It’s the “yeah, but” you have to defeat.
For every box office victory gained by those who would argue increased diversity leads to both more profitable and more interesting movies, there’s a “yeah, but” counterargument.
“Wonder Woman exceeds all expectations and ends up with a staggering $821m worldwide!“ we’ll say. “This proves female-led superhero movies can play anywhere in the world.”
“Yeah, but,” someone else interjects. “Wonder Woman actually made more domestically than internationally. That NEVER happens with comic book movies or blockbusters in general. WW’s domestic/international split was 51%/49% when it’s usually closer to 40%/60%, 30%/70% in some cases. Yes, WW is an undeniable hit, but I wouldn’t go as far as ‘proves female-led superhero movies can play anywhere.’ Some corners of the world are still crazy sexist, even more so than the U.S.”
The same back-and-forth happened last year when the once-in-a-generation box office phenomenon of Black Panther ended with a 52% vs. 48% domestic/international split. “Proves black-led films travel,” to some. “Yeah, but why did it defy blockbuster norms and do better at home than overseas?” to others.
Disney distribution chief Cathleen Taff said, “People crave representation.” The box office spells that out. However, do the numbers dispel the old “female-led/black-led films don’t travel” myth as much as we want to believe.
Maybe both films wildly overperformed domestically and performed more to average or slightly above average for major comic book movies everywhere else. Either way, there’s enough for the naysayers to write them off as anomalies which proved there’s money to be made in diversity but maybe of it at home than elsewhere.
That’s why Captain Marvel scoring the sixth-biggest global opening ($455m) of all time is such a big deal. It’s a Marvel movie doing the Marvel movie thing at the box office, which means, basically, it’s printing cash. However, it’s doing so at an uncommonly fast rate, even by Marvel standards. It’s overseas launch of $302m – or 66% of its global total – trails only The Fate of the Furious ($443.2 million), Avengers: Infinity War ($382.8 million), Jurassic World($316.7 million) and the final Harry Potter pic ($314 million) in the record books.
Some “yeah, but” objections still apply:
Yeah, but it’s not every female-led blockbuster that gets to follow a box office behemoth like Avengers: Infinity War, which was just the third film ever to eclipse $2 billion worldwide. Basically, everyone who wants to know how the Avengers defeat Thanos in Endgame has to see Captain Marvel. Try replicating that kind of lead-in.
Yeah, but we’re only talking about three days worth of box office totals. Let’s wait to see how everything shakes out in the end. Captain Marvel could revert to the Wonder Woman/Black Panther normal of a 50/50 domestic/international split or it might truly perform more like a standard blockbuster. We need a little more time to predict which way it will go.
Big picture it: The film industry is a copycat business manned by a bunch of clueless MBAs who produce by spreadsheet formulas instead of the filmmaking instincts they don’t actually possess. Once a proof-of-concept hit like Wonder Woman comes along, they can all claim to be pleasantly surprised, but still a tad skeptical. It takes the next movie to replicate that success to really challenge the most risk-averse holdouts to admit maybe long-held myths about box office success are wrong.
As new Imax president Megan Colligan told THR:
“I think we tend to perpetuate myths that are simply untrue, such as that men won’t watch a female-led superhero movie, or that African-American superhero movies won’t play overseas. Over and over again, we see that those myths are just stories that we tell ourselves to make the same type of movies in the same way. The studios who have said no to those myths and have pushed to defy them have been wildly successful.”
To give credit where credit is due, even just a cursory glance at the last 12 months of movies shows an abnormally high number of female and black-led comedies and dramas. Clearly, Hollywood got the “diversity is good for business” memo. However, to get such a movie made at the blockbuster level you need success stories to point to.
Alita: Battle Angel, a big budget spectacle with a female lead, isn’t quite that, not with its “good enough to turn a profit, but not enough to warrant a sequel” box office. Same goes for A Wrinkle in Time, the biggest budget film ever directed by a black woman but also one of Disney’s rare financial misses.
Captain Marvel, however, is already a financial success story. “This continues the momentum started by Wonder Woman,” says Wall Street analyst Erik Handler of MKM Partners. “Female-led movies have been gaining traction for several years, but these two films, along with Black Panther, show that a superhero doesn’t have to be a white male in order to support a massive budget.”
And if these early Captain Marvel returns are any indication they can be just as top-heavy with money from foreign ticket sales as any other blockbuster. Considering how much Hollywood prioritizes that kind of business, in part because the studios get a bigger cut of foreign ticket sales than domestic, that’s another important “yeah, but” to topple.