Recently, Hollywood has been overdosing on virtue signaling, that annoying habit of letting the world know you’re “so woke.” Wonder Woman (2017) started the trend in earnest and the self-congratulatory circle jerk continued with Black Panther (2018). But when Crazy Rich Asians (2018) hit the theaters this past summer, the response of critics and social media influencers reached new heights of orgasmic delusion.
Gushing reviews had praised Wonder Woman for giving us a “novel protagonist,” meaning the superhero was a woman. Likewise, Black Panther was lionized because it finally allowed black audiences to cheer for a black superhero. Yet what both these movies really championed was how quickly people forget.
Jennifer Garner starred as a female superhero in both Daredevil (2003) and it’s spinoff, Elektra (2005). Jessica Alba played Sue Storm in the abysmal Fantastic Four (2004). Halle Berry ticked both the gender and race boxes when she donned the Catwoman tights in the infamous Catwoman (2004). By the same token, numerous movies featuring male black superheroes preceded Black Panther. Unfortunately, since they weren’t backed by the Disney/Marvel marketing empire, nobody in the press or Twittersphere seems to remember Abar, the First Black Superman (1977), The Meteor Man (1993), Blankman (1994), Spawn (1997), Steel (1997), Blade (1998), or Hancock (2008) starring Hollywood’s best-paid actor at the time — Will Smith. All these films were either box office duds or critical catastrophes, usually both. Sometimes it’s convenient — even necessary — to pretend past flops don’t exist in order make the current media narrative more compelling.
Which brings us to Crazy Rich Asians. Judging by the cultural response, Crazy Rich Asians is the greatest thing to happen to cinema since sound. After its release, you couldn’t read a review or listen to a podcast about the movie that didn’t mention the fact it was the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast “in twenty-five years.” Here’s the problem: such framing is a lie.
Director Justin Lin’s nervy debut Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) was a crime masterpiece centered on a group of Asian high schoolers. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) won the Oscar for Best Picture and was set in India. Yet in the current social media universe where opinions are treated as fact and emotions are worshipped like religious doctrine, neither qualifies as an all-Asian Hollywood movie because the said film was either a low budget indie production (Better Luck Tomorrow) or financed with studio money but slated for a straight-to-video release (Slumdog Millionaire).
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) cannot be dismissed so easily. Helmed by Hollywood royalty Clint Eastwood working at the height of his directorial powers, it’s a harrowing war film featuring an all-Japanese cast speaking Japanese the entire movie, with English subtitles. In Crazy Rich Asians, nearly all the characters speak English nearly all the time. Even Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Saint Steven Spielberg, didn’t use subtitles for its German and Polish-speaking characters. Schindler’s List, like Crazy Rich Asians, was Anglicized for Western ears. Letters From Iwo Jima was not. Yet it never enters into the discussion about all-Asian Hollywood movies, despite being nominated for Best Picture and financed by Warner Brothers and DreamWorks. You can’t get more Hollywood than that. Maybe war movies about the fate of Japanese soldiers on faraway islands don’t count as Asian; if so, the implications of such racism are too staggering to consider.
So let’s cut through the bullshit. There’s only one reason for all the hype touting Crazy Rich Asians as the first all-Asian cast in a Hollywood movie since The Joy Luck Club (1993): to sell tickets. If Crazy Rich Asians is not presented as a groundbreaking film, then it has to stand on its own merits. While perfectly enjoyable fare, Crazy Rich Asians is no different than Pretty Woman (1990), Sabrina (1954; 1995), and hundreds of other romantic comedy fairy tales. That’s actually the charm of the film. It presents a fun, updated version of the Cinderella story, complete with the fancy ball. It even has its own brilliant stroke-of-midnight moment when the fantasy life comes crashing down, only to be revived by a twist ending that pulls at your heartstrings and tear ducts in equal measure. But creating buzz for a stale genre like the romantic comedy is a much harder task than letting everyone know your movie is about people of color. In 2018, it’s easy to praise a film for the ethnicity of its cast. It’s a far more Herculean challenge to market the content of a generic story.
Ironically, the week before Crazy Rich Asians was released, another major Hollywood movie — one also based on a crappy albeit bestselling novel — open in theaters around the world. But this film didn’t garner any critical attention nor social acclaim, despite showing more Asians on screen in one sequence than in the entirety of Crazy Rich Asians. Nobody lauds it as an important film, even though half the cast is Asian and it was a Chinese-American co-production. Perhaps this is because the Asians at the climatic beach scene are portrayed as average Asians, not as crazy rich fabulous objects of sexual desire. Yes, I speak of The Meg, a Jaws (1975) ripoff about a giant prehistoric shark that roams the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean near China. It’s just as Asian as Crazy Rich Asians, maybe more so depending on your point of view. It’s done boffo box office, earning $525 million worldwide at the time of this writing, double that of Crazy Rich Asians. Yet it hasn’t resonated the same way culturally. There’s nothing aspirational about fat Chinese families being terrorized by a megalodon, there’s no virtue in signalling your support for crass capitalism. Nonetheless, like Crazy Rich Asians, The Meg will have a lasting effect on Hollywood movies. That’s because Hollywood really only sees one color: green.