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The Action Movie Glass Ceiling


In its opening weekend, Captain Marvel destroyed every sexist myth about women in Hollywood: that female fronted movies will not make any money at the box office (Captain Marvel raked in $455 million its opening weekend), that men will not see a movie with a female lead character (57% of ticket buyers so far have been men), that foreign audiences will have even less interest than American males ($302 million of the opening weekend haul coming from other countries); and that female directors can’t handle mega big-budget movies (Captain Marvel is co-directed by Anna Boden and written by a team of five writers, four of whom are women).

Wonder Woman also smashed these sexist stereotypes in May 2017; director Patty Jenkins brought the movie to $103 million domestic debut – an especially impressive figure for a movie based on a DC Comic, which have failed to build the same momentum as their Marvel counterparts. With Wonder Woman breaking the glass ceiling and Captain Marvel further catapulting itself into box-office history, doors are finally opening for women in the superhero genre: Cate Shortland will helm the upcoming Black Widow film, and Chloe Zhao will direct The Eternals as the first woman of color to direct a Marvel film, and Patty Jenkins will return with a Wonder Woman sequel in 2020.

All of this begs the question: will doors also open for women to write, direct and lead action movies of any kind?

Action movies with a female lead have not typically been successful – at least, not by the massive monetary standards within the Action/Adventure genre. It’s been a tough sell in Hollywood, because the less interest an audience shows in a female-fronted action movie, the less likely studios are to make more. They fail to ask why these movies haven’t taken off as well – the answer, of course, is that the vast majority of them are bad. Films such as Salt (2008), Lucy (2014) and Underworld (2003) and Catwoman (2004) follow the “sexy lamp” trope in the hands of all-male writers, directors, producers, and crew, and audiences aren’t buying it. There lies the Catch-22 of women in action: the studios give us bad movies, and when we don’t eat them up, they use that as proof that no one wants to see a female lead.

Studios slowly started coming around to the idea of young women in action/adventure movies when Catherine Hardwick brought the first of the four-part Twilight series to a $192 million domestic gross in 2009, followed by The Hunger Games, which debuted to $152 million in 2012 (the franchise of four movies went on to gross over $1.4 billion total). The four-part Divergent series followed, and studios finally put a young woman of color in the lead role with Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time in 2018. But with the exceptions of the first Twilight film and A Wrinkle in Time, all of these movies have been directed by men, and all but one (A Wrinkle in Time) feature prominent love stories. (It’s worth noting that not only is Captain Marvel not produced by and for men, there is no love interest in the movie at all). Studios also failed to consider that adult women might want a badass action hero representing them on screen as well. Hell, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even realize I wanted it until I saw Captain Marvel.

Last year, the massively successful horror-film producer Jason Blum stated he has never hired a female director because he can’t find any female directors interested in horror. The response was swift: women bombarded him with emails and resumes expressing their interested. Likewise, if you are a woman interested in directing, producing, writing, or otherwise working on action movies, shout it from the rooftops. Tweet how inspired you are every time you see a good one. And of course, vote with your dollar. Prioritize Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel over Batman vs. Superman or sexist action movies like Jurassic World and Lucy.

To date, Captain Marvel has raked in over $1 billion at the box office. The sexist myths about women and big-budget movies in Hollywood have been completely destroyed. Let’s keep up the momentum and make sure they’re put away for good.

Jessica Hobbs

About Jessica Hobbs

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a writer’s assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute, while also working as a freelance writer and producer for film, theatre, and TV.