Note to self: Get film analyses done before the chaotic month of May, especially as the “summer” season now officially starts in mid-March. Actually, with new strategies in releasing animated and thriller movies and such, you could say that it’s kind of summer all year round now. So while I was getting my ducks in a row once again, what has been happening/may be happening in 2016 for women in film?
While it is not likely that 2016 is going to be as seismic a year for actresses as 2015 or 2012, nor are the media likely to pay quite as much attention (they get bored, the dears,) there’s a definite shift going on that 2016 is busily helping push forward. Big action franchises looking to expand into global media empires, led by Marvel/Disney and DC Comics/Warner, are making use of women to further expand their tentacles. There are an enormous number of movies coming out, including women-led pictures that continue trends we’ve been seeing for the past six years or so.
The actresses hit the ground running first with SF YA movie The 5th Wave, based on the bestselling book, starring Kickass star Chloe Moretz and looking to pick up some of The Hunger Games and Divergent audiences. The alien invasion movie was cheap to make, and since it did well overseas, it made nearly $110 million, turning a very nice profit and possibly green-lighting sequels. Also early on, the horror movie The Boy, starring Lauren Cohan, took in nearly $65 million on a tiny budget, and other women-led horror movies The Forrest and The Witch (I sense a title trend here,) took in nice profits on low budgets. Sadly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted from the mash-up novel, finally came out with limited distribution, but it was late in the game and it did not succeed. Let’s hope it becomes a cult film.
The action kicked up in March with animated film Zootopia, starring Ginnifer Goodwin as a female rabbit cop who enlists a fox con artist to help solve a perplexing case. The kids movie was a massive hit, with over $993 million in world box office and still climbing towards a billion. 10 Cloverfield Lane, a loose sequel/concurrent film to J.J. Abrams’ cult horror movie Cloverfield, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding her own against John Goodman and aliens, was done on a small budget and earned over $100 million in box office. The third title in the Divergent series, Divergent: Allegiant, starring Shailene Woodley, did experience some mid-series fatigue but made over $176 at the box office, paving the way for the fourth and last film.
More recently released has been Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to the first Alice in Wonderland movie that was a hit in 2010 (over a billion in box office in the end,) and stars Mia Wasikowska again as Alice. What was going to be one of the big women-led pictures of the year and a draw for families is now facing the PR nightmare of co-star Johnny Depp’s domestic abuse of his actress wife. Right now, in little over the first week, the film has done about $179 million in box office and global audiences may not care, but we’ll have to see how well the film will do long term and it is saddening all the way around.
On the comedy adventure side of the fence, the certified golden Melissa McCarthy returned with low budget satire The Boss, which has made a profitable $75 million plus box office and still chugging through the global market. Party romp movie How to Be Single, starring Dakota Johnson backed up by Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie and Leslie Mann, took in over $112 million on a modest budget. Nia Vardalos returned to helm the sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which is unlikely to match the original but did take in over $88 million in box office. While there were some flops – Tina Fey’s war reporter film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and the holiday ensemble Mother’s Day – and while the recent Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship is in limited release, there is now a clear foothold established in the last few years of gal-pal comedies as a reliable mid-budget option. They’re cheap to make, they are making much more headway in the global market than U.S. comedies used to do, and they often involve women producers, directors and screenwriters. So we’ll definitely I think be seeing a steady group of these films each year now.
On the action films so far that are not women-led but have women in main characters in the ensemble, we’ve had actresses contributing to the kid hits Kung Fu Panda 3, The Jungle Book, and the new Angry Birds movie. The women have also been prominent in hit action pictures such as London Has Fallen, Ride Along 2, and Money Monster, as well as newer comedy thriller films Keanu and The Nice Guys.
Even before actress Kristen Stewart was caught having an affair with the married director of her film Snow White and the Huntsman, making them unhappy at her continuing, Universal was talking about doing a sequel that would focus only on Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman, even though he barely figured into PR for the first film. Such is Hollywood. So they then did that sequel/prequel this year, titled The Huntsman: Winter’s War. But even Universal understood that the breakout performance in the first film was Charlize Theron’s vengeful step-mom Queen Ravenna, and so they brought her back and added the action gravitas of Emily Blunt as her sister sorceress , Queen Freya. Subbing in for Snow White was Jessica Chastain as warrior woman Sara, the Huntsman’s actual past and future true love. The PR for the movie again focused on Theron and Blunt more than it did on Hemsworth’s Huntsman, the ostensible star of the film taking over the franchise.
