In Defense of "Pandering" to Foreign Audiences

Slate's Culture Blog
July 12 2013 7:24 PM

In Defense of "Pandering" to Foreign Audiences

Stacker (Idris Elba) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) in Pacific Rim.
Stacker (Idris Elba) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) in Pacific Rim.

Photo byKerry Hayes©2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.

Across the Web—or at least across the U.S.-based, English-speaking part of it—those lamenting the state of the Hollywood blockbuster seem to be pointing their fingers at one factor above all others this week: Hollywood’s “overreliance on foreign box office.” 

A post on the Atlantic calls this one of the key factors in “the Economics of Awful Blockbuster Movies.” Over at Flavorwire, Jason Bailey highlights a chart of foreign vs. domestic box office made for that Atlantic article as one of the key charts “to make you sad about movies.” At Pitchfork’s new movies site the Dissolve, Matt Singer pleads for no more bad American accents, then wonders whether it’s part of the larger problem that “movies made for a global audience put spectacle at a premium over everything else.”

Certainly there’s some truth to this conventional wisdom. As the Atlantic sums it, explosions tend to translate better than regional nuances, and some humor won’t translate at all. Similarly, while a major star can be as big a draw abroad as at home (and sometimes bigger), in some foreign-language markets much of their performance is dubbed over.

But these changing market dynamics also have an upside that’s gotten much less attention: They offer the incentive to make use of more diverse casts, and to tell more stories whose heroes aren’t exclusively American.

Take Pacific Rim, which turns this supposed weakness into a strength. While the movie’s principal protagonist is an American played by English actor Charlie Hunnam—the United States, after all, still represents the largest single market for Hollywood blockbusters—its other stars and characters are from all over the map. The commander of the resistance is an Englishman played by black English actor Idris Elba. The hero’s partner is fellow ranger and pilot Mako Mori, a Japanese woman played by actress Rinko Kikuchi. (You might know Kikuchi from another international effort, Babel.) The other pilots consist of a Russian duo, an Australian father and son, and a set of Chinese triplets.

You could choose to view this as "pandering"—the Atlantic’s Pacific Rim review flirts with doing just that—and it’s true that some films’ efforts to appeal to international audiences have been ham-fisted. Iron Man 3 even went so far as to add a few minutes of extra footage for a special Chinese version, to shoehorn in a character named Dr. Wu. (The character appears for only 10 seconds in the international version, but in the China-only cut Tony Stark finds himself suddenly in need of Chinese healthcare, with Dr. Wu the only one who can perform the operation.) The patronizing additions were widely mocked, with China’s People’s Daily calling the addition “terrible,” and “pointless.”

But there’s a simpler, less cynical answer: Perhaps director Guillermo Del Toro saw an opportunity to make another movie that wasn’t just about American exceptionalism, a blockbuster that wasn’t just about more (usually white) American men saving the world. He is, after all, Mexican, and has said that the movie is “permeated by the fact that I am Mexican.” Here’s how he explained the way the cast of characters came together:

The main drive behind that was that I didn’t want it to be a single country saving the Earth. … I wanted to have people from every race, color, creed possible coming together to work as a unit. You know, I felt that it was very important to have the charismatic leader be played by Idris Elba, rather than the usual sort of WASP-y, 40-ish, sergeant type.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, he expanded on that same idea, explaining that “the idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together.” He added that he “didn’t want this to be a recruitment ad or anything jingoistic,” which is still how too many of these blockbusters play. (I’m looking at you, Battleship.) To subvert that standard may be good business, but it’s also good storytelling.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.