By Yeonsu Kim
When Avengers: Infinity War was released in South Korea on April 25, 980,676 people watched it just on the first day, a record high among Marvel movies. The movie marks the 10th anniversary since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) released Iron Man, the first in the Marvel superhero series, and clearly shows how famous the MCU movies have become among Korean audiences. MCU so far includes 18 movies, and 13 of them appear on the list of all-time highest-grossing films at the Korean box office list; Avengers: Infinity War at 14, Age of Ultron at 17, Iron Man 3 at 23 and Captain America: Civil War at 24.
The reason why most MCU movies were able to succeed in the Korean movie market is that people obviously love the characters and the stunning visuals. But, to explain more about some factors which made Marvel movies so famous in South Korea, I want to address two main reasons: marketing strategies and lessons from the movies.
The MCU actively tries to promote and maintain a favorable public opinion in South Korea. First of all, it is easy to see the slogan “First Release in Korea” or “Faster Premiere in Korea” on the movie posters. All the Marvel movies except Captain America: The First Avenger and Ant-Man were released in Korea before the United States. Avengers: Infinity War, for example, was released a week earlier. Over time, the number of people watching Marvel movies on their first day has increased as well.
According to Kevin Feige, the President of Marvel Studios, the core reason for the early premieres in Korea is that South Korea has been an indicator of success. An aide who worked on Marvel movies told Chosun Ilbo that success in Korea can bring word of mouth that turns movies into hits in other Asian countries. Moreover, many actors of Marvel movies have visited South Korea personally to promote their movies, including Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Holland. In February 2018, South Korea was selected to be the first host country for the International Press Tour of the first Marvel movie of 2018, Black Panther. Likewise, some recent movies including Spiderman Homecoming (July 5, 2017), Black Panther (Feb. 14, 2018), and Avengers: Infinity War (April 25, 2018) held their Asia Promotion Event in South Korea. Furthermore, the MCU has shown their appreciation for Korean audiences by filming parts of their movies in South Korea, including scenes shot in Busan and on the Han River in Black Panther and Avengers: Age of Ultron, respectively. The Korea Tourism Organization made an agreement to improve the relationship between Korea and Marvel in 2014 after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. These types of special events and extra attention have helped boost the popularity of Marvel movies among an already eager Korean audience.
Second, Marvel movies present various life lessons for audiences to contemplate under the main theme of defeating villains who don’t care about the value of individual life. For example, the first Marvel movie, Iron Man, showed Tony Stark’s change from an arrogant and rich guy to a new man who seeks peace in the world. Through his change, the movie addressed the importance of altruism and courage rather than egotism. Likewise, every other movie contains lessons for audiences. Captain America: Civil War laid out a philosophical debate in the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man, asking which virtue should be more valued between free will and responsibility. Captain America focused more on free will as he tried to protect his friend, Bucky, who had been brainwashed to assassinate innocent people. In contrast, Iron Man thought that Bucky has to take responsibility for his behavior regardless of whether it is his own will. Both virtues are important, and the movie provides a good opportunity to spend time debating and creating our own thought and logic.
To take another example, let’s look at Black Panther. The reason why the movie Black Panther is meaningful is that Black Panther is the first black hero in the MCU. Black Panther depicts the unknown country “Wakanda” which is fictional Sub-Saharan African nation. People in the movie recognize Wakanda as impoverished country, but actually it has tons of vibranium which is the strongest element in the universe according to the MCU stories. The reason why the king of Wakanda hides this fact and their high technological capability to the world is to protect their citizens from the outside world. However, in the movie, T’Challa decides to reveal their true strength and share the resources which they have to the other countries in need. This movie clearly shows MCU’s respect toward the value of ethnic and cultural diversity, and at the same time depicts some interesting lessons of diplomacy and international relations. With this point of view, Marvel announced a plan to make more diverse heroes, possibly including an Asian hero. C.B. Cebulski, editor for Marvel Comics, even mentioned his idea to produce some Korean heroes for upcoming movies.
The MCU has succeeded in Korea, with movies earning a combined $600 million there. This amount makes up 6.8% of the MCU’s total foreign revenue. Korean ticket sales for Civil War, for example, totaled 8% of the movie’s total foreign revenue of more than $700 million. It already has been 10 years and MCU has released 19 movies to make a whole series of heroes that have captured the attention of Korean audiences. With more stories yet to come, including a possible Korean hero to add to the MCU, Marvel’s popularity in Korea may continue to grow.
Yeonsu Kim is a student of Sogang University in South Korea, majoring in Economics. She was an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.
Photo by yooina37 on Naver Blog (CCL).