Some movies are successful with the public, some movies are successful with the critics, and some movies, happily, are successful with both. The box-office successes tap into some desire or need on the public’s part; moviegoers decide they want “this” (explosions, or sentient robots, or car chases, or a particular actor) in their lives. The critical successes come into being because someone in Hollywood’s creative community decided, “Here is a story that ought to be told,” and much time and care is expended to make certain the story is told well. But what happens when movies neither meet the public’s desires nor receive the attention and energy needed to make them good?
They fail, of course. Critics pan them, and the prospective audience chooses not to bother. Two recent examples of such failures are this year’s Memorial Day Weekend releases, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Baywatch, one an installment of a familiar franchise and the other a reboot of a 1990s TV hit, both apparent products of the paint-by-the-numbers school of creativity and neither offering the public anything for which it’s been clamoring. Did moviegoers cry out for another Pirates of the Caribbean movie after the last one, On Stranger Tides? How often have we heard the people around us sigh, “God, I miss Baywatch“? Nobody was looking for these movies, and so, without critical support, they sank. Yet the studios aren’t choosing to blame their own lack of innovation and foresight. Instead, they’re blaming Rotten Tomatoes, the website that publishes a bank of reviews and keeps track of the percentage ratio of raves to riffs.
News about this silliness came to me through Facebook, and I made the same mistake I always do — I clicked to see the comments. There I found that one poster had found a different scapegoat. Today’s movies fail, he argued, because Hollywood has become obsessed with “strong female characters” to the point where they shoehorn such characters into movies where they “don’t belong.” This claim strikes me as absurd, especially when connected to these two films. Back when it was good, the Pirates franchise had an active and important female character, and nobody complained about her then. As for Baywatch — you mean there are heterosexual guys who don’t want to see women in swimsuits kicking butt? If men are staying away from these movies in droves, I highly doubt it’s because they have women in them.
All the same, I was curious. Just how obsessed has Hollywood become with “strong female characters”? I went to the Internet Movie Database to research the matter, and I looked up the major releases for the coming weeks and months. This is what I found:
Wonder Woman — female hero. Captain Underpants — male hero. The Mummy — male hero, female villain, female damsel. Cars 3 — male hero. All Eyez on Me — male lead. Transformers: The Last Knight — directed by Michael Bay; no further comment needed. Despicable Me 3 — male lead. The House — Will Ferrell. Baby Driver — male lead. Spider-Man: Homecoming — male heroes. War for the Planet of the Apes — male leads, both ape and human (but this one I’m still keen to see, since Andy Serkis is a powerhouse as Caesar). Dunkirk — male leads, but that’s to be expected from a historical military drama. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — male and female co-leads; the boy is the title character. Atomic Blonde — female lead, but this one looks incredibly cheesy. The Dark Tower — male hero. The Hitman’s Bodyguard — male leads, bromance. Kingsman: The Golden Circle — male heroes, female villain. Blade Runner 2049 — male lead. Thor: Ragnarok — male heroes, female villains. Justice League — ensemble protagonists. Coco — Pixar’s latest offering, male lead. Murder on the Orient Express — male detective hero. Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi — male and female heroes. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — male heroes and Smurfette. The Six Billion Dollar Man — duh. The Greatest Showman — male lead.
If these releases indicate an obsession with “strong female characters,” I’m just not seeing it. There’s Wonder Woman, possibly Valerian, Atomic Blonde, and The Last Jedi, but beyond that, the most woman-centric movies I noticed were a couple of raunchy comedies in the Bridesmaids mold and movies like The Beguiled, Megan Leavey, The Glass Castle, and The Book of Henry — the sort of small-scale personal dramas that are often very well done and can offer a welcome break from the summer explode-fest, but have commonly featured women in central roles. In short, there’s nothing new here. So based on the evidence, the Facebook poster’s claim does not hold water.
But wouldn’t it be nice if it did?
What if the powerful producers and gifted directors did indeed decide that more stories about women were worth telling, and put their hearts and minds into such projects so that both critics and audiences would embrace them?
What if characters like Rey and Diana of Themyscira, as well as Laura from Logan and Barbara Gordon from The LEGO Batman Movie, were indeed a sign of a sea change, at the end of which female characters like them would be so common and such an integral part of action-adventure stories that it would never enter anyone’s mind that they “didn’t belong there”?
The future this man dreads is the very future I desire — a future in which writers, readers, and viewers finally understand that giving good roles to women doesn’t have to mean taking them away from men. A future where it’s universally acknowledged that the marvelous world of Story has ample room for awesome male AND female characters.