For the first time since 2014, this Valentine’s Day will be devoid of Christian Grey. While the Fifty Shades Of Grey movie franchise technically skipped a year in 2016, last V-Day it delivered Fifty Shades Freed, the final installment in the BDSM-laden trilogy that took the spirit of Valentine’s Day from wholesome romance to blood-red lust. 2019’s Valentine’s Day offerings, Isn’t It Romantic and What Men Want, are of a decidedly different genre: absurdity.
Out February 13, Isn’t It Romantic feels like a direct reaction to the Netflix-enabled return of the romantic comedy this past summer. Rebel Wilson bumps her head only to find herself inside the cliche world of your most cookie-cutter rom-coms, skewering the genre while inevitably falling prey to its charming tropes. The key difference is that Wilson’s Natalie is frustratingly aware of her participation in these hallmarks — alas, she falls in love anyway. The movie is in on the joke, and it encourages playful skepticism of the whole conceit. What Men Want, released on February 8, has a similar premise — woman bumps her head and ends up in a magical situation in a gender-flipped take of the Mel Gibson classic — but uses it not to bond with men, but to get ahead of them (now that’s a Valentine’s Day message I can get behind).
If you look at the past ten years, however, we’re due for this perspective. Recent Valentine’s movies have previously been rigidly serious. You’re not supposed to giggle when Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) asks “What are butt plugs?” in Fifty Shades’ 2015 debut (even if you do), and 2012’s Valentine’s tribute, The Vow, certainly doesn’t pause for laughter during Paige’s (Rachel McAdams) coma. However, that isn’t to say Fifty Shades wasn’t its own genre revolution.
The Vow, which starred McAdams and Channing Tatum and was released on February 10, 2012, ended up grossing $196 million worldwide at the box office. It was exactly what audiences wanted to snuggle up and cry to during the romantic holiday. In 2013, Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven pulled in a respectable $97 million. Like The Vow, it is painfully romantic, filled with dark pasts and fraught relationships, but perhaps Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel did not have the same star power to bring in that additional $100 million.
By 2014, however, the answer was clear: Audiences no longer hungered for sad romance, and Endless Love (a remake of a 1981 Brooke Shields weeper) ended up with a paltry $34 million box office number. Movie-goers were done with being wooed — turns out, they wanted to be seduced, and they’d pay over $500 million for it.
Fifty Shades Of Grey, an adaptation of E.L. James’s wildly popular first novel, burst into theaters on February 13, 2015 and earned a total of $571 million — no match for Star Wars: The Force Awaken’s $936 million later that year, but not shabby either. Fifty Shades was an enthusiastically welcome change of pace, getting more Valentine season audiences to the movies than The Vow, Safe Haven, and Endless Love combined.
But as the years went on, even butt plugs (and Fifty Shades-branded butt plugs) couldn’t maintain the mania. The movies never did poorly by any means, but when the franchise reached its pre-written conclusion, the box office numbers had fallen by $200 million. On its heels, a new wave was coming.
Netflix called it the “Summer Of Love,” during which The Kissing Booth, Set It Up, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before went viral on the platform, but it wasn’t just digitally that rom-coms were making their long-awaited comeback. Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty preceded these titles on April 20, 2018, earning a decent $98 million worldwide. It was no blockbuster, but it was definitely a precursor.
In Netflix’s Q3 report, the company stated that more than 80 million users watched one of their “Summer Of Love” offerings, which also included titles like Sierra Burgess is a Loser and Like Father. Specific viewership data was not made available, but the company reported that TATBILB was one of its “most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing,” and back in May 2018, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos called The Kissing Booth “one of the most watched movies in the world right now.”
This spree of movies available for streaming was followed in theaters by Crazy Rich Asians, a sprawling, international rom-com, which earned a total of $238 million in huge part to its refreshingly diverse cast. It would appear we’re slowly approaching the full potential of what a rom-com can truly be. But what about a Valentine’s Day movie?
It’s unclear if “absurdity” will have the same success as the Fifty Shades and Nicholas Sparks-esque genres that came before it, but the movies do represent their own type of progress. 2019’s two V-Day features star a Black woman (Henson) and a plus-sized woman (Wilson), respectively, which something none of the aforementioned white, thin Valentine’s films could boast. It also shows we’ve moved beyond the message that the more typical movies can teach at face value, and are instead examining uncharted territory by heightening the stakes and diversifying the protagonists. And really, what's sexier than that?