Revisiting the Collective: Ghostbusters and Spider-Man Offering a Female Touch to Future Blockbuster Seasons

(CS: It is the first repost of an old Collective Publishing pop culture column of the year as I slowly give an online home back to all these pieces after they were kicked out into the cold when the site went out of business in 2015. I was sad to discover that I only have about half of these saved, with some lost to the forgotten realm forever. Forever. Original post was on August 6, 2014.)

The special effects driven blockbuster movies usually are almost always aimed at teenage boys. In the world envisioned by movie studio executives, it seems the demographic with disposable income and interest in venturing to the cinemas is rather narrow. With some exceptions over the years, it has translated with studio tentpole pictures led by male characters with a token female in a supporting role for the all-important wife or girlfriend that either must be rescued or can occasionally fret in front a television. (CS: There has been some significant changes in diversity on the big screen since I wrote this. I would also argue the changing entertainment landscape means the target for tentpoles now is nostalgia fixes aimed towards those around my age.)

It is a bit of a surprise that in the last week Sony Pictures has announced two future major action-adventure pictures with females in the top positions. The rumour swirling about is the long-anticipated Ghostbusters sequel will have a squad consisting entirely of women. To really strengthen the rumbling, it looks like the top pick for director is Paul Feig, who is best known for helming movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat (both female starring pictures that are in genres normally dominated by males). The other major picture announcement was a Spider-Man spin-off about a female superhero. This is significant news because in both cases these won’t be throw-away movies with minor budgets, but likely franchise pictures that Sony hope will dominate at the box office. (CS: The unfortunate legacy of the Ghostbusters remake is it stirred up a bunch of grumpy and insecure men who pushed back against the concept of an all-women team by whining it was desecrating their childhood. The misguided outrage feels like one of the major catalysts for the YouTubers and bloggers making a living attacking diversity in entertainment. As for the female led Spider-Man movie, Madame Web starring Dakota Johnson looks to finally get a release in February of 2024.) 

For the last decades, there has been constant talk about a Ghostbusters sequel, and this is a franchise that Sony desperately wants to re-launch as they constantly look for a property to turn into a massive hit. (CS: We got a second relaunch in Ghostbusters: Afterlife that not only threatens us with another sequel but some very unnecessary spin-off movies.) During most of those 20 years, I’ve shifted between ambivalence and dread of a continuation of a series I dearly loved as a child (oh okay, I loved the 1984 original, even as a kid wasn’t foolish enough to enjoy the sequel). The prospective female-powered version of Ghostbusters has the potential for something different and Feig’s track record lately has been really solid. (CS: I liked the 2016 reboot, even though I don't know why it couldn't have been reworked to be set in the original universe to be an actual quasi-sequel.) 

Though there has been female superhero movies in the past (though none have really been given blockbuster status), the last decade has been dominated by white male superheroes with some occasional diversity in the supporting roles. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ended up being a bit of a financial disappointment for Sony Pictures, and so it now appears the studio is willing to get a bit creative.(CS: Part of the reason it took so long for Madame Web to be releases is that Sony went in a very unexpected direction of making a deal with Marvel Studios to 'rescue' their Spider-Man.) Rather than follow the pack, a major motion picture event will be headlined by a woman superhero, which is after a studio like Warner Brothers has expressed concern over trying to make a standalone Wonder Woman movie. (CS: WB finally did get around to the Wonder Woman movie and it was a massive hit, and significantly changed the stance on who could lead a superhero movie. Of course, we also had Black Panther prove to be a major game changer, and MCU finally got it together to make the Captain Marvel and Black Widow movies. The fear of female-led superhero movies was a ridiculous but very real thing in 2014.)

The box office movie myth has been that teenage boys only want to come out to see male leads, so women are largely given eye-candy roles in the summer blockbuster season. The change in the movie industry has meant a dramatic decrease in meaningful roles for women. Even a decade ago, there were only a few major blockbuster type picture released a year, and the calendar was filled with smaller genre pictures or some adult-focused dramas. The current environment has the cinemas wanting major pictures all year round, and the smaller movies of the past have become almost extinct. There are the prestige pictures that get trotted out between October to December, but studios are mostly obsessed with making as many glitzy, action-packed extravaganzas as possible. (CS: The obsessions with big budget blockbusters has only got worse, but streaming has meant a home for some of the smaller movies. and the belief of who can lead a big blockbuster has slowly expanded over the past decade. It now means that any time the lead is not a white male that the angry coalition of right-wing trolls spew out their videos and articles screaming over how 'woke' is killing Hollywood.)

