose

“Wolf Warriors 2” hit cinemas from Shanghai to Shenzhen during the country’s unofficial summer blackout period, when films from Hollywood are kept out of theaters to make way for homegrown fare.

The last American import to grace China’s multiplexes this year was “Despicable Me 3,” which hit theaters July 7 and grossed $153 million in the country — and isn’t exactly direct competition for a shoot-em-up action flick like “Wolf Warriors 2.” And prior to that, “Transformers: The Last Knight” came to China, where it underwhelmed with $229 million — far less than the $320 million its predecessor grossed in the country.

By the time “Wolf Warrior 2” premiered on July 27, the field was clear. And while the movie didn’t carpet-bomb the country like last year’s “Warcraft,” which opened on 67 percent of China’s screens, “Wolf Warriors 2” was able to start with a healthy 42 percent of the country’s screens and take off from there.

Hollywood’s weak summer created pent-up demand

With about 40 days left until the end of the third quarter, the domestic box office is at just $1.1 billion total — well off last year’s pace, when the box office for those three months was nearly $3 billion. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” earned a respectable $314 million domestically and $725 million worldwide since its July 7 release, but it’s been pretty barren other than that.

The slump has absolutely devastated movie theater stocks, as Americans have been voting with their wallets in favor of alternative entertainment options. But in China, where the box office had been growing at more than 10 percent a year before flat-lining last year, there’s a constantly expanding market with plenty of demand for a night at the movies that hadn’t been met by Hollywood or a weak local slate. “Spider-Man” hasn’t even made it to China.

The powerful nationalistic theme resonated

Other Chinese films have been blessed with a relatively clear field and pent-up demand, but there’s another reason “Wolf Warriors 2” was able to take off to such a degree at the Chinese box office: its patriotic and muscular pro-China message was clearly what the country’s audience was craving.

Wu’s hero Leng Feng kicks some serious tail — with major-league action sequences and special effects — but he’s always working as a small part of a larger whole. His mission is to evacuate his countrymen and women, and an omnipotent Chinese military looms large throughout the film.

“Maybe people have kept their patriotism buried for too long,” Wu told Chinese online publication Sixth Tone. “That passion has become somewhat like dry wood, but my movie is like the spark to light it again.”

At the same time Wu’s film was burning up the box office, China’s regulators made their informal crackdown on entertainment deals official, putting an apparently permanent wrench in the firehose of cash that had been flowing into Hollywood until a few months ago. But if China can keep cranking out movies like “Wolf Warriors 2,” they might not need to do as much shopping abroad.