The Sony hack continues to present a conundrum for those of us with an interest in the “business” half of the movie business equation — yes, it’s stolen property, and a violation of privacy, and we’re all going to hell, and so on. But these emails also provide a rare unguarded (and thus valuable) look at how the sausage is made; they’re a guide to exactly how Hollywood’s most powerful people view matters of race and the pay gap (and, in the latter case, said emails have provided artillery for demands of parity). And now, a bit of newly unearthed correspondence reveals just how dense the folks who make your comic book movies are about who wants to see them, and who they should be about.
Shadowy cabal of over-caffeinated high schoolers ONTD (who’ve overcome their usual willful ignorance of copyright law to insist on credit for breaking this story, so there ya go) dug out an email via Wikileaks’ recently posted searchable index, from Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, dated August 7, 2014. The subject line is “Female Movies,” about which Perlmutter writes:
Michael, As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more. Thanks, Ike 1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm 2. Catwoman (WB/DC) – Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm< 3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.
Email being email, let’s put aside the surface issue that the CEO of Marvel doesn’t know how to spell Elektra’s name and deal with the matter at hand: his “argument” that these three “female movies” provide part-and-parcel proof that (presumably) female-driven superhero films don’t work. The newest of the titles he mentions is Elektra — which came out in 2005. Catwoman came out the year before, in 2004. And Supergirl came out in 1984, for Christ’s sake. Pro tip: When you’ve gotta go back more than three decades to dig up proof for your argument, it’s time to abandon your argument.
Perlmutter gets one thing right: these are all bad films. But their failure doesn’t mean people don’t want movies about female superheroes; it means they don’t want bad superhero movies, an argument lent further credence (as ONTD points out) by the failure of films like Steel, Punisher: War Zone, The Spirit, and Jonah Hex. Supergirl may have tanked, but y’know what else tanked, three years later? Superman IV. That didn’t stop them from making more male superhero movies; hell, that didn’t stop them from making more Superman movies.
But the fact that Perlmutter has to go back a decade to even muster up the title of a “female movie” speaks to how well this argument has become common wisdom. They took these bad movies as incontrovertible proof that any film centered on a superhero with two X chromosomes was doomed to fail, and held firm to that belief in the face of giant female-driven juggernauts like the Hunger Games movies, the Twilight movies, Maleficent, Frozen, and Brave.
Nothing in the Perlmutter email is shocking or new. These are the same titles you’ll hear any sexist comic book fan or rando dumbass blogger tick off when challenged on the homogeneity of superhero movies. But — and maybe this is naiveté on the part of your correspondent — it is a little surprising to see it articulated as the company line by the most powerful man at the most popular comic book empire. And once you’re aware of that, the years-long hemming and hawing of Marvel Studios President/Marvel Cinematic Universe producer Kevin Feige about why they won’t make a Black Widow movie becomes a bit more transparent. (They’ve finally got Captain Marvel, a “female movie,” on the schedule — in 2018, presuming tastes don’t change before then.)
There’s no two ways about it: comic book movies in general, and Marvel in particular, have a giant diversity problem. They keep people of color and women firmly in the background; they keep futzing up the few that they’ve got; their own stars have noted the lack of toys for young female fans; and less enlightened co-stars keep making douchey comments about the sole woman in the MCU. Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live did a wickedly funny parody of what a standalone Black Widow movie might look like, if left in the hands of these clods: a cutesy girl-in-the-big-city rom-com called Black Widow: Age of Me, with Natasha Romanova working at a fashion magazine, romancing Ultron, and getting advice from her ever-dishing Avenger pals. “Chill,” intoned its narrator. “Marvel gets women.” Today, that trailer looks less like satire and more like SNL writers had been digging through those emails themselves.