By Eli Kravinsky '24; Image by Politico
The America of the near future is invaded and occupied by a relentless and seemingly unstoppable foreign enemy … North Korea. As bizarre as this sounds given North Korea’s fragility, in 2011 a major video game, Homefront, was released with this exact plot, followed by a major film, the 2012 Red Dawn remake. In addition to identical premises, neither were commercial or critical successes. However, both offer insight into how popular culture reflects international relations.
The original antagonist of both Homefront and Red Dawn (2012) was China, which in both cases was changed to North Korea so as to avoid backlash from China. In Red Dawn’s case, the change was so facile that it reportedly cost less than a million dollars in post production editing. For its part, Homefront had to justify the ludicrous premise that anemic North Korea would (or could) occupy the U.S. by creating an alternate reality which essentially copy-pasted China’s post-Mao economic boom onto North Korea. Funnily enough, the removal of China was justified on the grounds that China wasn’t threatening enough— an ironic viewpoint from today’s perspective. One can assume that the creators of both works banked on Americans’ ignorance of the foreign world and assumed that viewers would have trouble even distinguishing North Korea and China.
Far beyond these two examples, American pop culture has struggled to find an enemy who was scary enough to attract consumers but whose depiction wouldn’t cost them economically. Many prefer to depict ‘safe’ enemies, which are either historical ‘bad guys’ like the Nazis or have speculative science fiction elements. The Call of Duty franchise exemplifies this. It began depicting World War 2, but later bounced back and forth between increasingly ludicrous enemies: power-hungry private military corporations, zombies, Nazi zombies, Nazi zombies on the moon, actual Nazis, a secret group of ultra-Nazis, Russia, a secret group of ultranationalist Russians, the USSR, a secret group of ultranationalist Soviets, an interplanetary USSR stand-in, China (in one possible storyline), an Occupy Wall Street-esque terrorist movement, an evil AI, and a sort of fascistic South American coalition. Interestingly enough, the almost unfathomably evil Russian ultranationalists depicted in some of the franchise’s most successful installments appear to have been partly vindicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin, for his part, more resembles ultranationalist terrorist villain Makarov, who tries to use weapons of mass destruction to allow Russia to conquer Europe, than he does the ‘good’ Russians, who try and negotiate peace with the U.S.. Of course, the franchise’s creators couldn’t predict Russia’s repeated surprising and embarrassing military failures.
Interestingly, Call of Duty’s inability to settle on a compelling enemy reflects America’s search for a post-Cold War adversary. Just as ludicrous as the franchise’s choices, the ‘90s saw the U.S. military engaged in conflicts against absurdly underpowered foes: tin-pot dictatorships and flip-flop wearing rebels. The 9/11 attacks appeared to usher in a new enemy which threatened the existing international order and even civilization itself, but transnational Islamic terrorist networks were tamped down to an occaisional nuisance (for the West) within a relatively short span.
Hollywood is especially scared of depicting China as an enemy for the simple fact that the Chinese Communist Party can easily deny them access to China’s massive box office, the source of most of their income. Some movies, such as The Great Wall, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Meg combine Chinese and American A-list stars facing off against mutual threats like extraterrestrial monsters based on Chinese mythology, alien invaders, and a massive megalodon. These reflect China’s occasional attempts to downplay Sino-American tension in favor of issues of mutual concern, such as global public health and climate change. Midway, which depicted the U.S. Navy’s decisive victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1942, also shows how enthusiastically Hollywood courts China. The film received crucial backing from Chinese investors, which is unsurprising due to the fact that it contains a subplot which shows how much China suffered during WWII and how much it contributed to the defeat of Imperial Japan. Also, the Chinese public’s widespread antipathy towards Japan makes a film that depicts Japan losing, even if primarily at American hands, a hot commodity. Fascinatingly, the Chinese censors demanded a scene which depicted insubordination within the U.S. military be cut, presumably lest any PLA officers get any funny ideas.
Likewise, the desire to tap into the China market is a major reason behind Marvel’s success. Superhero movies are easy for non-English speakers to understand because they are unencumbered by complex dialogue, and are politically palatable because they depict superheroes fighting against fantastical and otherworldly enemies or at least more realistic ones that are universally feared, such as terrorists and criminals.
China’s movie industry, however, is less restrained in depicting America as its enemy, though with some restrictions. One imagines this less due to commercial reasons (few Chinese-language movies play in American theaters) and more due to a desire by the CCP to stoke nationalist fervor while not letting it boil over.
Three recent films propagandize the heroics of the Chinese Navy, Army and Air Force. Operation Red Sea shows an elite team of Chinese marines rescuing their compatriots amidst a civil war in the Middle East. The final scene depicts the Chinese Navy intercepting a U.S. navy fleet entering China’s (unilaterally claimed) waters. Wolf Warrior 2 has a similar premise, though American mercenaries are the primary antagonist. The movie’s title is the origin of the term “wolf warrior diplomacy” which describes the increasingly antagonistic tone of Chinese diplomats. Sky Hunter is a fairly shameless copy of Top Gun and shows Chinese pilots bravely intercepting an American reconnaissance plane, though its primary enemy are Muslim terrorists. These movies are intended to show how strong, brave, and advanced the Chinese military is, while depicting the U.S. as a likely and dangerous, but not necessarily inevitable foe. Similarly, 2021’s The Battle at Lake Changjin (the highest grossing non-English film of all time) depicts actual combat between Chinese and American forces– during the Korean War, rather than the present day.
Despite increasing awareness amongst experts and policymakers that China is the United States’ primary adversary, (and the fact that Russia’s military has shown itself to be pathetically weak), this has not filtered down to popular culture. For example, the original Top Gun depicted a U.S. military struggling to regain its confidence and sense of purpose. While it never identified the identity of the enemy pilots its heroes shot down, they obviously were Soviet stand-ins. Its sequel, Top Gun Maverick, is this year’s highest domestic grossing film but it instead depicts an unnamed enemy nation which strongly resembles Iran; a less controversial but much less compelling enemy than China. One aspect of this might be that the U.S. has more recent exposure to war. American films have struggled with the legacy of Vietnam, and more recently the Global War on Terror, for decades while Chinese society, less encumbered by the painful memory of recent wars, can more confidently depict the imagined wars of the future.
China’s nationalist films reflect the cultural shame brought on by China’s history of subjugation by the West (which is amplified by the CCP’s propaganda machine), as well as the CCP’s fear that American pop culture – which still remains globally dominant – would become a backdoor through which the U.S. could chisel away CCP control. While the American government lacks the top-down instruments of control the CCP wields to ensure control over its culture, its cultural exceptionalism and pride will likely lead to its film industry depicting China as an enemy. Likewise, the American military and intelligence community’s support for films that depict it positively will lend them powerful leverage to shape pop culture.
While U.S. films almost invariably depict China positively, Chinese films portray an increasingly confident China standing up to an immoral and overconfident America. This paradoxical trend is in stark contrast to the pop culture of the Cold War, which saw both sides produce similarly bombastic propaganda pieces. It is likely that despite China’s enormous box office, increasing CCP sensitivity on how China is depicted as well as increasing American antagonism towards China will make it impossible for Hollywood to profitably pander to China. This point will mark the true start of the Sino-American cold war; the point at which mutual hostility overcomes economic and cultural ties.