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‘The Great Wall’ at NYCC: Matt Damon Brings His Monster Epic to MSG

When you’re a big celebrity like Matt Damon, what do you do for your birthday? You could have a party, go out to dinner, or maybe talk about your new movie in front of thousands of fans at the Theater at Madison Square Garden for New York Comic Con. But those thousands of fans did sing happy birthday to the Academy Award winner. So that’s quite the present. Damon was on hand with his cast mates and the director of his upcoming epic film, The Great Wall.

The panel for 'the great wall' at nycc
The Panel for ‘The Great Wall’ at NYCC

House of Flying Damons

Damon was joined on stage by actors Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, and Junkai Wang. In fact Junkai could possibly have received a louder ovation than Damon did. As a member of the Chinese boyband TF Boys, let’s just say some fans had a hard time settling down once he was introduced. Director Zhang Yimou also accompanied his cast. Famous for his celebrated projects like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the cast couldn’t stop heaping on praise for the experience of working with the director. Both Damon and Pascal even described themselves as super fans.

The Great Wall comes out in December in China, but we have to wait until February in the United States. The plot has Damon and Pascal’s characters joining with a Chinese force to stop invading monsters. In fact, in this story the Great Wall of China was built to ward off monsters. Most of the discussion about the movie in the media so far has been about the fact that Damon, a Caucasian American, is playing the lead in a Chinese film taking place in Medieval China. But Zhang has claimed that Damon’s role was not originally meant for a Chinese actor. So this isn’t an example of whitewashing, as has too frequently been the case in major movies featuring different ethnicities.

In a separate interview Zhang said, “The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience.”

The Great Wall of Boy Bands

But that controversy didn’t come up at the NYCC panel. Everything that was screened showcased the scale of the movie. Along with a trailer for the film, a sizzle reel with clips from Zhang Yimou’s previous releases was also shown and met with significant praise. From there, the look at The Great Wall showed the dynamic between Damon and Pascal’s characters, who are essentially partners in crime. Jing Tian was referred to as a “badass warrior female” on multiple occasions. There was only a quick flash of Junkai Wang, who plays a young emperor in the film. But you better believe the crowd let out a scream when he made a cameo in the trailer. Willem Dafoe also stars in the film, but he wasn’t on hand at MSG.

In settings like this panel, it’s the job of the actors and director to build excitement for a project. With The Great Wall, the group showed a real enthusiasm for the film. Damon is a bonafide movie star, but he said he jumped at the chance to work with Zhang and do a historical film, which he’s never done before. I guess the term “historical” is used loosely. Another first for Damon is the long hair he sports in the movie. He admits he was happy to see that go after filming.

In Theaters February 17, 2017

Unique to The Great Wall panel was a number of fans in the lower section of the theater holding up signs with neon blue lights spelling out Chinese characters. What those signs said, I don’t know. But it was clear that those Chinese fans couldn’t get enough of The Great Wall. After all, the group of young women seated near me couldn’t speak English, but they still waited in line for hours to get into a panel that was almost exclusively in English. In a time when the Chinese film market can make or break a big movie, it looks like this one has a good chance of success over there. I can’t predict its numbers in the US, but it has Matt Damon, monsters and large-scale martial arts fight scenes. So they’ll have my money at least.

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