Last weekend, cinematic history was made.
Nia DaCosta – the 34-year-old director of Marvel Studios’ latest big-budget offering, “The Marvels” – had the best opening weekend for any Black woman director. Ever. In all, the film made $110 million worldwide, and $47 million domestically.
DaCosta had already achieved several “firsts” simply by taking on the project – she was the first Black woman ever to helm a Marvel Studios film, as well as the youngest individual overall. So the stakes were high from the beginning.
In addition to breaking records, “The Marvels” netted several positive reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called the film’s all-female leading trio – actresses Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani – a “winning” group who are “propelled by [a] sincere bond.” The Independent found it “sweet and funny, yet in no way brainless – a comic book film that chooses to be cynical about heroism, yet places uncynical heroes at its center.”
All of that said, the film undoubtedly underperformed in comparison to the superhero epics that came before it. Offerings from within the Marvel Cinematic Universe – as the collection of films put forth by the comic book giant is known – have traditionally been far bigger money-makers, with domestic opening weekend totals in the hundreds of millions. (“The Marvels’” predecessor, “Captain Marvel,” for example, made $153 million in the U.S. when it debuted in 2019.)
Some of the comparative failure of “The Marvels” can be attributed to a months-long SAG-AFTRA strike, during which those involved in the making of the film were prohibited from promoting it – a ban that was only lifted days before “The Marvels” opened. There’s also the matter of “superhero fatigue” – a growing apathy among American moviegoers toward comic-book blockbusters in general that long predates this past weekend.
But when it comes to “The Marvels,” there are other foes at work, too – ones that not even a trio of superheroes can vanquish: sexism and racism.
You can see it in those who decried the film’s all-woman leading cast and director, who have now taken to social media to crow loudly about its poor box-office performance. “Disney forgot 99% of comic book fans are guys,” one person wrote. Added another: “Disney’s THE MARVELS bombed. Why? Because ‘SUPERHERO’ is a male brand.”
The backlash wasn’t limited to random internet users. Daily Beast reviewer and author Freddie DeBoer lamented that “we’re still stuck with ‘strong female characters’ who are smug, mean [and] reductive” in a self-published review. Prominent conservative talking heads like Ben Shapiro dismissed the film as “woke garbage.”
Some also allege that “The Marvels” was significantly hamstrung by a targeted smear campaign of negative online reviews – a practice called “review bombing.” Critic Tessa Smith noted the trend in her coverage of the movie. “Look at the Rotten ratings,” she posted on X, referencing reviews on popular movie review site Rotten Tomatoes. “Mostly men. Mostly white men.”
This campaign against “The Marvels” is said to have begun months before it opened – as early as April 2023, naysayers had jokingly renamed it “Captain Feminist and the Patriarchy’s Stone.”
DaCosta herself has been subject to direct online attacks, too – ones that criticized her for beginning work on a new project while wrapping up “The Marvels” (even though other directors, like Steven Spielberg, have done this in the past), or that dismissed her as an amateur. “They’re letting people with barely any experience direct 250 mil [sic] dollar films based on their race and gender,” one X user wrote in a post that was shared several thousand times over.
All of this, despite a resume from DaCosta that includes one film opening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and another that had its own historic release before ultimately making back its production budget – times three.
Thankfully, there still remains broad, enthusiastic interest in films made by women. Studies have shown that movies featuring authentic inclusion perform better at the box office – especially when women are at the forefront. One need look no further than this past summer for evidence of that, when feminist juggernaut “Barbie” took over the box office – and the zeitgeist – while making $155 million its opening weekend alone.
“The perception that it’s not good business to have female leads is not true,” Christy Haubegger, a Creative Artists Agency representative, told The New York Times in a 2018 interview on the subject. “A lot of times in our business, there is a lot of bias disguising itself as knowledge.”
The DeBoers and Shapiros of the world may still moan about it – but these stories and storytellers aren’t going anywhere. Even if “The Marvels” underperformed, it’s certainly not the end of the world.