It’s not impossible in today’s global movie marketplace.
Last week, Matt Damon received backlash from the Asian-American community with the release of the trailer for The Great Wall, starring Damon as the white savior of China’s Great Wall. Our very own Rob Hunter questioned the movie’s casting choice, while Jen Yamato of the Daily Beast wrote about its problematic whitewashing of Chinese history. Controversy aside, there is a silver lining in this hot historical movie mess.
The Great Wall is mostly a Chinese production, with American companies Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures serving as co-producer and worldwide distributor, respectively. Director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) called the project “an English-language film, and a Hollywood blockbuster,” and the script is based on a short story about the Great Wall by Franz Kafka but, like, with monsters as suggested by the trailer. This doesn’t excuse its questionable casting choice but it does illustrate the expanding influence of international markets – and notably the Chinese market – on Hollywood.
With this increasingly global movie marketplace, there is an expanding space for more global stars in leading movie roles and internationally appealing stories. The Great Wall is hardly the first Chinese co-production to star a white man—Dragon Blade featured John Cusack and Adrien Brody alongside Jackie Chan. Universal’s Furious 7 was supported by China Film Group, the country’s largest state-run movie distributor, and featured a notably diverse international cast with Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, and Gal Gadot. At $1.5 billion in worldwide profits, Furious 7 is currently ranked the third highest grossing film in China and the sixth highest grossing film in the world. These developments aren’t that surprising if you think about it – the color of Hollywood has always been green, and China has recently become it’s most fervent investor.
This global movie trend begs the question: Could the next Jason Bourne be Chinese? Might the next Iron Man be a black woman? Can Spider-Man be Latino or Superman be Asian?
This may all sound like crazy talk but some of this is already in the works in the source material. But I know what you’re thinking. It’s hard to imagine a Damon-less Jason Bourne but it’s happened before with The Bourne Legacy, which is actually the only Bourne film to fare better abroad, earning 163 million international versus $113 million domestic. That’s another sign of the importance of international profits, where the appetite for Hollywood films remains somewhat robust. Of course Jason Bourne just set a franchise record with an international opening weekend of $50 million, so it’s possible for it to break the previous film’s record. But if a Matt-less Bourne movie has already proved a success in the competitive foreign markets, couldn’t Bourne then technically be played by anyone?
A Jason Bourne movie not starring Matt Damon, or any other middle-aged white man for that matter, is a fascinating idea given today’s global audience. Chinese actor Andy Lau (of Infernal Affairs, which was remade into The Departed) stars alongside Damon in The Great Wall. If the film is a success, Lau could become a contender for an international Bourne role. Another option could be to go with a global star with a little Hollywood street cred, like martial artist Donnie Yen (Ip Man), or maybe even flip the script and cast the suave Idris Elba (Thor, Luther). He could have more leeway in exercising his leading man chops by playing the rugged action Bourne type rather than the smooth but boring Bond, anyway.
Casting aside, the model of producing films could also be remade for more international audiences. Netflix is leading the way in its quest for global domination, producing international film and television shows such as Narcos, Beasts of No Nation, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, and, yes, even Adam Sandler movies. Hollywood is known for its long and slow production process so it’s taken the industry a very long time to catch up with worldwide tastes. But with companies like Netflix and Amazon paving the way for experimentation and globalization, the major movie studios should come around eventually.
It’s easy to see why The Great Wall seemed like such a good idea to the film’s producers. The epic tale of China’s Great Wall – a historic architectural feat that took 1700 years to build – seems tailor-made for today’s blockbuster movie industry. The script’s elements of history and fantasy bring a sense of familiarity to the property even though it’s probably the first time the story of the Great Wall is being told with a) monsters and b) a white guy. If it doesn’t work, then maybe investors will think twice about whitewashed casting choices. Plus, let’s face it, Damon isn’t getting any younger and neither are his other contemporaries Batman, Hitch, and the Wolf of Wall Street. There is definitely room for other up-and-comers to take up these lead hero roles. Considering how the market is evolving, I’m willing to bet it isn’t going to ½ of Hiddleswift or Thor’s little brother.
There is the other side to the argument about the globalization of cinema which may seem daunting to cinephiles because it implies that independent films may not stand a chance in the international marketplace. I beg to differ. I totally believe there is room for counter programming, and in fact this should bee seen as a challenge for independent content creators from any country to produce material for audiences across the globe. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time, is an excellent example of a beautifully crafted story, which features intricacies that cater to Japanese viewers while also appealing to international audiences.
I’m not saying that we should all watch The Great Wall by any means – you do you. Neither am I suggesting that we forget Matt Damon’s whitesplaining/mansplaining incident of 2015 —in fact, I encourage re-watching the clip in @MrPooni’s tweet here to refresh your memory. I’m simply proposing that it is possible to look at these developments as a result of larger forces at play in the global movie marketplace. If done right, this could promote more diverse, global content. The Damon casting isn’t exactly “right”, but at least it is offset by the rest of the cast members who are all very exciting choices: Lau, Pedro Pascal (fan fave Oberyn in Game of Thrones), Jing Tian (a Chinese star who will appear in Legendary’s Kong: Skull Island), Chinese singer and actor Luhan, and for some random but totally awesome reason Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, Platoon).
In the future, Jason Bourne or any major movie hero can and will be Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, black, Latino, hapa, and so forth. Due to the painfully slow pace of the movie business, it will take a lot of time and experimentation for any major changes in the industry to occur but I’m positive it will happen in our lifetime. I mean, five years ago I wouldn’t have ever thought I’d see an all-female Ghostbusters, an all-black Marvel leading cast and director in Black Panther, and a kick ass Wonder Woman movie trailer. But, guess what, it happened and there’s no stopping it.