Avengers: Age of Ultron opens today, and it's already projected to be the biggest box-office win of the summer. It’s no secret that superhero franchises are Hollywood’s cash-cows — four of the top five highest-grossing opening weekends ever starred the likes of Iron Man, the Avengers, and Batman. And Ultron’s predecessor, 2012’s The Avengers, holds the record for the biggest opening weekend ever. So, it’s no wonder that the suits behind the funding always find the resources for these extravaganzas — what’s $250 million (Ultron’s reported budget) when you’re expecting to make that back the first weekend? The trouble with most of these summer tent-pole flicks is that they are typically testosterone-driven circle jerks. Sure, Avengers also stars Scarlett Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen, but don’t expect to find much merchandise with their characters’ images, or to see them featured prominently on the movie’s posters. (Or, for that matter, expect them to get away without being slut-shamed on the press circuit.) As for the rest of this summer’s big-budget franchise fare? There's Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, Fantastic Four, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. That’s a lot of rebooted '80s and '90s action there. And, like the originals, none of this year’s sequels give a woman top-billing or put one behind the camera. The lack of women-fronted and women-led movies is an ongoing conversation, and unfortunately, it’s one that's never particularly uplifting. Studies prove time and time again that women aren't getting ahead when it comes to directing in general, much less directing big-budget films. “The numbers are abysmal,” says Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of Women and Hollywood. “You look at the study from the Sundance Institute, what the DGA put out — abysmal numbers. You look at the diversity report that came out of UCLA, what came out of San Diego State, and USC Annenberg. The numbers are consistently bad, not increasing at all.” Just how dismal are the numbers? Try, in 2014, only 12% of protagonists in the top 100 grossing films were women (which was down from the previous year), and only 29% of major characters were women. And, behind the camera, only 6.8% — meaning only 17 of the top 250 grossing films — were directed by women. The highest ranking of those? Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which came in at #34. Jolie’s was also the only female-helmed film to break the top 100. And, as Silverstein points out, not a single movie nominated last year for Best Picture had a female protagonist, and of those, only Selma had a female director (though Ava DuVernay was not nominated herself). “When women’s stories are not given the validity they deserve, our entire culture suffers,” Silverstein says. “People who make culture need to understand that you have to reflect culture, yet the movies consistently say that white men matter more.” There's some hope for this summer, though, starting this month. Next weekend the Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara buddy comedy Hot Pursuit, directed by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal), hits theaters. The following week, the aca-awesome trifecta movie — one featuring a female director, writer, and cast —Pitch Perfect 2 opens. However, even with women directing two highly anticipated films, Hot Pursuit and Pitch Perfect 2 are nowhere near the scale of a superhero flick.
“These are both relatively low-budget movies,” Silverstein points out (Pitch Perfect 2 had a budget of $45 million; the budget for Hot Pursuit has not been released). “I’m fairly convinced, from my research, that not a single woman has directed a live-action movie with a budget of over $100 million. I’d like to see what the budget is for Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman, but I’m going to guess that it’s not going to hit $100 million.” (For comparison with other superhero movies, The Dark Knight had a budget of $185 million, Iron Man had $140 million, The Amazing Spider-Man had $230 million, and even Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was widely regarded as a risk because of its lesser-known characters and storyline, got a budget of $170 million.) Not only that, but the lengthy battle to get Wonder Woman off the ground has only further underlined the notion that studios do not trust badass women to carry an action movie. Or, as Monika Bartyzel at Forbes puts it, "The conversation continually focuses on whether Wonder Woman can be adapted, as if her heroism is peculiar and hard to capture in a landscape that has made massive money with a talking tree and raccoon." For all of that, the slate of women-led films later this summer also looks promising, even if they’re directed by men. Melissa McCarthy’s action-comedy Spy, which saw her team up again with her Bridesmaids and The Heat director, Paul Feig, will be out in June. The Amy Schumer-written vehicle Trainwreck will be out in July. Diablo Cody’s Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep and her daughter Mamie Gummer, will be out in August. And, the Silverstein-recommended Testament of Youth, an epic World War I film based on the memoir of a woman who left Oxford to become a British war nurse, will be out in June. The problem Silverstein sees with this placement, though, is how the mere release date marginalizes the female story at hand. “To me, Testament of Youth has Oscar written all over it, yet it’s a woman-centric movie that was given a June release rather than an October one,” she explains, noting that the award contenders are typically released in the late fall. “It just seems to me to be an example of how women’s stories get treated in the larger landscape.” Another prime example of that marginalization? One of this summer’s major action movies is Mad Max: Fury Road. Charlize Theron stars as Imperator Furiosa, a character that she told Entertainment Weekly she fought to make as vengeful, considered, and complex as possible. “I didn’t want Furiosa to be this girl who saves all the young, pretty girls from their horrible state,” Theron told the magazine. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I didn’t think it was going to be an action movie that allowed me to explore a character this raw.” By all accounts, Mad Max should be one of this summer’s major blockbusters, and Theron’s character takes center stage in not only the movie’s final trailer but also in many of its posters. The movie’s director, George Miller, also told EW that he “cannot think of another female character in cinema who’s like her.” And yet, despite Furiosa’s primary narrative arc, and the fact that Theron is an Oscar-winning actress — as compared to the film’s other lead, Tom Hardy, who's best known for playing the masked villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises — guess who has top billing on this big summer action movie? That’s right: the lesser-known male actor. “This is one of the most important things that we have to break down, is people’s ongoing stereotypes that women can’t be heroes, that women can’t be independent, and that women can’t kick ass,” Silverstein says. “This is why talking about the big-budget movies is important.”