Female-Led Blockbuster Remakes Are A Good Start – But They Don't Cut It

Photo: Columbia Pictures/Feigco Entertainment/REX/Shutterstock.
Fans have always been precious about their favourite movies being given the remake treatment, but probably no one expected there would be such vicious blowback from certain corners of the film community regarding Hollywood’s latest fad: the gender-swapped reboot. Rebooting a movie is one thing; rebooting originally testosterone-packed movies with a new all-female casts is, apparently for the fanboy community, something else altogether.

For the past couple of years, the toxic response from fanboys towards Paul Feig’s women-led Ghostbusters remake has proven we still have some way to go until the mainstream is accepting of women on screen in key roles. Taking offence that the likes of Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones would even dream of replacing original Ghostbusters stars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, fans successfully down voted the film’s trailer into being the most disliked of all time and drove Jones off social media with racist and sexist abuse.

The misogynistic reaction to Ghostbusters 2016 was, if nothing else, proof of how necessary these female-led movies are today. Cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, has long been a man’s world, with men ruling the roost both in front of and behind the camera. Little by little, however, Hollywood studios have been making changes of late, filling conventionally male-dominated franchises with crucial – and crucially Bechdel-approved – female characters.

Representation is increasing across some of Hollywood’s biggest money-spinners. The Disney Star Wars trilogy and its spin-off Rogue One both have female leads, while the Mission Impossible and Jurassic franchises recently picked up new series regulars with Rebecca Ferguson and Bryce Dallas Howard respectively. Last year, Mad Max: Fury Road upended expectations by putting Tom Hardy and his title character literally in the backseat, as Charlize Theron’s one-armed future warrior instead took the reins.

There were fanboy backlashes to those movies, too – Fury Road was famously criticised by Men’s Rights Activists who were fuming at Max Rockatansky’s demotion to second lead behind a woman – but what’s important is that the studios aren’t backing down. Instead, they’ve responded by planning a host of female-centric reboots: Ocean’s Eight will boast a gender-swapped cast including Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway, a female Expendables is on the way, plus a Jump Street crossover with a pair of women leads, and even a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels remake with Rebel Wilson and one (as-yet-unnamed) other actress in the Steve Martin and Michael Caine roles.

It’s heartening that Hollywood execs, forever at the mercy of public opinion, are choosing to ignore a vocal minority and forge ahead with a whole bunch of projects headlined by women. That fanboys react with predictable outrage every time their formerly male-heavy favourites are suddenly infiltrated by ladies shouldn’t be considered a problem; studies show that there’s certainly demand for more movies headed up by women, and it’s about time everyone got over the fact that women are going to be more visible in a progressive age. I mean, it's 2016.

Some have dismissed the gender-swapping reboot trend as a gimmick, but that wrongly suggests Hollywood is trying something new almost on a whim. It’s actually much more calculated than that. Wonder why there are so many remakes, reboots, re-imaginings and re-quels around at the moment? It’s not because the industry has run out of ideas. Rather, it’s because of a prevailing notion at the studios that a movie which combines nostalgia with brand recognition will more often than not see greater box office returns than any other kind of picture. Though the hard numbers show it doesn’t necessarily draw larger audiences, Hollywood nonetheless believes in this concept of “preawareness”.

Only, as The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton recently observed, this idea is a fallacy. Lyttelton found that remakes/reboots aren’t especially profitable, and that their critical reception is on average middling to negative. From 2016 alone, Ericson Core’s Point Break, David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan and Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur, all tanked at the box office – the latter didn’t even manage to claw back its $100 million budget – and drew harsh reviews from critics.) When you consider that these remakes, now being filled with women in key roles, have been faring poorly with both audiences and critics, it hardly seems progressive for female stars to tread down a path doomed to failure.

However, it’s not just offensive that, by simply replacing male stars of proven hit movies with female stars, Hollywood is only allowing women to follow where the men have already laid the groundwork. It’s also insulting that it’s not the actresses in these movies who are seen by the studios as the draw, but the already-recognised brand. Hollywood’s answer to women being starved of on-screen roles in popular cinema is to pack its female stars into what it presumes are ‘safe’ existing franchises. It is Hollywood hearing the cry of audiences wanting more female-led movies, and doing the least it can to appease them.

This points to an inherent lack of trust, based on the shopworn idea that movies starring women don’t sell. Which simply isn’t true: projects made by and starring women in general consistently show stronger investment returns than those made by and starring men. And yet it’s still, the vast majority of the time, only the male stars that are handed headlining jobs on big-money, big-idea prospects, even though – as 2016’s summer of bombs showed – male screen stars aren’t any less fallible than their female counterparts.

Of course it’s about time Hollywood started putting more women centre stage, but one major concern regarding gender-swapped reboots is what kind of message it sends to give female stars properties already made famous by men. Rather than more all-women reboots, we should be encouraging Hollywood to create original blockbuster entertainment where women get the opportunity to forge new paths – new franchises – of their own. There are actresses out there who are appealing brands in their own right. The likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy and Scarlett Johansson, now the three highest-paid actresses in the world, should be trusted enough to headline their own big budget original projects.

Indeed, they’ve all proved their box office mettle before, by leading initially under-the-radar original films that surprised pundits with high returns (The Hunger Games for Lawrence, Bridesmaids for McCarthy, Lucy for Johansson). And yet, they’re each still unlikely to be given their own big-budget star vehicles. It’s baffling for one that Johansson, who’s scored plenty of hits off her own back, still hasn’t seen her Marvel character Black Widow granted a standalone movie. (12 films in, Marvel Studios has only just started work on its first project fronted by a woman.)

Ultimately, all-female reboots are a step in the right direction for Hollywood, and it doesn’t matter that they anger fanboys. But what does matter is that gender-swapped reboots are still an inherently sexist concept. They’re considered low-risk (despite evidence to the contrary), because why give the risky projects to anyone other than the men? More importantly, these types of films don’t ask female stars of the screen to stake their claim on something original of their own. These films only ask that Hollywood’s women follow in the footsteps of men, rather than allowing them to go their own way.

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