by Joanna Robinson | via Vanity Fair
It’s become increasingly impossible to ignore general social pushback when it comes to Asian representation in film and television. Whether it’s cut-and-dried whitewashing (e.g. casting a white performer in an Asian role) or slightly more complex cases of cultural appropriation, the hue and cry from progressive voices in film and TV criticism have called for an end to white leads in Asian and Asian-inspired properties.
But Hollywood—a town driven by dollars and not always sense—is more likely to listen when protests impact the bottom line. Ghost in the Shell, the Scarlett Johansson-starring adaptation of the popular Japanese manga, is only the latest controversial project to stumble at the box office. Will this misstep finally put an end to whitewashing?
According to Box Office Mojo, in its first weekend, Ghost in the Shell pulled in approximately $20 million domestically on a $110 million budget—below even the conservative prediction that site made earlier in the week. That number looks even more anemic when compared to Lucy, Johansson’s R-rated 2014 film, which pulled in $43.8 million on its opening weekend. Unlike Ghost in the Shell, Lucy wasn’t based on a pre-existing property and didn’t have an established fanbase to draw on. But the Johansson casting has clearly alienated fans of the original manga and anime versions of Ghost in the Shell, and their dampened enthusiasm appears to have discouraged newcomers as well.
The controversy around Johansson’s casting has plagued Ghost in the Shell since late 2014. Johansson stars as Major (whose full name is “Major Motoko Kusanagi” in the manga), a synthetic, cybernetic body housing the brain of a dead Japanese woman. Both fans of the original and advocates for Asian actors in Hollywood argued that a Japanese actress should have been cast in the role, while a spokesperson for Ghost in the Shell publisher Kodansha gave Johansson their blessing, saying the publisher “never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Johansson herself defended the film this week, saying:
I think this character is living a very unique experience in that she has a human brain in an entirely machinate body. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously. Hopefully, any question that comes up of my casting will be answered by audiences when they see the film.
But it seems audiences weren’t inclined to give the film that chance. There’s no ignoring the fact that controversy cast a cloud over the film, and it’s difficult not to draw a direct line from that to the movie’s disappointing opening weekend.
Ghost in the Shell is not the first project to feel the burn of “race-bent” casting. Though other factors may have added to their unpopularity, The Last Airbender, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Aloha, Pan, and more have all floundered at the box office. (These films also received unfavorable reviews but bad reviews alone can’t snuff out box office potential.) Matt Damon’s heavily-criticized, China-set film The Great Wall didn’t fare much better. In addition to becoming an Oscar night punchline for Jimmy Kimmel, the movie only grossed $45 million domestically on a $150 million budget. Marvel’s too-big-to-fail Avengers installment Doctor Strange is the recent exception that proves the rule: not even Tilda Swinton’s controversial casting in the historically Asian role of The Ancient One could slow this film down. It made over $232 million domestically and $677.5 million worldwide.
But since Netflix won’t release ratings data to the public, the jury is still out on whether the Marvel brand was also enough to combat the furor over Finn Jones being cast as the historically white Danny Rand in the latest Defenders installment, Iron Fist. (This is a case in which “cultural appropriation”—Danny is a better martial artist than all the other Asian characters around him—inspired public outcry, rather than “whitewashing.”) While various tech companies have claimed in the past to be able to analyze Netflix’s data, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos himself has historically pushed back on those results. One such company, 7Park Data, claims that Iron Fist defied both bad reviews and controversy to become Netflix’s “most-binged drama premiere”—meaning audiences allegedly tore through episodes at a faster clip than usual. But by the only Netflix-sanctioned metric available—the site’s soon-to-be-gone star rating—Iron Fist is lagging behind other Defenders shows. As of publication, it had only earned three stars from users, compared to Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage—which all pulled in 4.25 or higher.
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