Failure is more interesting, often, than success. Success can happen for many reasons. A superior plan. Violent execution of a mediocre plan. Pure luck. Pathetic opponents. But failure, and failure repeated, can teach valuable lessons about the world. About what ... doesn't work. For this reason, the latest fan-boy comic book movie, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is pretty instructive about what does not work. Genderless leading men, devoid of masculinity, like Michael Cera, and fan-boy comic book movies.
"Scott Pilgrim" cost $60 million dollars to make (though some in Deadline Hollywood Daily have alleged it cost $90 million). Star Michael Cera earned reportedly, $9 million for the movie. The advertising campaign likely cost $40 million, ads were all over the place. The take? $10 million in the opening weekend, $21 million domestic, and $1 million world-wide. "Jonah Hex" cost $47 million, another $30 million or so to promote, and raked in ... $5 million dollars opening weekend, $10 million domestic. There has been no foreign release. "Kick-Ass" cost $30 million, another $40 million to promote. It pulled in $19 million opening weekend, $48 million domestic, and $47 million foreign. Even "Kick-Ass" is likely still in a loss, and probably will remain in a loss (recall that studios get 75% of the opening weekend, about 50% of the domestic gross, and who knows for the foreign gross). Some studios simply sell their entire yearly slate of movies to foreign distributors, for up-front cash payments, before the movies are even made. In that case, nearly all the foreign grosses go to the distributor, not the studio. This makes sense —the markets of China and India are only 3% or so of total box office revenue, globally. Not even the biggest studio has enough arms and legs to go out world-wide collecting from local distributors.
Clearly, the verdict is in. Fan-boy comic books, of limited, geeky appeal, don't do well as movies. The characters are not well known, don't have much of a hook, and are not very likable. In the original, comic version of "Kick-Ass," the girl the hero is interested in, is revolted when he tells her he's in love with her, gets her new boyfriend to beat him up, and sends him a picture of her performing oral sex on the new boyfriend. A girl to fight for, she's not. While that was changed, in the movie, there was enough total futility to the character (which was the point of the comic book) that audiences recognized it and stayed away. "Jonah Hex," an old-line DC comic book character, also failed. Josh Brolin did not play a girly-man, but the character was obscure and weird. Dealing with magic in the Old West. Not particularly compelling for audiences hungry for traditional, leading man bravery and independence. "Scott Pilgrim" got very positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (a review aggregator), with ratings of nearly 90%. Yet it did very poorly, the movie having no real appeal, mimicking the comic books structure of a video game.
Here again, the leading female character is a problem. The point of the movie is the hero (who is a 22 year old man dating a High School girl) "winning" the love and devotion of some rock star chick two years younger. Who has seven former lovers the hero must battle, including a woman. Scott Pilgrim is merely fighting to be "number eight." There is no point to the movie, it is as meaningless as a video game. No wonder audiences stayed away. Why is this? Because for the current comic book writers, women are an abstract theory, rather than a concrete reality.
Some comic book movies, that were based on obscure characters, like Hellboy, have done decently. So too, Spawn. It is not the obscurity that is the main issue, rather it is the writing that suffuses fan-boy coolness, of these comic books and movies. Instead of the genuine love for comic book heroes and stories, that Hellboy or even Spawn have, in spades. Superman is loved and known around the world, because he was created by two guys who loved the idea of a weird and wonderful pulp hero. They were not out to make art, or "kewl!" and edgy statements of ultimate hipness. They were not ultra-ironic, instead they were pulp energy fed entertainment without an agenda.
Meanwhile, gender-less Michael Cera, has proven to be a dud as a leading man. "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist," or "Year One," or "Youth in Revolt," have been failures. As much as Hollywood's agencies push Cera as the new type of leading man, audiences are not buying. Guys don't see him as a model to emulate, and women don't swoon over him. Surely whoever represents Cera has made a tidy profit for the films he has been in. But audiences remain unimpressed.
Nor have Hollywood's other gender-less leading men, such as Ashton Kutcher, eternal man-boy post thirty, or Jonah Hill, or Seth Rogen, or Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin), from the Apatow factory, nor Russell Brand, phony bad boy, or the crop of guys like Jake Gyllenhall, seen much success. Not even Brand, playing the rock star type, can muster up the danger and excitement of Mickey Rourke now, much less back in the 1980's, or for that matter, Don Johnson. No matter how many deals pushed through, how many magazine covers, interviews with various talk show hosts, audiences still demand their leading men have ... manliness. A bit of testosterone, danger, excitement, and independence.
It is inconceivable that an actor like Gene Hackman, or Paul Newman, or John Wayne, or James Garner, or Charlton Heston, could succeed in today's Hollywood. The very idea of manliness, particularly that of independence and no possibility of control and domination, is anathema to today's Hollywood. Filled as it is with development people, in TV and in movies, that are mostly female or gay. Both finding men who exhibit independence, ruggedness, and spirit, to be threatening. Better a pretty boy like Gyllenhall, or Matt Damon, who does not present any problems in independence and masculine stubbornness, than someone who can play tough.
Thus the failure of the traditional action movie, as Bruce Willis got too old, Arnold Schwarzenegger moved into politics, Harrison Ford stopped bothering to act, and audiences have been given ... Matt Damon. Or Jake Gyllenhall. Thus the need for comic book movies, which use well known characters to make heroics plausible. Even then, the winners have been men who whatever their acting gifts, at least play men: Robert Downey Jr, Christian Bale, Nicolas Cage.
