A recent clip of Fox Newsbots prattling on about superheroes without any tangible connection to reality has been making the rounds this week, just as has happened many times before. Among the many idiotic things spouted in this clip is the notion that a Wonder Woman movie isn’t necessary because, you know, there’s no “Wonder Man”! Therefore, since there’s no gender imbalance in superhero movies, people calling for a Wonder Woman movie are just being silly. Subject closed. Now, on to a careful evaluation of the latest hair conditioner or some other sagacious subject.
There are plenty of horrifically wrong things mentioned in this clip (if you watch it, check out what they say about Popeye!), but this Wonder Woman controversy simply won’t go away. Right off the top, we should make clear that yes, a Wonder Woman movie is long past due, and would absolutely have an audience here in North America. But that’s not where movies make their money anymore.
Have a look at the stats for Thor from 2011: $150 million budget, makes $170 million domestic. That’s not exactly a great hit, especially when marketing costs are worked in. But that movie made an additional $260 million in foreign sales, comprising a full 60% of its gross. Those figures are typical. Consider the box office split for Elektra, which did indeed feature a female protagonist. Once again, a full 60% of the gross came from foreign sales. Now look at a movie like Frost/Nixon. There, it’s the opposite: 67% of the gross was domestic. Going deeper, a literary adaptation such as Lolita wasn’t even released to a foreign theatrical market. (1)
The message in these data is that big action movies make their money in the foreign markets. These markets are primarily in Asia, particularly China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Perhaps I’m just not noticing it, but I don’t see a big outcry from those markets for a Wonder Woman movie. In fact, I notice a demand for more violence, more video game-type movies and simpler emotional beats with less nuance. And that is precisely what I see in a modern Marvel or DC movie. Judging from the box office stats for recent films like Avengers, the studios seem to be working this system very well.
Two conclusions seem to fall out of the data. One is that the studios work for the people who pay them the most: foreign markets. And the second point is that these foreign markets are satisfied, more than satisfied, with the status quo. Oh, we can bang on here in North America and of course in western Europe as well, for how “important” a Wonder Woman movie would be but it seems horrendously naive to think that even the studios made that movie it would be anything other than… another big superhero movie. Big effects, big fights, simple stories, simple emotions, arbitrary plot twists, Deus ex machina and references, references, references. Maybe I’m weird, but it really doesn’t matter to me if the character at the centre of all that noise is a man or a woman.
Out of all of this might come the great unmade female superhero movie, rivalling the original 1978 Superman for innovation and emotional reality. Or, I think being much more realistic, North American audiences want a Wonder Woman movie so badly that they’ll take a bad one, perhaps a truly horrible one, and make it a hit. This, to me, is not empowerment. But when one applies logic, it might be all we can hope for.
1 All of these numbers are courtesy of Box Office Mojo.