The latest prequel to the sequel of the spinoff in the Minions franchise was released in China last week, with a twist. Instead of the faux antihero and his by-the-numbers mentor getting away with their focus-grouped, non-subversive crimes, the ending was changed so that one of them is caught by the police and the other “becomes one of the good guys.” If this is no great artistic outrage (and it is not), it does at least beg the question: What if … Hollywood stopped conceding to miserable Chinese censorship efforts?
The issue goes further than a few tedious, cringeworthy adjustments to children’s movies. Earlier this year, a patch bearing the Taiwan flag was reinstated on the back of Tom Cruise’s jacket in the Top Gun sequel. This came after an initial backlash against a two-minute teaser trailer released in 2019 that showed the flag had been changed from the 1986 original release. At 1.15 in the teaser, main character Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by Cruise, put on his iconic jacket, but flags representing Taiwan and Japan had been replaced with empty symbols merely carrying similar color schemes to the originals. Viewers and media outlets who noticed the change linked it to the involvement of Chinese money in the making of the film, with Chinese tech giant Tencent originally one of Paramount Picture’s partners on the movie, before later withdrawing.
Of course, the whole thing made very little sense, as is often the case with these things. The jacket is worn by the character as a tribute to his late father, with the badges on the back commemorating a real event that the fictional father took part in: the USS Galveston’s tour of duty with the 7th Fleet from 1963 to 1964, when it performed missions off Japan and Taiwan. At the time of the tour the jacket commemorates, the flag was internationally recognized as representing the Republic of China on Taiwan. It is, then, demonstrably a character detail baked in from the previous film rather than any grand show of support for Taiwanese independence, a point emphasized by the fact that genuine Taiwan independence advocates often reject the use of the Republic of China flag because of its association with oppression by the Chinese Nationalist Party who ruled the island after World War II and the now absurd claim to being the true ruler of the whole of One China.
But that’s not the point. The incident demonstrates that censorship within Hollywood movies is being used to further key political agendas as well as vaguely ridiculous, pseudo-scientific propaganda efforts like the bad guy never being allowed to win. Further, it demonstrates that Chinese policing of Hollywood movies is currently so rampant it can incorporate anything from a Minions movie to a movie that is a direct celebration of the U.S. Navy, without anyone realizing it might look a bit weird. (Top Gun, of course, is a movie franchise famously subsidized massively by the U.S. military, which in its previous iteration served as a recruitment driver for said military.)
In an interview with Vox, Erich Schwartzel, author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Battle for Global Supremacy, explains what’s driving this odd dynamic. Direct censorship from Chinese authorities affects the 34 ultra-vacuous movies per year that China allows in from international markets, but self-censorship leaks over to other movies — like the Top Gun sequel — which are extremely unlikely to ever be shown in China for political reasons, because the companies making the latter still need to appease the Chinese buyers in order to sell the former.
On top of the inbuilt contempt for audiences here — who, it is assumed, cannot tell the difference between a flag and an empty symbol, or do not care about which parts are sold off to who — this is also a real-world experiment played out in cinemas. The world’s premier political power is voluntarily allowing the parameters of acceptable thought contained within its movies to be dictated by its largest geopolitical rival. And there is no grand conspiracy behind it, it’s a simple and well-documented financial calculation on the part of the Hollywood studios. China became the number one box office market in the world in 2020, and Hollywood is following the money.
Image: Paramount Pictures