The movie, which had a somewhat lower budget, has not done as well as the first one, but is still chugging through the global box office with over $163 million. The lesson here: either fully take your chances with a male star fantasy film, studios, or let the women properly go to it. Recent studies have found that in the last ten years or so of the 25 top-grossing movies each year, the ones with a female-focused plotline have made $45.5 million more than those about men. That’s in part because they have cheaper budgets usually, but it also shows that the women do in fact bring the box office. That is, if you don’t muck about, unsure of what you are doing. But that very vacillation shows the sort of shifting going on. They know that women can actually bring them wealth in the action field and they want wealth; they’re just not quite ready to give up the manly cred, pay the actresses more, and share the industry yet, as well as trust that the global audience will not turn away.
And then there are the comic book movies, four so far and more coming. First off was Deadpool, rebooted, meta-ized, and done as he ought to be in the role that Ryan Reynolds was born to play (again.) Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand and Gina Carano backed him up in the Fox licensed/Marvel owned R-rated slam-fest, (in fact the movie is kind of a love story with Deadpool and Baccarin’s character Vanessa,) and the film has taken in over $763 million globally. Batman vs. Superman: The Dawn of Justice was DC’s big launch early in March. While the film was not super liked (pun intended,) it did rack up over $871 million in box office out of sheer curiosity and did introduce (briefly) Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, as well as other characters for the up-coming Justice League movie and solo outings.
Captain America: Civil War in Marvel’s main franchise knocked it out of the park with over a billion in box office, helped by the sterling Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (now with her widow’s bite bracelets!), Elizabeth Olsen as troubled Scarlet Witch, and Emily VanCamp as SHIELD agent Sharon Carter, Cap’s complicated love interest. We got a glimpse of Florence Kasumba, who will feature in the up-coming Black Panther film, a cameo by Alfre Woodard, and Marisa Tomei as an even younger version of Aunt May for the up-coming Spider-Man reboot within Marvel’s main universe.
Most recently, we’ve had Marvel’s Fox licensed X-Men universe get its prequel third film X-Men: Apocalypse, set in 1983. Jennifer Lawrence as slow aging Mystique basically took over the film as the Wolverine-ish role character (though Wolverine did make a rather creepy cameo.) Rose Byrne resumed her role as Dr. Moira Mactaggert, and Sophie Turner played the young version of Jean Grey. Olivia Munn and Alexandra Shipp played Psychlocke in villain mode and a young inexperienced Storm, respectively, and Lana Condor got a small part as Jubilee. Apocalypse has been out for over a week, getting favorable cred and bringing in over $424 million and climbing in box office.
So what’s next for the even higher octane half of the year? The big woman-led picture to come is Ghostbusters, the reboot that turned the alternate universe version of the story over to the ladies and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are doing the honors, with the original cast doing cameos in some capacity and Ken Hemsworth playing the supporting receptionist role. There has of course been on-line gripping about this, meaning there’s a whole other layer of pressure on the film. It can’t just be a silly reboot with thirty years improvement in special effects, apparently. But given that the big films of the year are mainly comic book movies, creaky franchises or re-makes of other old classics, the odds are looking fairly good for the film.
Also big on the scene is the Star Wars empire’s first “side” film to hold us over, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a prequel about the rebels stealing the plans for the Death Star, starring Felicity Jones in the lead and out towards the holiday season. Recent news of re-shoots has some in apprehension about this, (apparently they feel it’s a bit too dark for the kids,) but I can’t imagine Disney pushing it back and it may just be a matter of coordinating their films. Needless to say, after Rey’s success in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s a lot of pressure on this one too, but the trailer looked good and I don’t even like prequel stories.
Another big one in the animated kids area is Pixar’s long awaited sequel to Finding Nemo, this one called Finding Dory and focused on Ellen DeGeneres’s memory troubled Tang fish character. This is pretty much a guaranteed hit and footage looks pretty gorgeous so far. Also in kids/animation are Moana, a Hawaiian animated story of a girl’s adventure in the islands, and Steven Spielberg’s fairy tale movie The BFG, based on the book, in which a young girl, played by Ruby Barnhill, encounters giants.
