The Great Wall Has a New Trailer, Plus Matt Damon Addressed the “White Savior” Concerns at an NYCC Panel
New York Comic Con has brought us some new information about Matt Damon’s upcoming star turn in a creature feature set in ancient China called The Great Wall. As soon as early news about this movie emerged, so too did concerns that the movie would revolve around a classic “white savior” narrative involving Matt Damon’s character coming to fight with the Chinese armies against the monsters and save them from the threat. Why do the Chinese characters in this movie need a Western outsider to show up and save them?
Unfortunately, today’s new trailer doesn’t diminish those concerns. At one point, Willam Dafoe’s character tells Matt Damon’s character that the Chinese armies have been fighting against these monsters “their whole lives.” We learn that’s why the Great Wall got built, at least in this supernatural version of ancient history. So, why does Matt Damon’s character think that he should get to fight alongside them? Because he’s the most bad-ass archer ever, so they need him.
Also, this trailer seems to suggest that Damon’s character finds out about the monsters because he’s trying to steal goods from the Chinese characters, and then they put him in jail. He argues that they should let him go because he’s a good fighter and he can help them fight the monsters. Again, that’s just based on what I can glean from the trailer, but that appears to be the plot of the movie.
It’s a very common trope in fiction to see a “white savior” showing up, joining an Asian organization or army, then proving that he is actually “the best” of them all. This is a concern that has been raised already about Iron Fist, as well as Doctor Strange, since both of those stories revolve around Western characters traveling to the East and learning how to be “the best” at whatever techniques they learn there. This is even a story that’s been used in Wolverine comics and in the new Wolverine movies (with Wolverine traveling to Japan on a quest for self-discovery), and it also famously appeared in the 2003 action movie The Last Samurai. This “white savior” trope has been written about in media analysis texts for decades. It runs the gamut from a white character learning martial arts and eventually surpassing his Asian teachers, to a white character saving an entire Asian society from a threat using skills that apparently the Asian characters lack, for whatever reason.
Damon addressed the controversy himself on his panel about the movie at NYCC, but it doesn’t seem as though he fully understands the problem at hand, let alone how prevalent it actually is. According to Coming Soon‘s transcript of Damon’s words at the panel, he said:
“Yeah, it was a f*ckin’ bummer. I had a few reactions. I was surprised, I guess because it was based on a teaser, it wasn’t even a full trailer let alone a movie. To get those charges levied against you… What bummed me out is I read The Atlantic religiously and there was an article in The Atlantic. I was like, ‘Really, guys?’ To me whitewashing was when Chuck Connors played Geronimo. (laughs) There are far more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive to that, but Pedro Pascal called me and goes, ‘Yeah, we are guilty of whitewashing. We all know only the Chinese defended the wall against the monster attack.’”
Pedro Pascal, who is co-starring in the movie and also was on the panel, joked “Don’t quote me!” in response to Damon’s comments. Damon walked them back a bit at that point, saying, “Look, it was nice to react a little sarcastically because we were wounded by it. We do take that seriously.”
Pascal then went on to clarify that the movie is “very specifically Chinese. It is a creature feature. It’s a big, fantastical popcorn entertainment movie, but it has a visual style that is Zhang Yimou’s and his only.”
It makes sense, certainly, that Zhang Yimou would have wanted this movie to have larger international appeal by casting Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal as the lead characters. It is interesting to see Pascal, a Chilean actor, playing a hero in this movie… except that based on the trailer, he isn’t necessarily the lead character. He has very few lines in this trailer, until over a minute in, when he tells Matt Damon that he isn’t interested in fighting in the battle by saying: “Good luck with that.” Then Damon’s character is the one who tells him, “Stay and fight” in response. Pascal responds: “You think they see you as some kind of hero?” It doesn’t seem to me that Pascal’s character, or any of the Asian characters in the trailer, are going to be the protagonist. This movie intends to succeed for Western markets on the strength of Damon’s mega-stardom, and the fact that he’s built a career on playing an accessible white guy hero.
It would have been nice if Damon had indicated that he understood that this was the problem, and that none of his non-white co-stars are getting centered in any of the marketing materials for the film. He does, certainly, understand that the struggles of marketing a movie like this, as he explained on the panel:
They’re trying to establish a number of things within a minute. It’s a teaser, they’re trying to tease the monster. They’re saying it’s a visionary filmmaker that Middle America probably doesn’t know. It’s the Steven Spielberg of China, right? Don’t worry! They speak English in this movie. You hear my voice speaking English. Don’t worry! Matt’s in the movie, you’ve seen this guy before. They’re trying to establish all these things, and by the way, there are monsters. Then 30 seconds and you’re done. There’s a lot of pipe they’re trying to lay in 30 seconds, and I watched that teaser a number of times to try to understand the criticism.
Ultimately where I came down to was if people see this movie and there is somehow whitewashing involved in a creature feature that we made up, then I will listen to that with my whole heart. I will think about that and try to learn from that. I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction. I will be genuinely shocked. It’s a perspective that as a progressive person I really do agree with and try to listen to and be sensitive to, but ultimately I think you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it. You have to educate yourself about what it is before making your attack or your argument and then it’s easier to listen to from my side.
I guess Matt Damon thinks I’m “undermining my credibility” by saying any of this. But, you know what? That’s fine. I’m going to try to break it down for him anyway, in case he does ever read this, which is unlikely, but whatever.
To reiterate: the concern here isn’t necessarily “whitewashing,” per se, but the larger concept of the “white savior.” It seems like Damon is really, really close to understanding the problem, but he just isn’t quite there yet. He seems to understand that the reason why he’s the star, as opposed to just a side character, is because he’s a “safe” hero for Western audiences to watch. But, instead of using this opportunity to highlight the contributions of his co-stars and the movie’s creative team, Damon is focusing on talking about his own hurt feelings that people felt turned off by his movie. If the movie isn’t a “white savior” movie as it appears, then why not just say that? Unfortunately, I’m not sure it will be possible for Damon to make that claim, because all the marketing indicates that it’s exactly that trope.
Another parting thought: if this trailer is any indication, The Great Wall won’t be passing the Bechdel-Wallace Test. There appears to be only one woman in the movie’s main cast, to be played by Jing Tian. In this trailer, she appears to be the only woman fighting on the battlefield, but for some reason, the movie isn’t about her experiences becoming a warrior woman in ancient supernatural-universe China… even though that sounds way more interesting than whatever Matt Damon’s character does, which is show up, steal stuff, and shoot arrows. In this trailer, Jing Tian’s character looks like a by-the-books “Action Girl“, the only woman on the team. I’m willing to stake money that she’ll end up as someone’s love interest and, also, end up getting captured by baddies and rescued at least once.
I hope I’m wrong about all of this. And I realize Matt Damon doesn’t want us to judge this movie by the trailer, but given that trailers are supposed to advertise the movie, I’m not sure what else I could use to decide whether or not I’m going to go see it. I guess I could look at Matt Damon’s own comments about the movie, but those don’t seem promising to me, either. Oh, well.
(via /Film, image via YouTube screencap)
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