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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Proves Hollywood Can Succeed Without Kowtowing To China

Driven by the pursuit of profit, Hollywood has a long history of capitulation to Chinese censors. Have producers finally found their backbone?

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Since released on the Memorial Day weekend, Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” has soared at the box office like an F-18 fighter jet. The movie reportedly earned $300 million in North America and more than $550 million globally so far, despite not being released in Russia or China. The film’s financial success shows Hollywood can succeed without kowtowing to authoritarian regimes. 

“Top Gun: Maverick” ran into controversies early in its production. Tencent Holding, a Chinese tech giant, signed on to be one of the film’s financial backers. The 1986 “Top Gun” film was immensely popular in China in the early 1990s. Executives at Paramount reportedly had hoped that with Tencent’s money and involvement in marketing, the sequel would make at least $80 million at the box office in China, the world’s largest movie market. 

Driven by the pursuit of profit, Hollywood has a long history of capitulation to Chinese censors. For instance, Marvel Studios changed a character from a Tibetan to a Celtic one in “Dr. Strange” (2016) to win over Chinese censors. Disney reportedly shared the script of the live production of “Mulan” (2020) with Chinese authorities “to avoid controversy and guarantee a China release.”

After Paramount released an early trailer of “Top Gun: Maverick” in summer 2019, people quickly pointed out that the image of Japanese and Taiwanese flags that decorated Maverick’s iconic bomber jacket in the 1986 film was replaced with undefined symbols with similar colors in the sequel.

Many saw the change as another example of Hollywood’s appeasement of Chinese censors because China regards Japan as a strategic rival. On Taiwan, Beijing has long insisted that the self-governed island is a province of China and has stepped up pressure campaigns to compel foreign governments and businesses not to categorize Taiwan under their list of countries but only as Chinese territory. 

Paramount probably hoped that removing Japanese and Taiwanese flags from the bomber jacket in “Top Gun: Maverick” would keep Tencent happy and ensure the Chinese authorities approved the film. But Tencent withdrew its financial support by the end of 2019, citing concerns that “Communist Party officials in Beijing would be angry about the company’s affiliation with a movie celebrating the American military.”

Meanwhile, Paramount’s capitulation to Beijing faced backlash in the states. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked in a tweet, “What does it say to the world when Maverick is scared of Chinese communists?” He introduced legislation that would “prohibit the U.S. government from providing technical or other types of support across agencies on movie projects if a studio anticipates a request or get one by the Chinese government to make edits on a movie.”

A few months later, then-Attorney General William Barr criticized Hollywood for “regularly censoring its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party, the world’s most powerful violator of human rights” and giving the Communist Party “a massive propaganda coup.”

Pen America, an organization dedicated to defending free speech, issued a damning report titled, “Made in Hollywood, Censored by China.” It blasted Hollywood for “making difficult and troubling compromises on free expression” and “appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has simply become a way of doing business.” One of the examples Pen America cited was the flag swap shown in the early trailer of “Top Gun: Maverick.” 

This criticism and the withdrawal of Chinese money in Hollywood might have achieved some desired effect. Early this year, Sony/Marvel reportedly rejected Chinese censors’ demand to remove the Statue of Liberty from the film, “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The Chinese authorities prompted banning the movie from releasing in China, but the movie became a smashing hit anyway. It earned $1.9 billion worldwide, making it the sixth highest-grossing movie of all time.

“Spiderman’s” financial success seemed to have strengthened Hollywood’s backbone. I went to see “Top Gun: Maverick” last weekend. When Cruise put his iconic bomber jacket on, I was happily surprised to see the Japanese and Taiwanese flags on his back. Chinese censors certainly don’t like it, but who cares. A movie about the prowess of the U.S. military shouldn’t have to bend its knee to Beijing to begin with.

I found “Top Gun: Maverick” enjoyable for several reasons. The ageless Cruise was as charming as ever — the aviator sunglasses, the jacket, the bike, and the smile were irresistible. The shirtless beach sports scenes paid homage to the beach volleyball sequences in the ’86 film. No one seemed to mind “toxic masculinity” when seeing washboard abs and muscles on display.

Of course, the aviation fighting sequences were mind-blowing, and they were made for the big screen. You have to watch the movie in a theater to really enjoy it. After last year’s disastrous and humiliating Afghan withdrawal, Americans have been hungry for some military success, even if a fictional one. Like the first film, “Top Gun: Maverick” is unabashedly pro-America. It showcases our military at their best and is a huge morale booster. I hope “Top Gun: Maverick” will aid military recruitment, as the ’86 film did. 

I also like the fact that “Top Gun: Maverick” is free of wokism and political correctness, which is too common in today’s entertainment industry. Americans want to be entertained, not lectured by overly privileged people about everything wrong with America.

The Top Gun pilots for the challenging mission were a racially diverse group, but they didn’t get there by demanding affirmative action to compensate for historical oppressions. Instead, they had to prove they were the “best of the best” through rigorous training, competition, and relentless testing by their instructor, Maverick.

“Top Gun: Maverick” has proved that as long as Hollywood focuses on telling a good story in the most entertaining way, it can succeed financially without capitulating to China. Hopefully, more studio executives will take this lesson to heart.