Top Gun: Maverick is now showing Taiwan's official flag after an outcry, putting its release in mainland China in jeopardy.
The box office mega-hit — which is by far Tom Cruise's biggest-ever commercial debut — now features his character sporting the flag on his iconic bomber jacket, including in the version shown in Taiwan.
Initially, the film's trailer in 2019 had shown otherwise. During the preview, the patches on Cruise's jacket, which originally bore flags that represent Taiwan and Japan, appeared to have been swapped out and replaced with two ambiguous symbols in the same colour scheme.
That omission had angered some critics, prompting speculation that the change was made to appease Chinese censors and the film's Chinese backer, Tencent. At the time, Tencent Pictures, a subsidiary of the Shenzhen-based tech giant, was an investor of the highly anticipated sequel to the 1986 classic.
Now, however, the company has pulled out. The Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing unidentified sources, that Tencent had relinquished its role as a financier of the film in late 2019, amid geopolitical concerns between China and the United States.
The firm was worried about falling out of line with officials in Beijing for promoting a movie that celebrated the American military as US-Chinese relations soured, according to the report. Tencent and Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the film, did not respond to a request for comment.
A sensitive topic
China and Taiwan have a complex relationship. Beijing's communist leadership has long claimed Taiwan, a self-governed democratic island, as part of its territory, despite having never ruled over it.
As part of its campaign, the Chinese government has pressured multinational companies to refer to Taiwan as a Chinese territory, in exchange for accessing its lucrative market.
The drive has been largely successful, with players like United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Marriott, American Express, and Goldman Sachs falling in line. Hollywood films have also been increasingly censored over the years as China grew in importance to the global box office.
Chinese and Japanese relations have also long been fraught, with tensions flaring in recent years over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Now, the film's update is likely to anger some fans and officials in mainland China.
"There's a high probability Beijing will ban the release and monetization of 'Top Gun' in China," said Chris Fenton, former president of DMG Entertainment and author of the book "Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion-Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business."
"There's also a probability the Chinese government will blackball the studio, filmmakers, and actors from the market for an extended period of time," Fenton added. "We've witnessed similar punishments in the past."
Since 2020, China's strict "zero Covid" restrictions have left many cinemas shuttered for extended periods of time, including in Shanghai and Beijing. That's in sharp contrast with how moviegoers elsewhere have recently flocked back to theaters around the world.
Currently, "Top Gun: Maverick" has not been released in mainland China, and does not have a set opening date.
But Fenton noted "that may have been a forgone conclusion anyway," given the heightened geopolitical tensions between the world's two largest economies.
"A film strongly promoting Western ideals and US military hegemony probably never stood a chance for approval," he said.
He also noted that the Chinese film market has recently eschewed Hollywood movies in favour of other titles. In recent months, patriotic propaganda war movies have topped the box office domestically.
"That's a likely calculation that led to the decision [for producers to include Taiwan's flag]," said Fenton. "The global goodwill generated by reinstating the flags easily outweighs any potential revenues from China."
The move delighted fans in Taiwan: Social media users there cheered the decision online this week, with some calling it a "pleasant surprise."
"Top Gun: Maverick," in which Cruise reprises his role as Navy fighter pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, has already smashed box office records, taking in more than $300 million worldwide, according to IMDB's Box Office Mojo.
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Comscore, said that the latest round of blockbusters, including "Top Gun" and "Spider-Man: No Way Home," were still able to enjoy "massive international success" despite limitations from "some countries."
"Hollywood is starting to realize the aggravation of attempting to please China's fickle and unpredictable censors is no longer worth the potential payoff," said Fenton.
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