After 300, it seemed like Gerard Butler was destined to be a star. He had come up acting the traditional way, by getting so drunk that he was fired from a legal firm just a week before qualifying to practice law, then struggling until he was cast as the title character in Dracula 2000. After a number of small, but increasingly prominent roles in Hollywood like the James Pierce Brosnan Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, the Angelina Jolie film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, and Reign of Fire (the movie in which Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fight dragons in the far-off future of 2020), the Scottish actor was cast as the Fifth Century BCE Greek King Leonidas. The Zack Snyder film (based on a Frank Miller comic) dramatized the Battle of Thermopylae and the battle of Spartan soldiers against the invading Persian Empire that struck a chord with audiences (if not with critics pointing out its barely veiled xenophobia). Once “THIS IS SPARTA” became an early meme and rallying call of frat bros everywhere, he was pretty much set. Or so it seemed, as he bounced between commercially successful but critically derided romantic comedies and increasingly poorly received action films like Law Abiding Citizen and Machine Gun Preacher. The 2016 action fantasy film Gods of Egypt should have been a lifeline back to the A-list for Gerard Butler, but instead, it absolutely tanked. What happened?
For one thing, Gods of Egypt is a very strange concept to build a franchise on. The film treats the mythology of ancient Egypt as something like a toybox to remix. In this world, Gods are nine-feet tall (accomplished by Lord of the Rings-style forced perspective, or as the filmmakers put it, a “reverse-Hobbit”) and live among humans. Gerard Butler plays the desert God Set, not even trying to alter his Scottish accent. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Horus as very similar to his cynical and arrogant Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. The complex and still little-understood religious practices of ancient Egypt are boiled down to a family squabble, and at one point, Gerard Butler’s Set gathers body parts from other gods to turn himself into a kind of evil, divinely-powered Voltron and kills his father to let a space-worm devour all existence so he can become immortal. It’s…strange.
Let us do some table-setting around Gerard Butler and Gods of Egypt and how this happened. The movie was produced by Lionsgate (under its Summit Entertainment subsidiary) as the production company was riding high from the unexpected success of the Hunger Games franchise. The Jennifer Lawrence-starring future dystopia/young adult romance had become a pop culture sensation, breaking box office records and putting the company in a good place to build itself into competition with the likes of Universal and Warner Bros. They hired the writing team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, who had previously written the surprisingly successful Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter. Director Alex Proyas was brought on board to develop an original franchise; he was best known for the 1990s goth-romantic-action classic The Crow, but had made in-roads in the mainstream with Will Smith’s I, Robot. Gerard Butler was hired as an established marquee name and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for Game of Thrones boost and the swiftly rising actor Brenton Thwaites as the plucky young star. Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush added some critical respect and everything seemed a go for Gods of Egypt.
That is until filming on Gods of Egypt began, and an article in The Daily Life pointed out that Gerard Butler and every other lead actor in a movie called Gods of Egypt and set in ancient Egypt happened to be very white. It did not help that Ridley Scott’s recent Exodus: Gods and Kings had received similar criticism for casting ancient Egyptian and Jewish roles with actors like Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and Joel Edgerton, playing the role most suitable for a Dutch-Australian, Pharoah Ramses II. Apparently realizing that they had begun production on a film already being hamstrung by their casting decisions, Alex Proyas and Lionsgate issued public apologies for the whitewashing ahead of the release of the film. Unfortunately, it seems all this did was to highlight the fact that they were going ahead with their racially-insensitive portrayals regardless. Or as one critic put it:
The apology is an attempt to have it both ways. They want the cast that they selected and they don’t want people to hold it against them that it’s a white cast.
It is difficult to say whether Gods of Egypt would have been beneficial for Gerard Butler (and everyone else’s career) without having the bad timing and bad decision-making to be caught in the gathering wave of reckoning regarding Hollywood’s long history of whitewashing. It ended up creating an estimated $90 million loss for Lionsgate, and its Rotten Tomatoes score hovers at a dismal 15%. Even worse, it is simply not even remembered as a debacle, simply just completely forgotten. Gods of Egypt is a bizarre mixture of action, fantasy, good intentions, and cultural chauvinism. Even 300 Gerard Butler couldn’t have pulled this one off.