Why "female focused" action films get it wrong

Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh in<i> Superman Returns.</i>

Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh in Superman Returns.

When a movie tanks it’s not entirely unheard of for the creative team to agree with the audiences. A writer, director or star will wait a respectful period of time, and then blame reshoots or cruel edits or mis-marketing for a film’s relative lack of success.

Or, if you’re Superman Returns director Bryan Singer, you blame women.

Yes, evidently it wasn’t the fact that his strange, dreary Sydney-shot Superman reboot was woefully miscast, overlong and, in its “Superman’s first paternity battle” subplot, mystifyingly banal, but rather that Singer went to the trouble of making a superhero film for laydeez and, well, they didn’t return the favour at the box office.

Scarlett Johansson in<i> The Avengers.</i>

Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.

In an interview with Empire, Singer laments, “Half of [the reception I understand and half of it I never will. It was a movie made for a certain kind of audience. Perhaps more of a female audience. It wasn’t what it needed to be, I guess. I think I could lop the first quarter off and start the movie a bit more aggressively and maybe find a way to start the movie with the jet disaster sequence or something. I could have grabbed the audience a little more quickly. I don’t know what would have helped. Probably nothing.”


(I’ll just sidestep the implication that a female audience wouldn’t have been onboard for a “more aggressive” opening.)

Even though Singer seems less wrathful about the intended audience’s failings and more despairing about the entire experience of making Superman Returns (did he conduct the interview in full existential-crisis-mode?), his comments are another example of the way in which studio filmmaking continues to misunderstand female moviegoers.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

Last year, the MPAA revealed, once again, that women in fact go to the movies more than men; in 2012, 52% of cinemagoers were women. The notion that blockbusters’ box office hauls are fuelled solely by fist-pumping bros is not only naff, but wrong; for example, The Avengers’ female audience share was around 40%.

Hell, if we’re talking Kal-El, then Man Of Steel’s audience skewed 44% female, and that film - if I can give a nod to Singer’s dreams of a more “aggressive” opening - began with the full-scale destruction of Krypton.

Long story short, if women are preventing your tent-pole from being hoisted or leaving your four-quadrant flick floundering around the two-quadrant mark, it’s probably because your “female focused” movie stinks.

And, since the flood of superhero movies seems to show no sign of abating any time soon (comic writer Alan Moore was right in skewering the trend as “the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own”), perhaps it’s helpful to look at the superhero movies implicitly or explicitly marketed to female audiences for proof.

Take the Halle Berry-starring Catwoman (2004), or Jennifer Garner’s Elektra (2005); both featured female superheroes, yes, but also slim-to-nil character development, and a misjudged marketing approach that to push the stars as “sexy”.

These films are great news for execs who are loath to greenlight another “female-focused” superhero movie, because they can point at them and say - a little like Singer - “But we made this movie for you and you didn’t even go see it!”

Witness the near-Sisyphean journey (since 2001!) to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Despite continued pressure from fans desperate to see Diana return to the big screen, studios seemed allergic to a Wondie adaptation; we only really have the upcoming Man Of Steel sequel to thank for getting Gal Gadot a three-picture deal, but only one of those will be a stand-alone film.

(It also goes without saying that should Batman vs Superman tank, and a Justice League film go south, Wonder Woman’s solo film is likely to “mysteriously” evaporate.)

It’s possible the tide is turning somewhat; money talks, and the greater female audience shares of mega-blockbusters like The Avengers and Man Of Steel will likely lead to at least some reduction in behind-the-scenes idiocy on the part of the studios.

Upcoming sequels X-Men: Days Of Future Past and Avengers: Age Of Ultron have added further female heroes and villains to their casts (taking The Avengers’ hero headcount - Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill doesn’t count - from one to two; Joss, you’re spoiling us!) Rumours even abound that the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot may include a gender-swapped Dr Doom: “The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision is hearing that the studio is likely to go for a big name and isn’t ruling out switching genders for the role.”

And, most importantly, it doesn’t look as though any of them are going to add in an inane subplot about Lois Lane’s domestic life or whether or not Superman is a good father, because guess what? Incredibly, when it comes to blockbusters, it turns out that’s not what women want.