Thursday, October 24, 2013

Truth, Justice, and the (White?) American Way

Over the past decade or so, the major Hollywood studios have increased their output of superhero movies greatly, and not a summer goes by without a major motion picture adapted from a comic book superhero franchise. These movies almost always make the list of the top grossing films of the year, with profits well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. They are seen by millions, possibly even billions, around the globe.

By my count, there have been nearly 50 movies based on comic book superheroes since the turn of the millennium.

The last comic book superhero movie released by a major studio whose LEAD character (not a sidekick) was black was back in 2004 -- nine years ago -- with BLADE: TRINITY (if that even counts as a superhero movie) and CATWOMAN starring Halle Berry. If you're discounting the Blade movies, and regarding Catwoman as a spin-off from the Batman franchise, and instead asking for the most recent movie to introduce a leading black superhero before 2004, you'd have to go all the way back to 1997, with the release of the movie STEEL starring Shaquille O'Neal. In other words, the last major movie to introduce a black superhero is now older than the average superhero movie fan.

The last movie to star a female superhero was ELEKTRA from 2005 -- eight years ago. That and CATWOMAN were the only woman-led superhero movies to come out since X-MEN kickstarted the current wave back in 2000. In other words, by the time of the release of the new Superman vs. Batman movie, there will have been twice as many movies starring a single male character (Batman) then there will have been starring an individual of the gender that makes of 50% of the planet.

You might be reading this, saying, "But Michael, no ones care about the female or nonwhite superheroes! They're not good characters! The studios only make movies about popular, famous characters, like Batman and Superman!"

Yes, because people were *clamoring* for GHOST RIDER. And GHOST RIDER 2.
And KICK-ASS. And KICK-ASS 2, evidently.
And R.I.P.D.

Can any of you out there who aren't huge comic book fans genuinely say that you were big Iron Man fans before Robert Downey Jr. stepped into the role?

And can any of you honestly say that you've never heard of the *totally obscure* character Wonder Woman?

And if you say, what does it matter, they're just movies -- think about the effect that movies have on kids and teenagers, who are probably the main audience for superhero movies. Think about how people are still religiously obsessed with STAR WARS even though there hasn't been an all around solid Star Wars movies since Jimmy Carter was President. Think about how kids look up to superheroes, how they see them as role models, how they want to be like them. Nonwhite kids who go to the movies have no superhero out there that looks like them. White kids have dozens. Girls have no superhero out there that looks like them. Boys have dozens and dozens.
If you think that doesn't matter, then I don't know what to tell you... you probably shouldn't be checking out this blog in that case, as I'm not interested in having readers who don't think films or the film industry matter. They can go to the IMDb message boards and hear their own fan-boy opinion parroted back at them if that's what they prefer.


  1. A few thoughts:

    Isn't Kick-Ass/Kick-Ass 2 largely centered around a female superhero? I've only seen part of the first one on TV, and I understand she ostensibly wasn't the main character but does anyone even know anything about/remember the characters NOT played by Chloe Grace Moretz? Certainly all the marketing is centered around her.

    Anyway, as to the larger point, Hollywood is certainly notoriously averse to pushing demographic boundaries, and the genre example you cite is but one small sample of such, albeit a particularly relevant one given that it seems to have become the bread-and-butter of the industry. That said, out of curiosity what do you feel the best solution to the problem would be?

    My own take is that the answer to all the problems with Hollywood - the people and stories it excludes, the tired nature of much of its storytelling and visual style, and so forth - is simply for filmmakers and potential financiers (including microfinanciers on the Kickstarter etc model) and also critics, promoters, everyone whose personal and/or professional lives touch on cinema particularly independent cinema - to push forward their visions via digital technology (both in terms of production & distribution) and worry less about "making it" in the film industry and more about what can be done outside of it. (I suspect the next "Star Wars", by which I mean cinematic mass phenomenon/game-changer, will be viral, not in theaters.)

    Anyone hoping the industry insiders themselves will change their tune - any of their tunes - is barking up the wrong tree. Change usually comes from bottom-up/outside, not top-down/inside.

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  3. Ah, yes, you might be right about Kick-Ass 2, which I have not seen. The first one, which I have seen, is definitely focused around the exploits of the absolutely dull white teenage boy hero. If I remember correctly, Moretz doesn't actually show up until around 30-40 minutes into the film. Although I can't comment on the sequel's contents, it's still important, I think, to note that the movie is still named after "Kick-Ass," the eponymous male lead, and not "Hit Girl," the Moretz character.

    I'd like believe you're correct re: "bottom up" changing of the film industry, though the "game" seems so thoroughly rigged in favor of the multinational corporations and billion-dollar blockbusters in Hollywood that I have a hard time envisioning what the future you outlined would look like.

    The thing that really rankles me about the homogeneity of superhero franchises is that some of these studios have had such success that they could easily greenlight a female or person of color-centric film for a moderate budget and have it not be a major risk. Marvel, in particular, have had nothing but success and have so methodically plotted out and integrated their franchises that their refusal to experiment becomes more offensive than it would be coming from somewhere else -- unlike some other studios, they're not really flying by the seat of their pants, but instead are being very deliberate with their choices.