Also on the menu for this year is the return of the Underworld franchise with Underworld: Blood Wars, starring Kate Beckinsale and directed by Anna Foerster, just in time for Halloween. This time, Beckinsale’s vampire Selene is trying to unite her family while keeping humans from wiping out all the supernaturals. In other horror, we have women-led pictures Spectral, Ouija 2, Rings (#3 in The Ring franchise,) The Neon Demon, Lights Out and The Disappointments Room.
In action thrillers, there’s a decent crop. Julia Stiles heads up a country Gothic revenge tale in Blackway. Blake Lively is a stranded woman facing a shark in The Shallows. (Yes, she’s in a bikini, but Lively is clearly positioning herself as a headliner with this and last year’s Age of Adaline, so we’ll take it.) A Wall Street thriller, Equity, stars Anna Gunn, and Halle Berry continues her track record of mid-budget thrillers with Kidnap, in which she plays a mom trying to save her son. Emma Roberts leads the younger contingent with the conspiracy thriller, Nerve. But the big thriller of the year with a woman lead is likely to be the noir-ish The Girl on the Train, adapted from the British mega-bestseller and a big step for star Emily Blunt. (They have of course moved the locale to the U.S., but allowed Blunt to still play a British woman.) The film has a number of good roles for women in it and Blunt is backed up by Lisa Kudrow, Allison Janney, Rebecca Ferguson, Laura Prepon and Haley Bennett.
In the comedy adventure area, the big one to come is Bridget Jones’ Baby, the third and probably final Bridget Jones movie starring Renee Zellweger. Basically, the movie ignores the third book creator Helen Fielding wrote and went with a story penned by Fielding and Emma Thompson, who also stars, and the film is directed by Sharon Maguire. Also getting a lot of publicity is the up-coming gal-pal film Bad Moms, starring Mila Kunis as a socially rebellious young mom, with back-up from Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Jada Pinkett Smith and Christina Applegate. The ultimate (drunken) gal-pals of British t.v. series Absolutely Fabulous are back for a full-out movie of the same name, starring Jennifer Saunders, who created the show, and Joanna Lumley. The film is directed by Mandie Fletcher and is helped out by Rebel Wilson and Gwendoline Christie. There’s also the black comedy Maggie’s Plan, starring Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore, directed and written by Rebecca Miller, and Meryl Streep, having a bit of fun, does the comic historical biography Florence Foster Jenkins, about a new money socialite who entertains the world with horrible opera singing. And while it’s not exactly a woman-led film, Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza are the main focus of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.
Then there are the big tentpoles and action pictures with women in main supporting or ensemble roles. Just out is the sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, with Megan Fox still stealing the show. Other big kid/animation flicks: the next in the early mammals franchise Ice Age: Collision Course (they will keep making them until they stop making money,) The Secret Life of Pets, Sing, Trolls (based on the dolls and starring Anna Kendrick,) The Wild Life, Storks, Nine Lives and the semi-live action remake Pete’s Dragon. Slightly older in target age is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a fantasy thriller based on the bestselling YA novel, and featuring Eva Green. We’re also getting some game-based movies this year – Warcraft, with Paula Patton, Ruth Negga and Anna Galvin, and Assassin’s Creed, a game notorious for not having women playing characters, but the film will make use of Marion Cotillard and Ariane Labed.
The modern Star Trek returns, shaking off its darkness and old plots in the third film with Star Trek: Beyond and having Zoe Saldana joined by Sofia Boutella as an alien leader. Harry Potter’s world also returns with a prequel based on J.K. Rowling’s charity tie-in book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set in the 1920’s and starring Katherine Waterston and Samantha Morton. Jason Bourne brings Matt Damon back as the super spy, with Julia Stiles and Alicia Vikander supporting. Now You See Me 2 brings back the con-artist magicians, with Lizzy Caplan playing a new character as Isla Fisher couldn’t make the schedule. The Purge 3: Election Year continues the bleak dystopia franchise with Elizabeth Mitchell as a presidential candidate targeted for elimination. Mechanic: Resurrection will make use of Jessica Alba and horror film The Conjuring 2 returns Vera Farmiga to the screen. And then there’s the sequel to alien invasion spectacle Independence Day with Independence Day: Resurgence, which will make use of Sela Ward (as the U.S. president,) Joey King, Maika Monroe and Vivica A. Fox reprising her role.
