According to its audience, Scarlett Johansson’s ass-kicker action movie Lucy isn’t all that good at a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 45%. Our own Cameron Ward gave it a 3 out of 5. “There to entertain” rather than anything else, it’s nevertheless proven itself a giant at the box office, wiping the floor with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Hercules to the tune of $94 million worldwide – and that’s with Lucy only a week into its UK release. The story itself isn’t too much to look at, and neither is Johansson’s character (though her own charisma is ever present). As LA Weekly would have it, if you love female-led movies, don’t support this one.
But is that a useful sentiment to lead with? It’s true that the vacuous action of Lucy, where the character’s strength lies in her arms rather than her heart, isn’t anywhere near the end game we should be aiming for; but all that one-note thinking reflects the cold, hard facts of one-note box office numbers. The cold, hard fact to take away is that Lucy has blown her competition out of the water whilst Hollywood is still living ten years in the past, griping over box office flops like Elektra and Catwoman. The wheels of the movie machine have, it seems, ground slower that the audiences coming to see them.
Those audience have proven exponentially female. As the young male audience begin to drop away in larger numbers the industry is failing to keep up; the only studios really paying attention seem to be Disney, who have released more female-fronted films in the last year than most studios have in a decade, and the bods behind The Hunger Games and Divergent franchises. Along with those two YA behemoths, Frozen and Maleficent have trailed the way for the R-rated Lucy to come kicking and screaming into the box office. Fifty percent of Lucy’s seats in the first weekend were female.
Shockingly (or not), the fastest-rising cinema demographic will turn up to see themselves on screen.
So that’s that particular myth blown out of the water. It’s now categorical that female-led films are not the poison the Hollywood spin machine wants them to be, with the numbers not so much mythic as they are majestic. And they’re not just box office earners; last year’s female-fronted Gravity swept the awards board, proving that the critical acclaim can easily accompany earning potential.
The numbers are in and the new regime is ready; if you want to make your production budget back in one weekend, put a woman front and centre in your film. But this is only step one in a much longer, harder battle. Moving from the world of box office fact to skillful fiction, it’s not enough to stick the proverbial Strong Female Character into your film and call it a job well done. So it might be true that the action genre is not always the place to find full, fleshed-out characters. Franchises like The Expendables exist on the idea of character rather than any concrete effort, and it’s easy to wonder if the proposed “female version” will do the same. Even Maleficent stripped the nuances out of the character, reverting the world back to black and white when the most interesting female leads are shades of grey (as long as there aren’t fifty of them, anyway).
No, what needs to be done is to take those numbers and turn them into something special. The action genre has plenty of room for women who aren’t Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson, something their trailblazing has hopefully highlighted, but it’s time to turn that earning potential to other genres – and genre is the word. Hope seems to rest in the franchise, where the worked done by Katniss Everdeen and Tris may be followed by a female Ghostbusters reboot and an as-yet-unnamed female-led film in the Amazing Spider-Man universe. “Nerd”, the thinking-woman’s genre, is the place to be female right now.
Sadly and somewhat surprisingly, this doesn’t extend to the Daddy of the genre franchise, Marvel. Asked about the phenomenal success of Lucy and its star Johansson, who arguably earned her fighting moves by playing their very own Black Widow, Feige brushed off calls for her own movie with his well-worn “timing” excuse. According to Feige, the main obstacle to a Black Widow movie is juggling so many character spin-offs at once within a military-precision timeline; meaning that a man who makes friends with ants has been placed above the franchise’s only visible female lead since the word go.
So whilst the success of Lucy has blown the cobwebs off the radical idea that women can storm a box office weekend, there’s still more than some way to go to convince the bigwigs that female-led films are the ones their now female-led audience want to see. We’re seemingly no closer to a Black Widow movie than we were when Iron Man went supernova in 2008, and the chances of a female Bourne or Bond getting their time in the sun could be a little ways off.
But the truth is out there, in a sequence of numbers reading $269 million and counting. That’s one box office boom that won’t go back in the box.