So, remember THE GREAT WALL? You probably saw the trailer or read about this movie online in the last year. It’s the one where Matt Damon was in Song dynasty-era China. It confused the hell out of everyone (myself included). People were asking questions such as: Why is Matt Damon there? Is Matt Damon some new version of a THE LAST SAMURAI-esque white savior? Is Matt Damon supposed to be Chinese? Why is Matt Damon speaking with his American accent in a film that takes place hundreds of years before America’s founding?

To answer the last question first: Damon is actually doing a terrible Irish accent.

To answer the rest of those questions, it gets a little complicated. I’m going to say something crazy here and I want you to stay calm for this. THE GREAT WALL is not what you think. Is it a good movie? Not really, but everyone’s reason for thinking it was bad weren’t quite accurate. In fact, the internet’s collective reaction to THE GREAT WALL says more about how the film was advertised than it does the quality of the film itself.

Building THE GREAT WALL

The Great Wall
Pictured above: the sidekick you were tricked into thinking was the hero.

The White Savior is one of the more embarrassing stereotypes that continues to be reinforced by Hollywood. The White Savior trope usually involves a white person who learns to become “woke” by rescuing a “helpless” group of minorities (see: DANCES WITH WOLVES, THE HELP, and pretty much every movie with a white teacher in an inner-city school district). These narratives typically sideline non-white characters. Then they tell the story of a noble white person who did the bare minimum to overcome racism.

When the original trailer for THE GREAT WALL first dropped, it seemed like an identical story structure:

You’d be forgiven for thinking that purely by the trailers. THE GREAT WALL becomes more complicated when you look into its production history. Some context: The two largest markets for films in the world are the USA and China. The Chinese market is so large that American studios have started trying to find ways to appeal to Chinese audiences. This is usually accomplished by including beloved Chinese actors or shoehorning China-related plotlines.

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Of course, audiences are not stupid and are beginning to become savvy to this blatant pandering. The next logical step would obviously be a co-production — a merger of a Hollywood and Chinese studio to create a box office juggernaut.

Money Matters

The Great Wall
Pictured above: The real hero here

On paper, this seems like a great idea. America’s Legendary and Universal Studios joined forces with China’s Le Vision Pictures and China Film Group. Behind the camera was legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou (TO LIVE, HERO). So why didn’t people give Zhang Yimou more credit as one of China’s best filmmakers? Why did people expect that he made a movie about a heroic white dude rescuing his native country?

Well, you all watched that trailer above, right?

Despite the fact that the studio was creating a film that combined the powers of two creative juggernauts, the marketing still chose to focus on the white dude. Despite the fact that America is a nation with immense cultural diversity the marketing still chose to focus on the white guy.

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The blow-back was inevitable. A tweet by actress Constance Wu called out the idea that white men are the only ones capable of saving the world. She’s right to do so! The irony of all of this is that Hollywood executives made the fatal mistake of assuming that the movie needed two separate types of marketing: one for Chinese audiences and one for American (re: white) audiences.

As critic Rebecca Theodore recently pointed out on Twitter, the film’s marketing should have focused on its true star: Tian Jing as Commander Lin Mae.

The White Savior Fails

The Great Wall
Just about to jump off The Great Wall into a horde of monsters. NBD.

Why would that have been successful? Well, Commander Lin Mae is a badass. While she is bungee jumping off of the Great Wall to stab monsters, Matt Damon’s job for about 10 minutes of the movie is to stand around basically saying, “Never before have my white eyes seen an army this incredible!”

Commander Lin Mae and her troops eventually determine the best way to defeat the hordes of monsters is by killing the queen that psychically controls them (like I said, this isn’t necessarily a good movie). And in the final battle when Matt Damon launches that arrow at the kill-switch Queen, I rolled my eyes. I thought, “Welp here we go, white dude is gonna save China.” And then….the arrow missed.

Dear reader, I could not believe my eyes.

Commander Lin Mae then took that punk’s exploding arrow to bungee jump-stab the queen and save all of China. It ruled.

In spite of this, the marketing focused on Matt Damon. Imagine a version of WONDER WOMAN that focused on Steve Trevor. Audiences would have been justifiably outraged. 

Whenever these conversations come up there are always dissenting voices. I would argue that the studios had clear evidence that an Asian female led film could have been successful. In fact, it was a film that Legendary itself produced: PACIFIC RIM.

The Mako Mori Problem

The Great Wall
Spoiler alert: This part rules

Admittedly, Guillermo Del Toro’s kaiju love letter didn’t become a massive success (though it made enough overseas — including in China! — to warrant next year’s sequel). However, the film does have a dedicated fanbase almost solely because of the character Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako is badass mech pilot who gets one of the film’s most badass heroic moments.

Where the film falls short in making Mako a great character is in the conclusion. Mako is practically a set piece in the final battle and has her agency robbed after she is knocked unconscious (our own writer Kristine Don did a great breakdown on how this sullies Mako’s presence in the film).

THE GREAT WALL also features a white male paired with a more qualified and experienced Asian woman, but the major difference is the Asian woman ends up being the hero, as she deserves to be. Is THE GREAT WALL a better movie than PACIFIC RIM? Let’s put it this way: put the two together and you likely would have fixed the flaws in both.

Audiences Know Best?

Audiences want to see representation in their films, and it’s up to the marketers to not hide that representation from the audience — nor to mislead audiences with false promises. More recently, the new Netflix series GODLESS released a trailer that focused purely on the mining town of La Belle populated almost entirely by women.

This initial trailer made the series look like Y: THE LAST MAN in the Old West. The show focused more on two male characters with a conflict that leaves La Belle in their crosshairs. There was, of course, backlash. Which is too bad because GODLESS does a better job representing women and people of color than the canon of Western classics.

Representation should not be a point system, but if studios want the support of critics and diverse audiences then they need to be honest about their product and trust the intelligence of their audiences.

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