It was these smaller pictures that often would have been geared towards the female market. There would be Oscar-seeking dramas like Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, North Country, and Erin Brockovich that would get a wide-release and a strong marketing push. Romantic comedies used to be a major box office draw such as While You Were Sleeping or When Harry Met Sally, or at least female-focused comedies like Sister Act, 9 to 5, and A League of Their Own. Ashley Judd and Jodie Foster had a decent streak of female starring thrillers with movies like Kiss the Girls, The Silence of the Lambs, Double Jeopardy, and Flightplan. All these pictures mentioned were major successes at the box office, and I’ve left out several other genres and hit movies. Yet somehow, studios have decided that female-centric pictures can’t be massive hits. (CS: Now, it is just the basement dwellers ranting they shouldn't be hits.) 

This line of thinking actually ignores the current marketplace too. The highest-grossing picture of last year was the Jennifer Lawrence starring The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The biggest worldwide hits was the animated princess adventure, Frozen, which stirred up memories of the time Disney did animated musicals with female protagonists. This summer had “surprise” box office hits in Maleficent, Tammy, and Lucy. One of the most packed screenings I’ve been to this year was The Other Woman (though, with my luck, studios will greenlight more bad movies like that one). (CS: Another example of how the market has changed, because comedies rarely get major releases now after some major bombs over the years proceeding this article.) Last year, supposed box office experts were surprised that the Melissa McCarthy starring comedy Identity Thief and the Halle Berry thriller The Call grossed way above their budgets. 

Simply put, people most definitely come out to see movies with pictures that have women in the prominent roles. Hunger Games, Maleficent, and Lucy prove that women can headline the big special-effects blockbusters. The Scarlett Johansson starring Lucy actually won its weekend when it was up against the much-more manly Hercules, which starred an established box office draw in Dwayne Johnson. It isn’t a case of lack of competition, but rather the fact women do come out to see movies, even when it isn’t the “typical” female-centric fare. (CS: Lucy and Hercules both now seem floating in the abyss along with half my Collective Publishing pieces.)

Sony has a chance to shake things up a bit by having one of the first major comic book movies with a female lead and also taking an established franchise with the top positions taken over by women. There is no guarantee either will be any good or be hits. Considering both Spider-Man and Ghostbusters are treasured by the movie studio, there will be a ferocious marketing campaign with eyes on major grosses. If they do turn out to be successes, maybe some actual diversity will start showing up during the summer movie season. (CS: There is an increase in diversity, but not as much as the angry YouTubers and bloggers would have you believe. But it ended up not being Sony that released the hit that sparked it.) 

Marvel Studios has been hesitant making a female-driven comic book picture. The actual comic book division made a huge announcement this summer when they announced Thor will now be a female. This is different than the movies, and Chris Hemsworth will remain the Norse god for now. If the comic books sell and Sony proves to have a hit with their female superhero, in 2020 we may have a Thor reboot with someone like Ronda Rousey or Margot Robbie wielding the hammer. (CS: It was Natalie Portman, but we had to wait until 2022.) 

Think of all the past blockbusters that studios are salivating about rebooting. There is a strong chance for something fresh and relevant if they dare to do some gender swapping with iconic roles. Is the world ready for Isabella Jones? Or what about Jasmine Bond (Jane is too obvious)? I can hear several male film geeks sharpening their pitchforks as I type this. (CS: I had no idea.) Don’t worry, I have no power in the movie business, and I’m sure the blockbuster will remain male-dominated for decades to come. (CS: There are the grumpy old vloggers that would whine it is over, but the reality is that even with all the diversity, there is still more white male led blockbusters than not.)

Some variety can be a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to the major box office challengers. This year, movies like Divergent, Maleficent, and Lucy have proven if studios reach out to their female audience, then they’ll be rewarded with hits. Hopefully, this success and Sony’s bold moves will allow a slight shift away from the current formulaic and homogenized major motion pictures and gives women more opportunities to be strong and kick ass. Marvel Studios is the current king of the summer blockbuster, and hopefully, recent initiative for diversity in their comic books will lead to something different and empowering in what they present on the big screen. (CS: This summer we have what will be the biggest hit in movie history in Barbie!)