If you want an interesting lesson in the willful blindness of Hollywood tastemakers, consider that the highest-grossing baseball movie ever made remains A League of Their Own. Since 1992, for a solid quarter of a century, the most moneymaking film about the American pastime has been a movie with female leads, telling a story from an inherently female perspective. Nobody has yet topped it, and yet they’ve never made another.
A couple of times a year, Hollywood throws women (or minorities) a bone with a movie explicitly from the perspective of a female (or minority, but almost never Asian) lead. Fences or Hidden Figures come to mind this past year or so—so does The Big Sick. The conventional wisdom has largely been that those are exclusively the sorts of films that your non-white-male audience want to see, and that your major action blockbusters—that is, the films that get their studios the most money—are solely the realm of one type of moviegoer.
I fervently hope that 2017 can finally put that viewpoint to rest. The top three domestic box office successes this past year were, in descending order of blocks busted: The Last Jedi, the unnecessary and conspicuously auto-tuned live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman.
Much has been said about each of the three individually, but it’s instructive to look at how each defies the conventional wisdom that keeps the industry so stagnant. Wonder Woman had major name recognition, but somewhat low expectations. Its own studio didn’t seem terribly keen to throw around as much marketing money, and the repeated critical failures of the other DC properties seemed to be hanging about its neck like a millstone. It seemed like it was destined to be, if not a failure, then something forgettable.
But no. I’ll be the first to say Wonder Woman was a good-not-great movie, but I’ll also be the first to say that every lady I personally know who went to go see it had no idea she’d been waiting her entire life to see Gal Gadot suplex No Man’s Land so hard that it became your land and my land. It was also the most avowedly and earnestly heroic of these dreary superhero films, probably since Captain America: The First Avenger. It was an itch that needed scratching, and it instantly installed Diana of Themyscira as a fan favorite.
Beauty and the Beast sort of puzzles me, because as fondly as I remember the original—as fondly as anybody in his or her 30s probably does—it just doesn’t scream out for a revival. Add to that the aforementioned autotuning (good lord does Emma Watson sound like the Gregory Brothers), and I was sure I’d be reading about another costly Disney flop, a tax write-off hole to be filled in with Guardians of the Galaxy money.
But no! Despite no more than faint praise in the reviews, audiences apparently had no trouble loading the kids into the minivan to go see it twice. Almost as if a lavish musical centering around a love story from a young woman’s perspective is something folks would like to go see.
And finally, The Last Jedi. A more surefire hit there has never been, following the ably executed Episode VII back in 2015. The fact that this movie wrecked the box office is no surprise. That it looks like no other Star Wars, that Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren are essentially the only two white male leads in it while our sexy-bad flyboy is Latino, our earnest errant hero is a woman, the plucky rebels are black and Asian, and the character with the highest kill score is purple-haired Laura Dern, are all notable. All these details mixed amid other genuinely controversial takes on characters and storylines, seemed destined to make for a mixed box office bag.
But no. As those of us who couldn’t wait to see the return of the plucky characters from the previous film (and were familiar with director Rian Johnson’s delightfully unusual filmography thus far) had hoped, The Last Jedi smoked the box office and continues, at this writing, to drip in the back end of its take at a theater near you. Almost as if, once you have an established property, introducing new characters and concepts to freshen it up won’t necessarily be so risky—nor will some of those characters looking more like the audience who so reveres that property.
We’re poised, also, to have our faces rocked off by Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther, another planned debut of a larger-than-life comic character people have for years been clamoring to see. And because Marvel/Disney are allergic to risk, we already know from his appearance in Captain America: Civil War that Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is a badass. Black Panther promises audiences a sci-fi futuristic African nation, with a principal cast featuring every hot black actor in Hollywood. Marvel seems as giddily impatient to start counting its money as audiences are to give it to them: First-day advance tickets outpaced every other Marvel movie. It feels like people are ready to make a point of going to see this thing.
If Black Panther wrecks the box office as hard or harder than Wonder Woman did, is it finally, finally going to translate into a more open landscape for actors of color and women? I hope so, though I’m nervous that it will merely mean we get more loud blockbusters that cater to a particular type of character, whether that character is man or woman, white or of color. Those, more and more, are becoming the only type of movie that most moviegoers end up seeing, and it’s a crisis of the art form.
It’s important, not merely that Hollywood tell stories about a diverse group of people, but that it tell diverse stories. These great and nuanced characters should do more than get into CGI smash-ups. Where’s the bio-pic of Yasuke, the black man who became a samurai in service of Oda Nobunaga near the end of the Japanese age of civil war (starring Michael Jai White and directed by Jordan Peele)? What about the stories of the women who ran the hospitals of the American Civil War? The Pullman Porters who rose up to become a beacon for organized labor? I’m just spitballing period pieces, but do you get that we shouldn’t, in this age, consider ourselves lucky if we get one Hotel Rwanda every 10 years or so?
In the meantime, though, if we must have Star Wars I’m glad we had The Last Jedi. Do you think Rey will have a double lightsaber in Episode IX? Luke’s crystal got busted in two, I think, and she sure knows here way around staff-fighting. That would be sick.
Kenneth Lowe is projected to open at $80100 million, with a good chance for an additional $450 million in the Asian markets. He has written for Colombia Reports, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Illinois Issue magazine. Follow more of his writing at his blog and see him occasionally make noise on Twitter.