We’re also getting more re-makes/returns (as seems to be Hollywood’s brilliant plan for the next five-ten years.) There’s the western The Magnificent Seven, which wasn’t smart enough to make one of the new seven a woman, but will be making use of Haley Bennett. We’re getting a new The Legend of Tarzan, which will have the very busy Margot Robbie as Jane. Tom Hanks returns for a third film in the Dan Brown adapted franchise, Inferno, which will feature the also busy Felicity Jones. And for some reason despite several biblical flops, they decided to remake Ben-Hur, which will have Nazanin Boniadi as Esther.
Other films of possible note are U.S. Civil War era movies The Birth of a Nation, starring Aunjanue Ellis and Aja Naomi King, and The Free State of Jones, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell. In science fiction, we have the space movie Passengers, with Jennifer Lawrence trapped with Chris Pratt, the teen raised on Mars returns to Earth drama The Space Between Us, starring Carla Gugino and Britt Robertson, and the dystopia flick Equals stars Kristen Stewart with Nicholas Hoult. Russia-set spy thriller adapted from the novel Our Kind of Traitor stars Naomie Harris with Ewan McGregor. The comic spy film Central Intelligence stars Danielle Nicolet, Amy Ryan and Megan Park in supporting roles. The mafia thriller The Accountant pits also busy Anna Kendrick against Ben Affleck. And then there are further up-coming horror movies where women feature prominently: The Bye-Bye Man, The Darkness, Delirium, Don’t Breathe, Before I Wake, and the surrogate mom horror thriller remake When the Bough Breaks, starring Regina Hall and Jaz Sinclair.
And lastly, there are the remaining comic book movies for the year. Marvel is launching Doctor Strange, which stars Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams and Amy Landecker in supporting roles to star Benedict Cumberbatch. Swinton’s casting was controversial, due to Marvel’s pointed attempt to remove almost all East Asian roles/actors from the film, despite Doctor Strange getting his mystical training from those cultures and a Tibetan spiritualist. The gender flip of that character might have been fun with an Asian actress, but using Swinton instead seemed awkward and backwards, good as she is. So that one may not help us out much for this year.
DC Comics is showing their edgier side by doing the famous series Suicide Squad, which took various DC villains and had them coerced by the government into fighting other villainous threats. If the film is played right with a mix of black comedy and hard action, it may do very well. Margot Robbie, cementing herself at star level, plays one of the most popular comic characters Harley Quinn (and re-teams with Will Smith.) She is backed up by Carla Delevingue, Viola Davis and Karen Fukuhara in major roles. So this is looking like the franchise advancer to watch in the end of summer/fall.
All in all, it’s a packed year and an increasingly global English language market. Unfortunately, that global market can make Hollywood more cautious, not less, especially when it comes to non-white actresses. But at this point, the argument that women can’t pull the numbers is not getting a lot of pats on the back for vision. And to do large, extended franchises again means limiting it to the men isn’t going to work.
So once again, with actresses like Emily Blunt, Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie, and so forth, the female movie star isn’t dead and is heading up fairly big films and franchises. But can the inclusion of movies like Wonder Woman next year, a female version of Ocean’s Eleven starring Sandra Bullock, a surprise greenlight of a Black Widow movie, and the return of Mary Poppins put female actors past the twenty percent mark in the up-coming years? If some of the trends we’re seeing continue, very possibly yes. 2016 will not be the make or break year but still has fans being increasingly vocal in calling for women characters and leads.
But Hollywood’s current dependence on the big film side on reboot remakes and sequels from properties of the last forty years doesn’t favor women, unless there are gender flips like Ghostbusters this year. So there is going to be a need for the mostly male producers and directors of big franchises like J.J. Abrams and Paul Feig to make women sometimes the main focus, since it will probably take about a decade of women bringing in big box office to convince Hollywood that this is normal and true.
In the meantime, in smaller budgeted films that do well and in shining roles they can get in the big franchises, women are continuing the trickle, trickle erosion of the glacier of film industry sexism. In the performing end, there is now a definitive crack in the glacier, while production is still very limited in film, getting slightly better in television. We’ll have to see if it widens over the next five years, or if Hollywood starts losing its fragile box office by trying to pretend it’s still 1964. But in the meantime, for 2016, it looks like we’re going to have some fun.