The boys of summer

I like superhero movies. I really do. They’re fun and fast and the costumes are faaaa-bulous. Straight men in stretchy fabric and capes – this is better than figure skating! This summer’s heroic roster includes Iron Man, Batman and The Incredible Hulk. And as great as those crime fighters are, they’re also a reminder that when it comes to superhero movies, no women need apply – this is man country.

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis recently opined on the lack of women heroes and women— period — in today’s big budget blockbusters. Could this be the realization of Warner Brothers exec Jeff Robinov’s decree that the studio would not make any more movies with female leads? Dargis thinks so:

“Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if it’s done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves — at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame — to see just how irrelevant we have become.”

Ouch, but true.

One needs only to look at this summer’s slate to see the sad truth. Besides all the testosterone-driven superhero flicks, it’s all dudes – old and young. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: old dude with a whip. Speed Racer: young dude with a car. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: Prince dude. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan: secret agent turned hairstylist dude. Get Smart: not-so-smart dude. The Love Guru: enlightened dude. Hancock: burned-out super dude. Hellboy II: The Golden Army: big red dude. Pineapple Express: stoner dudes. Bangkok Dangerous: why-is-he-still-getting-leading-action-roles dude.

So what is out there with women leads? Two films aimed at girls: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. The latter is based on a line of dolls. (Yes, dolls.) And for us grown ups? We have Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City. Plus I call halvsies on The X-Files: I Want to Believe because it is both Mulder and Scully.

For years, the conventional industry wisdom has been that women will go see a men’s movie, but men won’t see a woman’s movie. The NY Times piece lays out some stark numbers along those lines. Only three of last year’s 20 highest-grossing films were female driven, and those films were either about princesses (Enchanted) or pregnancy (Knocked Up, Juno). Talk about your Madonna/whore complex.

But this leads us to the classic chicken or egg question: Are there few successful female-driven films because they don’t do well, or do female-driven films not do well because there are so few of them? I have to believe the latter. Baby Mama, a comedy with not one but two female leads (way to eat up the year’s quota, ladies,) opened No. 1 and beat out a comedy with two male leads (Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay). Perhaps you’ve also heard of Alien, The Devil Wears Prada and some hardly-seen flick called Titanic.

Hundreds of male-driven films flop each year, but there are so many of them, we hardly notice except for the biggest-budget disasters. But if one or two female films fail (like Nicole Kidman’s The Invasion and Jodie Foster’s The Brave One last year) and it’s time to pull the plug? In the last three years Nicolas Cage (the aforementioned “why-is-he-still-getting-leading-action-roles dude”) has had bomb (Next) after bomb (The Wicker Man) after bomb (The Weather Man) after bomb (Lord of War); yet there is his big creepy face on movie posters for Bangkok Dangerous scaring small children.

The problem isn’t that women’s movies don’t do well; the problem is that women’s movies are treated as a niche. The choices in female-driven films simply aren’t as broad as the choices in male-centered films. For the most part, we are either in romantic comedies (because, you know, all women want to get married) or thrillers (because, you know, women in peril sells). It’s pretty simple: more choices mean more opportunities to connect, means more chance of success.

Women-centered films can become the Field of Dreams of cinema. If you make good ones, we will come.