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Tom Cruise as Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick."

Tom Cruise as Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick." (Scott Garfield, Paramount Pictures/TNS)

The resounding success of “Top Gun: Maverick” could represent a tipping point in Hollywood’s relationship to China. The cinematic celebration of U.S. military superiority has been a monster success, even though it wasn’t released in the Middle Kingdom. It’s about time American studios recalibrated their priorities to be less reliant on Chinese censors and Chinese moviegoers.

The $300 million worldwide opening puts the picture roughly three-quarters of the way to profitability in just four days in theaters. That’s a big number by any measure these days; importantly, for our purposes here, the Paramount Pictures- and Skydance Media-produced picture hit that mark without making a single penny in China.

This might come as a surprise to some culture warriors who knew little about this picture aside from the fact that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s (Tom Cruise) flight jacket from the iconic original had been altered in the trailer to erase any mention of Japan or Taiwan. The alteration, observers assumed, occurred because the film was funded in part by Tencent Holdings, a Chinese firm.

Keen viewers at early screenings, however, noticed a couple of things. The first was that during the title cards that preceded the picture, Tencent’s logo was nowhere to be found. The second was that the flags of Japan and Taiwan were back in place on Maverick’s jacket. That these two things were related felt obvious, but it was nice to get confirmation from Erich Schwartzel at the Wall Street Journal.

“Tencent executives backed out of the $170 million Paramount Pictures production after they grew concerned that Communist Party officials in Beijing would be angry about the company’s affiliation with a movie celebrating the American military, according to people familiar with the matter,” Schwartzel reported.

Having lost Chinese funding and being uncertain of receiving a Chinese release, someone somewhere decided the juice was no longer worth the squeeze and undid the vandalism to Mav’s jacket. In addition to simply making aesthetic sense, the move also earned the picture some goodwill with American audiences who have grown tired of having their blockbusters defaced by Chinese censors.

And “Top Gun: Maverick” is just the latest film to achieve box-office success after rejecting Chinese demands in exchange for a run in that nation’s theaters. Word has it that China asked Sony Pictures to remove a sequence in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” that prominently featured the Statue of Liberty.

Anyone who has seen “Spider-Man: No Way Home” understands the impossibility of that request. The entire climax of the picture, involving three generations of Spider-Men doing battle against three generations of Spider-Man villains, takes place on a Statue of Liberty that has been remodeled in tribute to Captain America. Indeed, the request is so impossible as to make it feel like a de facto rejection of the picture by Chinese censors.

Luckily for Sony and their partner Disney, it didn’t really matter: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was the first unabashed domestic hit of post-pandemic theatrical life, grossing more than $800 million in the United States alone. On top of that, it added another billion-plus worldwide, for a total of $1.89 billion. Combined with the fact that Disney’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has also grossed nearly $900 million worldwide so far without a Chinese release, we’re starting to see what a post-China future looks like for Hollywood: not that different, but a little more independent.

This isn’t to say that the Chinese box office will cease to play a fiscal role in America’s dream factory. Universal is undoubtedly excited that the latest “Jurassic World” has already secured a release date in China, and it’s hard to imagine the “Fast and Furious” movies, also from Universal, failing to receive a release there, as that series is practically built on a global, pan-national appeal.

But the success of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the two most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe pictures, and other productions that have eschewed Chinese censorship such as Quentin Tarantino’s opus “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” suggests that Hollywood has less to fear from losing the Chinese marketplace than it might have thought.

And, perhaps just as important, America’s movie studios can reclaim the moral high ground as champions of American values at home, and the outlaw quality that makes Hollywood a beacon in unfree societies. “Top Gun: Maverick” will undoubtedly be seen in China - but as samizdat. Bootleg DVDs and digital files of Pete Mitchell acting like a maverick within the system won’t earn Hollywood much in the way of money. But they will serve as a reminder that one of America’s greatest attributes is our commitment to individual success even in determinedly hierarchical structures.

In the end, Iceman (Val Kilmer), Maverick’s rival-pilot-turned-dear-friend was right: As Ice said in the original, Maverick is dangerous - to Chinese aspirations of global hegemony. And that’s exactly why the world needs Pete Mitchell in the cockpit of an F-18 Super Hornet.

Sonny Bunch is the culture editor for The Bulwark, where he writes the Screen Time newsletter and hosts a podcast about the business of Hollywood.


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