‘Top Gun: Maverick’ has reversed a controversial change that critics say was made to appease China

A lot has changed in the years since Top Gun: Maverick first previewed in 2019—including, some early viewers noticed, the controversial patches sewn onto the jacket of Tom Cruise’s title character.

In the original Top Gun film, which premiered in 1986, Cruise’s navy pilot character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, wears a bomber jacket that belonged to the fighter’s father. The back of the jacket is emblazoned with patches commemorating tours Maverick’s father served in the U.S. Navy, including one joint operation with Taiwan.

But, when trailers for Top Gun: Maverick aired in 2019, scenes showing the back of the now iconic jacket revealed the Taiwan flag, and the Japan flag next to it, had been replaced with made-up emblems that matched the color schemes of the originals.

Skydance Media, the film’s producer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment and has not previously commented on why the emblems were changed. But observers speculate the move was made to appease censors in mainland China, where Beijing does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state. According to Taiwan News, however, the film has now restored the original flags.

Although Top Gun: Maverick was originally slated for release in July 2019, the premiere was pushed back until summer 2020 due to filming difficulties. And then the pandemic struck, delaying the film’s release further. In the interim, Hollywood’s relationship with China has suffered, leaving China’s local films to occupy an increasing percentage of the domestic box office. Top Gun: Maverick‘s Hollywood producers are maybe no longer so worried about winning over the Chinese market.

A golden ticket

China is the world’s largest box office, according to market tracker Artisan Gateway, drumming up $7.3 billion in ticket sales last year, or roughly a third of all sales worldwide. But access to the lucrative market is hard-won.

The government only permits 34 foreign films to screen in Chinese theaters per year, and Beijing’s film censors are known for drawing a hard line against Hollywood blockbusters airing scenes that don’t align with China’s own politics.

In January, censors edited the ending of the 1999 classic Fight Club before it aired on streaming service Tencent Video. The climactic end scene, in which the anarchist protagonist succeeds in blowing up a series of bank buildings, was replaced with a title screen informing viewers that “the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding” instead.

As the value of the Chinese box office ballooned, Hollywood producers increasingly partnered with Chinese firms and financiers to gain insight on how to avoid censorship and claim a golden ticket to access the Chinese market. Yet, obtaining access is no guarantee of success.

Disney’s 2020 film Mulan bombed at the Chinese box office, despite producers ensuring they had cast actors popular in China, shared the script with Chinese authorities for review, and cut scenes that Chinese test audiences didn’t like.

A growing divide

There may be a growing rift between Beijing and Hollywood. Last year, U.S. movies accounted for just 12% of China’s total box office sales, down from a 30 percent share in 2019, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Disney has failed to get any of its Marvel films into China since 2019 (although productions from other studios, including No Time to Die and Godzilla vs Kong, have won approval). During a May earnings call this year, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said he was “pretty confident” the studio’s films would succeed “even without China.”

In turn, China’s box office is doing pretty well without foreign films. Last year, the highest-grossing film worldwide was The Battle at Lake Changjin, a Chinese war epic depicting a ferocious battle between Chinese and American troops during the Korean War.

The three-hour-long film scarcely screened outside of China but earned $890 million in ticket sales. By comparison, last year’s James Bond hit, No Time to Die, earned $733 million globally, ranking it as the world’s third most successful film. (The second was a Chinese comedy.)

Top Gun: Maverick has yet to receive a release date for mainland China. The film is coproduced by Tencent Pictures—a subdivision of Tencent Holdings, which owns China’s popular messaging service WeChat. However, the Chinese production company is no longer credited on the film’s IMDb page.

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