‘Captain Marvel’ makes box-office history, but is it finally enough?

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Brie Larson in a scene from “Captain Marvel.”

Despite the trolls, the detractors and the ridiculously long wait, “Captain Marvel” made a historic box-office debut over this weekend, with $455 million in worldwide ticket sales, including $153 million in North America.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the global launch for the 21st installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe represents the biggest ever for a female-fronted film — surpassing 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast ($357 million) — as well as the second-largest for any superhero movie behind last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” ($640.5 million). Overall, it’s the sixth-best worldwide debut of all time, and the international opening of $302 million is the fifth-biggest ever ahead of 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($281 million).

In North America, Marvel and Disney’s first comic book adaptation featuring a woman in the lead role made history in surpassing the $103 million grossed by DC’s groundbreaking 2017 hit “Wonder Woman” on its first weekend.

It was also the seventh-biggest debut for the MCU behind the three “Avengers” movies, 2018’s groundbreaking “Black Panther,” 2016’s superhero face-off “Captain America: Civil War” and 2013’s trilogy capper “Iron Man 3,” not adjusted for inflation. It’s also the second-largest domestic debut for a superhero film starring a new character behind “Black Panther,” heralded as the first Hollywood studio tentpole to feature an African-American cast, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Marvel Studios once again proves that stories combining diverse perspectives and different experiences make great movies that play to everybody. People crave representation,” said Disney distribution chief Cathleen Taff.

“Higher, further, faster, baby,” she added, borrowing the “Captain Marvel” slogan.

But wait, there are more impressive statistics to celebrate: “Captain Marvel” scored the top domestic opening since “Incredibles 2” in June 2018, and the third-biggest ever for the month of March behind “Beauty and the Beast,” which had a worldwide launch that included $174.9 million in the U.S., and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” ($166 million), unadjusted. In terms of female-led properties, “Beauty and the Beast” retains the crown for the all-time top start in North America. And Imax theaters contributed $36.1 million to movie’s opening-weekend haul, a record for a non-sequel.

The film’s performance was much-needed balm for the domestic box office after an abysmal January and February. Revenue for the weekend was up more than 50 percent over the same frame last year.

Starring Oscar winner Brie Larson (“Room”), “Captain Marvel,” which cost $150 million to make, is another shiny feather in the cap for Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, the film had to overcome a campaign by trolls to derail it with negative audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but it succeeded, with moviegoers awarding it an A CinemaScore and strong exit grades.

“Captain Marvel” directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”), Captain Marvel — which opened on International Women’s Day — also stars Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Rune Temte, Algenis Perez Soto, Mckenna Grace, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg and Jude Law.

The Hollywood Reporter notes that the stunning international haul for “Captain Marvel” flies in the face of the long-held notion that a female-fronted property can’t compete with movies about men on the worldwide stage. While DC’s “Wonder Woman” performed strongly, it didn’t reach the same heights overseas as it did at the North American box office.

“Captain Marvel” blasted into practically every major market, except Japan, and so far, it’s raking in more money than any other superhero film introducing a new character. In China, the movie grossed $89.3 million, followed by $24.1 million in South Korea, $16.8 million in the U.K. and $13.4 million in Brazil, a near-industry record.

And any lingering belief that men wouldn’t go to see a female-fronted superhero movie at the domestic box office was proven flat wrong: 55 percent to 58 percent of ticket buyers were male (compared to 52 percent on “Wonder Woman’s” opening weekend). The audience was also diverse: 48 percent Caucasian, 20 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African-American and 15 percent Asian/Other.

While the superheroic success is “Captain Marvel” is rewarding – and a bit of a relief – it’s not really that big of a surprise. The MCU has become a proven a filmmaking juggernaut, and no one markets like Disney.

But for woman industry-watchers like myself, the real question is this: Is it finally enough?

“Wonder Woman” has already proven that woman-fronted superhero movies can be critically and commercially successful. “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” have already demonstrated that franchises led by women characters can be huge box-office hits. Prior to 2019, four of the last six top-grossing movies of the year featured female characters in the lead role: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in 2017, “Rogue One” in 2016, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in 2015 and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in 2013.

Brie Larson in a scene from “Captain Marvel.”

The problem is all these impressive numbers so far haven’t resulted in that many more movies starring female protagonists, and it certainly hasn’t led to more movies directed by women.

As previously reported, the percentage of films featuring female protagonists in 2018 rose to 31 percent, according to the latest “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” report. This represents an increase of 7 percentage points from 24 percent in 2017, and slightly surpasses the previous high of 29 percent achieved in 2016. It is a recent historical high, but that’s less than one-third of movies boasting women protagonists even though women are roughly half of the population.

While only 35 percent of the top-grossing films featured 10 or more female characters in speaking roles in 2018, 82 percent had 10 or more male characters in speaking roles, according to the new report from  Dr. Martha Lauzen. Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Females comprised 35 percent of speaking (major and minor) characters, up 1 percentage point from 34 percent in 2017, and 36 percent of major characters, down 1 percentage point from 2017. Generally speaking, major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story, according to the study.

As previously reported, Lauzen’s 21st annual The Celluloid Ceiling study, a survey of the top 250 films of 2018 at the domestic box office, also found that women made up only 8 percent of directors, a number that was down 3 percentage points from the 11 percent in 2017.

This despite the fact that a study – conducted by Creative Artists Agency and the tech-focused firm shift7, and created in conjunction with Time’s Up – found a strong correlation between female-led films and box-office success. According to the Los Angeles Times, the study examined 350 top-grossing U.S. films released from 2014 through 2017. It turned out that, regardless of budget level, films with female leads outperformed male-led ones in worldwide box office averages.

Additionally, the new research revealed that films that passed the Bechdel Test — a gender-representation measurement in which two female characters discuss a topic other than a man — earned more money than those that failed it. In fact, no movie has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide without passing the Bechdel Test since 2012.

Despite the consistent box-office success of female-led films, there’s still this breathless, lingering sense that women-powered tentpoles – especially those with a woman in the director’s chair – have something to prove, when they’ve already proven it over and over again.

What will be a real superheroic feat will be when a major motion picture starring a female character isn’t such a rarity and when the doubters finally pipe down.

-BAM

 

 

 

 

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