Are Egypt’s gods too white – or just too hammy?

After the Oscars diversity row, a new swords-and-sandals blockbuster has suffered a disastrous opening weekend. But did comic book-mad audiences reject it because of it colourless casting?

As soon as the trailer for Gods of Egypt landed in November, it whipped up a sandstorm of online indignation over the casting of mostly white actors in the roles of ancient Egyptian deities. 

So when the $140m (£99m) CGI fantasy opened in the US last weekend, right in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite diversity debate, few were surprised to see it become Hollywood’s first major turkey of 2016. But was it sunk by the controversy, by its bad reviews, or by Gerard Butler’s accent?

The film, which stars Butler and Game of Thrones regular Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Egyptian gods engaged in a brutal family feud, opened to just $14m at the US box office. It has performed little better overseas – aside from in Russia, where it topped the charts with a relatively modest $3.8m. This week, its distributors were forced to quash a rumour that Gods would go straight to DVD in the UK, insisting it would be released in British cinemas in June.

When the furore over its “white-washed” cast first threatened to overshadow its release, the filmmakers made the unprecedented move of apologising in advance for its lack of diversity. Studio Lionsgate – which has a commendable record of producing movies for black audiences, including Tyler Perry’s long-running Madea series – released a statement, apologising for having “failed to live up to [its] own standards of sensitivity and diversity.”

The film’s Australian director, Alex Proyas, whose previous films include I, Robot and The Crow, issued a separate apology, admitting: “The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse.” (Coster-Waldau was less contrite, pointing out to The Red Bulletin that “I’m not even playing an Egyptian – I’m an eight-foot-tall god who turns into a falcon.”)

This week, a similar brouhaha blew up following the release of a trailer for the biopic Nina, in which actress Zoe Saldana stars as Nina Simone. Saldana, who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, appeared to have darkened her skin and worn a prosthetic nose to play the black jazz singer and civil rights campaigner. The trailer drew an angry response from Simone’s estate, which tweeted that it was “gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, nauseating, soul-crushing”.

Nina Simone's - Trailer 1 (2016) Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo - Biopic

Though far from the first film to have suffered such a backlash, Gods was probably, to its producers’ credit, the first to generate such an early and abashed apology. When Ridley Scott was criticised for casting white actors as Moses and Ramses in his 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, he was unrepentant. “I can’t mount a film of this budget... and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott said at the time. “I’m just not going to get it financed.”

To the contrary, a study published last month by researchers at UCLA suggested American blockbusters with diverse casts did better at the worldwide box office than their more homogenous rivals.

Yet the casting of Gods of Egypt may have been the least of its problems. “I’m not sure a different cast would have helped,” said Daniel Loria, an analyst with “The film wasn’t marketed primarily on the basis of its cast; it was more geared towards its stylistic CGI take on the sword-and-sandals genre. Its [mentions on Twitter were] very low, and when it was mentioned... audiences were not especially favourable.”


The disappointing opening weekend box-office take of ‘Gods of Egypt’

The film has a dismal 12 per cent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The Wrap’s reviewer Alonso Duralde singled out Butler’s “untamped Scottish accent” for criticism, writing that the actor “buries every line of his dialogue under the Pyramid of Groundskeeper Willie”. Most reviews were bad, but not all were brutal. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it: “If Gods of Egypt were any worse, it might be a masterpiece.”

Justin Chang, chief critic for Variety, wrote that he admired the movie’s “lunatic conviction”, saying it had earned a spot in the “pantheon of gloriously watchable follies”. Speaking to The Independent, Mr Chang agreed the film was awful, but added: “I don’t blame the movie for its lack of success so much as the audience’s unwillingness to entertain anything not adapted from a pre-existing comic book or a videogame. The movie failed almost regardless of how well or poorly it was done.”

Even absent the bad reviews and white-washing accusations, Gods faced an uphill marketing battle. It was released in the wake of Deadpool, an unexpected February smash hit from the fringes of the Marvel Universe. Its Egyptian characters are less familiar to the average cinemagoer than even the Greek gods. It is one of a tiny handful of original blockbusters set for release in 2016, a year in which the biggest new titles – Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed – are based on video games.

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Its actors aren’t sufficiently popular to attract audiences on their own, while Proyas lacks the star power of directors like Scott or Christopher Nolan, who is the rare filmmaker capable of turning an original concept such as Inception or Interstellar into a box office triumph. For his part, however, Proyas chose to blame Gods’ lacklustre opening on the critics in a Facebook rant.

“I guess I have the knack of rubbing reviewers the wrong way,” he wrote. “This time of course they have bigger axes to grind – they can rip into my movie while trying to make their mainly pale asses look so politically correct by screaming ‘white-wash!!!’.” 

Mr Chang said he sympathised with Proyas up to a point, but added that, within the criticism of Gods, “there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre in terms of how much people enjoyed it. I enjoyed it immensely, and so did a lot of other people. I watched it with other critics and most of us chuckled throughout... But it is a bad movie.”