Thursday, November 22, 2012

Comic books for boys, Young-adult literature for girls: On the coming blockbuster-tentpole gender divide...

If you've been paying attention to the various trailers being unleashed in the wake of Breaking Dawn part 2's last week, you'll notice a fevered pitch by the studios to plant their flag in the sand in the newest 'hot' sub-genre.  By that I mean the young-lit franchise adaption. In just the last week we've seen trailers for The Host (trailer and character posters) and The Mortal Instruments (trailer) as they joined the previously advertised Beautiful Creatures (trailer and poster) in the chase to become 'the next Twilight'. What we're seeing is the creation of what amounts to the next blockbuster sub-genre: the young-adult literary adaptation.  The three above films won't be the only ones coming down the pike and we may even see one or two more over the 2013 calendar year on top of the November release of Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  In basic concept they aren't all that different from traditional comic book superhero sagas: An unlikely person realizes that they are unique and have powers (or must take powers) that will allow them to protect humanity from the evil in our midst.  Both sub-genres have room for character actors and/or major movie stars in smaller roles and both have the potential to break-out and become true tent poles. But the core difference between these sub-genres is pretty obvious.  Many, if not most, of them feature female leads.

In a time when Joss Whedon had to cajole Marvel into including Black Widow in The Avengers and we still don't have a Wonder Woman movie, the young adult literary fantasy film is perhaps primed to become an equalizer of sorts in the world of film tent poles.  We may be entering an era where the blockbuster landscape is divided on gender lines.  For boys, you've got the various Marvel and DC superhero spectaculars, along with the likes of Transformers and Star Trek.  For girls, we're seeing a wave of young-adult literary adaptations with dreams of becoming the next mega-franchise.  Yes, if it needs to be said, obviously any number of female moviegoers enjoys the likes of Iron Man while any number of male moviegoers flocked to The Hunger Games.  But the demographic targeting at work is pretty clear.  The conventional wisdom for the last 15-20 years has been that the would-be tentpole was by definition a boy-friendly fantasy film centered around a male protagonist.

Yes, it's no accident that the would-be blockbusters that really broke out of the pack (Spider-ManHarry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar) were mostly the ones that actually bothered to have fully fleshed-out female characters and made sure that they played a key role in the narrative (the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy is arguably Elizabeth Swann's journey).  But in Hollywood for generations, the cliche has generally been that the widest-appealing films were action-heavy boy pictures that happened to have a token amount of female appeal (which according to studio executives was defined as 'romance' and/or 'hunky male leads who take their shirt off').  Overtly macho action pictures like The Last Boy Scout had a proverbial box office ceiling, while something like Speed (appealing non-asshole hero, well-written female lead) could cross gender lines and become a smash.  But explicitly targeting females was tantamount to box office poison outside of the romantic comedy genre.

The Twilight Saga was a genuine game changer in this regard, becoming the first mega-blockbuster franchise that explicitly appealed to girls and basically played to a 'no boys allowed' mentality.  What has followed in its wake in a sea of young-adult literary adaptations that are obstinately "heroines' journeys".  They are perhaps smaller scale than the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (and thus cheaper to make), but they are indeed fantasy genre entries with designs on being the next big tent pole franchise.  Any one of the many such films opening over the next few years could be the next Hunger Games, or none of them could.  But if even one or two of them reach blockbuster status (which means say around the $176 million of Captain America, not necessarily the $318 million of Iron Man) we'll start seeing a blockbuster gender divide.  Boys will get their big budget superhero films that may or may not appeal to female audiences as well while girls will get their moderate-to-big budget young adult-literary adaptations that may or may not appeal to male audiences as well.

What was important about The Hunger Games is that is production (and that of the upcoming sequel) was watched and feverishly covered with the same respectful intensity that greets the newest Marvel sequel.  The key difference is respect.  Films like The Host or Beautiful Creatures are being afforded the same relative respect on film blogs and entertainment journalism sites as the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Star Trek Into Darkness.  We can argue that the anticipation isn't as feverish among male-centric movie news sites (I won't pretend I'm more excited for City of Bones than Man of Steel), but neither is it as automatically dismissive as comes with reporting Twilight news or the latest star-driven romantic comedy.  What we may see in the coming years is something vaguely resembling an even playing field.  If Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and/or The Host are big hits, what we may be looking at is a gender dividing line in the realm of would-be blockbusters. We may very well see a franchise landscape where boys are 'served' with Thor: The Dark World while girls are 'served' by Mockingjay (with cross-gender movie going on both sides of the aisle).

It'll be capes and robots for boys, magical powers and romance for girls.  The male-driven comic book films, with exceptions like Spider-Man, will be advertised as action-packed with just a touch of romance.  The female-driven literary franchises, with exceptions like The Hunger Games, will be advertised with an emphasis on romance with just a touch of hard action.  Is it a net-good that female audiences have their own tent-pole franchises, featuring heroines instead of heroes as a matter of course, or is this a 'separate but equal' situation?  If this all does come to pass and the female audience finally gets their own proverbial tent-poles, then (irony of ironies) The Twilight Saga may end up being the most female-empowering franchise in modern history.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Jerika said...

Having read Beautiful Creatures, and the second book in the series, I understand why it's included in this article, because it's supernatural-themed YA-lit, but it should also be noted that the main character in Beautiful Creatures is a boy. It is a romance driven series, but the girl, Lena, is secondary to Ethan, whose POV we see the story unfold from.


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