As a woman, a critic, a writer, and consumer of media, I need to get this off my chest: stop trying to reviving all these dead franchises with all-female casts.
It’s lazy. It’s cheap. And worst of all, it does a huge disservice to the very talented women who work on them, both in front of and behind the camera.
I don’t think there’s a media consumer alive that doesn’t see studios creating movies in long-dormant franchises but with female leads as anything but an attempt to secure box office returns. It’s always easier to sell something that sold well before, and now you can bill it as bringing a fresh new perspective to the franchise! But does it really?
For example, the all-female Ghostbusters reboot could have had a fantastic storyline that shows the obstacles and roadblocks that women scientists face in both academia and private industry. Ocean’s 8 could have explored systemic disenfranchisement of women of color, struggles faced by women who have been incarcerated, or even how women are underestimated consistently. Did they? Nope. They took all the same elements from the originals and shoehorned in a new cast, and hoped no one would notice the copy-paste job. It was clear — studios wanted the bump of saying they had an all-female cast, but not actually put in the effort to create a compelling narrative. The result? Bad movies.
Now we’re getting a Pirates of the Caribbean reboot/new addition starring Margot Robbie, written by Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson. Now, while I think Hodson’s take on Harley Quinn and the heroines of Gotham was brilliant, I worry that the same things are in the cards for this movie as its predecessors. Disney will want a Pirates of the Caribbean movie that “just so happens” to star a woman. They want to restart a franchise that stopped being profitable two movies ago and attempt to get representation brownie points along the way.
My question is this: why not let Hodson and Robbie make their own pirate movie, rather than slapping it onto Pirates of the Caribbean?
I am sure Hodson could just as easily create a fantastic story of a female pirate on the high seas, whether based on a historical figure or not while having it full of adventure, comedy, and spine-tingling action. Why force her to write a script that will, inevitably, awkward cameos and in-jokes, and reuse already tired formulas that already failed the other films in the franchise? I mean, the original Pirates of the Caribbean was a huge risk, but managed to surprise everyone with excellent casting as well as a well-written script and stellar direction. It would be truer to the spirit of the franchise to try something new rather than re-hash the same slop but in a different bucket.
Because here’s the thing: These all-female reboots flop because they treat having women at the helm as a gimmick. When they fail, studios bemoan that movie-going audiences aren’t ready for female leads. The problem, however, is not the casting — it’s the script. You could have had men star in Ocean’s 8 or Ghostbusters and they still would have been bad movies that underperformed. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could have cast all men in the Ghostbusters reboot and wouldn’t have had to change 95% of the script.
At their core, the issue is taking a plot written for a different time and cast and trying to fit new characters while keeping it recognizable to the audience. In doing so it stifles the writer, the director, and the cast to try and make something that will likely please no one. Literally, Ghostbusters had the same character types: the seriously invested believer, the academic cynic who gets slimed, the weirdo no one understands, and the token Black character who is not a scientist. Why did it have to be that way? Would the audience not believe they were busting ghosts if they had different personalities and backgrounds?
And the sad thing is that Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters both had stellar casts at the peaks of their careers. It’s not like it’s hard to make Kate McKinnon funny, or Cate Blanchett utterly captivating. Directors Gary Ross and Paul Feig have made hit movies, these aren’t newbies out of film school failing to understand what works. But the truth is they’re not making a movie, they’re making a bad copy of one.
It’s not like female-led movies are doomed to flop. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel both soared critically and financially. Both films questioned what it means to be a woman, to be forced into a world of rules that were made to suppress your agency and power, and did so looking and feeling radically different from each other. Birds of Prey may not have done well financially, but is the third-highest rated film of the DC Extended Universe on Rotten Tomatoes, beating out Aquaman.
It’s not just superhero films. Mad Max: Fury Road managed to use a mainly-female cast to great effect and revived the franchise with a plotline about freeing sex slaves. The Underworld, Lara Croft, Alien, and Resident Evil franchises are helmed by women and those lasted for several movies with a devoted fanbase. And that’s not even touching on more Oscar-Baity, cinematic films. The list does actually go on and on.
My worry is that Disney will follow the same route, that they think having Robbie lead will be enough to pull in the numbers they want. They’ll pull the same strategies, asking for a film that “feels” like a Pirates film, which will push the same failed ideas everyone got sick of. Lord forbid they try and make Robbie into a character that feels like Jack Sparrow 2.0. And when people groan and roll their eyes, the narrative will be that movies with female leads just don’t sell, not that Disney tried to unsink a franchise no one even wants anymore. I hope I am wrong, I hope Hodson and Robbie and the rest of the team make something amazing. I just don’t have faith in the studio system.
Why are we still settling for this uninspired cash-grabs? Why do we let studios shrug their shoulders at poor box office numbers and go “the public just isn’t ready for an all-female cast”? We are ready. We have been ready. Now studios need to put money where their mouths are and make some original art that actually cares about its characters and not just its bottom line.