Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Do Women Want From Comic Book Movies?

"Kick-Ass" underperformed at the box office last weekend and took a plunge in numbers this week, and now "The Losers" is a certified bomb. There's little in common between the two films except that they're based on smaller comic-book properties, had few stars, and were aimed square at roughly the same demographic of young, male, action fans. Of course, two films of even superficial similarity makes a trend on the Internet, and the apparent connection is boosted by the fact that a lot of the comic-book and fanboy film sites were salivating for these two projects for months in advance, and are now experiencing bouts of severe disappointment. As various and sundry have been dissecting the flops, one observation caught my eye: the Bleeding Cool comics blog points to both films' dismal performance with women and suggests that studios need to start looking at more female-friendly franchises. But what is it that women want out of a comic-book movie?

Now I figure that I'm a woman, a little older than the target audience for most of these films, but I have a yen for the superhero genre and I've read comics on and off myself over the last decade. Maybe I can offer a few insights into how future comic book films might avoid becoming the next "Kick-Ass" or "Losers." Clearly women watch films based on comic properties, even the ones that are nearest and dearest to traditional comic geeks' hearts. Women went to "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" in droves, and "Wolverine" was on the Fandango list of female moviegoers' most anticipated 2009 films right along with "New Moon." I don't see that there are any drastic changes that need to be made to current comic-book action films in order to draw female crowds, but there are some things that the creative types could be doing better, and there are a couple of pitfalls that should be avoided at all costs.

First, and most importantly, male and female viewers aren't all that far off in what they like about comic-book films. Cool visuals? Exciting action scenes? Yes. Appealing, larger-than-life characters? Absolutely. But there needs to be a balance when it comes to these elements. Male action film fans are happy with nonstop action and big effects sequences. Female viewers need more than that. For us, stronger stories, humor, and characters with stronger personalities are more of a draw, and if we sense the lack of them, we lose interest. Films that are sold by simply glorifying violence without any reference to a more concrete narrative, or showcasing any interesting actors or performances, tend to read as female-unfriendly. "Kick-Ass" might have picked up more interest from the girl geeks if it had bothered to let us know there were human beings under the masks. Instead, all we got in the ads were people in silly costumes beating on each other, and some unconvincing audience reactions trying to convince us that it wasn't really as silly as it looked.

Another common mistake is the assumption that having women feature prominent in a comic-book film means female audiences will show up. Some comic-book heroines are great, but more often than not, the emotionally remote, strongly sexualized portrayals of women in comics are geared toward men and can be off-putting to female viewers. Rather, we need to see better female characters, more diverse, more involved, more active and well-rounded female characters who girls and women would actually want to identify with. Some of the comic titles with the highest female readership include "Sandman," "Fables," "Love and Rockets," and "Y: The Last Man." They have lots of strong female characters, but few of the busty, idealized superheroine types that grace the pages of "Elektra," "Wonder Woman," and "Supergirl." The biggest mistake the studios have made when trying to push comic properties to female audiences, is that they don't understand who these titles are aimed at. "Aeon Flux" and "Catwoman" were mostly watched by guys with the hots for Charlize Theron and Halle Berry, and shunned by the women who felt they were being pandered to.

Some filmmakers seem to think a romantic subplot or a female love interest in an action film is a draw in and of itself. Usually not true. I don't think anyone out there is seeing "Iron Man 2" for Gwyneth Paltrow or her charming banter with Robert Downey Jr. If female viewers respond positively to signs of romance in a comic-book film, it's often because of how it functions in the plot - letting us see the softer, more vulnerable side of the badass heroes when they're not out punching bad guys. Sure, women love the bad boy, but most of them don't want the bad boy 24/7. Of course this can also be accomplished by a little male bonding, by domestic scenes with their parents or kids, or simply humorous moments to deflate the hero's image a bit. Yet romance feels perfunctory in comic-book films these days, often spoken of as a concession to the female viewers. Since many action writers and directors are fairly useless when it comes to portraying romantic relationships, I'd prefer to see less of them. Instead, let the leading ladies find other roles in the story to fill - James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino certain know what to do with them.

Finally, there's the content issue. It's important to keep in mind that sensitive viewers aren't just limited to children - there are people of all ages out there who don't want to see or hear certain things onscreen. I don't have a problem with R-rated content in comic-book films myself, so long as it doesn't detract from the rest of the movie. For instance, I really wanted to like last year's "Watchmen" adaptation. I've read the graphic novel multiple times, roughly once a year since I picked up a copy in college, and I adore it. And Zack Snyder's lavish production had me roughly up until the third or fourth endless slow-motion gore scene completely killed it for me. From the constant complaints about lily-livered studio suits I hear from many comic book purists, I get that the visceral thrills that come with graphic violence, sexuality, and profanity are a plus for young male viewers. But for female audiences, they can provoke extremely negative reactions. Several of my girlfriends, all in their 20s and not a "Sex and the City" fan among them, went to see "Sin City" on the basis of the interesting visuals and strong cast. And they almost uniformly panned the film for its over-the-top scenes of cannibalism, castration, dismemberment, and other such delightful activities.

The important thing to remember is this - comic-book films don't have to be niche films, but that requires thinking outside the box and finding ways to appeal to audiences that aren't traditionally comic-book fans. If comics are truly a medium rather than a genre, as many an indignant fanboy will insist, maybe it's time to give the comic-book films a chance to grow up a bit and prove it.

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