The only actors keeping the traditional action movie fires burning, have been Jet Li and Jason Statham. Li is limited in his English, getting a bit old, and never really caught on with US audiences (he's surpassed Jackie Chan in Asia ages ago though). Statham, is not going to be doing Shakespeare any time soon. But he works hard, takes his roles very seriously, tries to learn every thing there is to know about action movies and get better each time. Vin Diesel, tries action movies from time to time, but has mostly moved out of them. The biggest action hit in ages, came out of France ("Taken") with Liam Neeson (not anyone's idea of an action hero, but definitely playing a man). The "Transporter" of course was written and produced by Luc Besson (writer/producer of "Taken") and filmed outside the US.
Simply put, the US studios have a masculinity gap. The leading men they produce, don't have any. The studios don't seem to be able to cast actors with masculine attributes, and the few that wiggle through the cracks (mostly foreign actors) are not snapped up. Damien Lewis had perhaps the most interesting and masculine performances by a lead actor in years, in "Band of Brothers" and "Life" yet no studio saw how effective he was and paid him to stick around in Hollywood to make Action movies.
Masculinity is a profound threat. At the core of Action Movies, are men who cannot be tamed, or made to submit. They may die (as Russell Crowe does in "Gladiator" or Gerard Butler in "300") but they die fighting, often beating their foes in the end. Hollywood finds that an ugly threat as much as audiences love that message.
The flip side of course to the gender-less leading man is the eternal girl-woman. Jennifer Aniston, in "the Switch" raked in ... $8 million the opening weekend, and another $2 million thereafter at the time of this writing. Audiences did not flock to see her character get pregnant by a turkey baster, artificial insemination, and form a "family" with the "nerdy best friend who loved her" instead of the masculine, socially dominant guy she pines for. After all, if Aniston's character tells the Bateman character (the nerdy best friend) that he's not "good enough genetically" to provide the sperm, why should female audiences root for her to succeed with him? But the larger issue, is what kind of woman lets her biological clock run out, not figuring out years earlier what kind of man she wants to marry and have kids with?
As much as female audiences turn out for Twilight, with an actual teen girl being fought over by two hunky guys, they don't turn out for a woman acting like a girl, without consumption porn (Sex and the City) and status-jockeying to round out the story, and a hunky Master of the Universe "Mr. Big" aka Chris Noth to be the prize. Jason Bateman is no one's idea of a dominant leading man. Nerdy is not sexy to women. Unless, apropos of Spider-Man, its matched with odd bouts of physical dominance and fighting to literally demonstrate the character is more dominant and thus a better mate. This is particularly true in drama, where fantasy instead of messy reality compromises reign supreme.
Hollywood will of course, go on cranking out Jennifer Aniston movie after movie, nearly all destined to failure. And Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Jake Gyllenhall, and Matt Damon will be Hollywood's idea of leading men, despite repeated box office failure, because making the deal and taking a percentage (for the agencies that rule modern Hollywood) is the entire point. Not actually making movies that people will pay to see.
Hollywood has become more and more like Goldman Sachs. Focused on a deal (where agencies get their cut, of lucrative paydays) all bundled up. Hence the shoving down the audience throat of a guy with no appeal, like Michael Cera. Who may be personally admirable or not, who knows (or cares) but lacks the masculine presence audiences want.
It was not always this way. Once upon a time (1980) there was a little film called "My Bodyguard" with Chris Makepeace and Adam Baldwin. The latter certainly not lacking in masculine presence (he anchors the male-skewing "Chuck" one of only three TV series not a gross-out animated comedy skewing male) or independence or authority. Or, perfect comic timing.
It is a measure of how feminized Hollywood has become, that Adam Baldwin is the anchor of the TV show "Chuck" (and it took Joss Whedon's "Firefly" to revive his career) instead of the movie star he should have been (check out his performance in "Full Metal Jacket.") That Damien Lewis is back in England acting on the stage, instead of making movies as the lead.
Why is this important? Because people get their ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, masculine and feminine, from movies and TV. With the collapse of religious attendance, highly mobile and fractured families, there is nothing else. A common culture that tells people, through stories, on how to behave, is how societies survive.
Right now, women attending movies have a flawed idea of masculinity. Men are either slobby idiots, gender-less nothings, or hunky-tragic bad boys who will be indeed, "all about them." Instead of messy, independent, stubborn, funny, flippant, often atagonistic, but capable of enormous efforts and suffering to protect the innocent or helpless, and do what is right. That message has been lost in the fear that a deeply feminized (and gay) Hollywood has produced with androgynous leading men and girl-woman leading ladies.
Young men have if anything, a worse time, being given false messages about what women like (androgyny) instead of what (most) women crave: masculine guys, not super-macho chest beaters, but men who are in fact men, not genderless clones, or pretty boy nothings, devoted entirely to some woman, under her control. This only guarantees for most, bitter failure when it must be avoided, and a pattern of resenting any and all cultural messages on the principle of being lied to the first time.
America, Hollywood, and the movies does not HAVE to be like this. As recently as 1980, a little youth film could be made about standing up for one's self, and what is right. Even if it means a fight is in the offing.