All the sad young movie men, look how they weep. Let us count the ways. A Star Is Born’s Jackson Maine, hiding behind scruff, windburn, gin throat, and his brother’s voice. Won’t You Be My Neighbor’s Fred Rogers, on an endless, guileless quest toward decency in a world that insists on degrading itself. Mission: Impossible — Fallout’s Ethan Hunt, in one more international pickle he’ll have to wriggle out of, without sacrificing the lives of the many women who cling to him adoringly. First Man’s Neil Armstrong, solemn and determined to reach the moon but not his wife or children. Vice’s Dick Cheney, a bureaucrat searching for solutions in a society he can’t stop destroying. Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos, his heart heavy and gauntlet heavier with the burden of genocide. First Reformed’s Reverend Ernst Toller, spilling medicine into poison, hoping to find a cure on a Godless planet. Black Panther’s T’Challa, seeking the faith and wisdom of a dead father in the face of pure, radicalized hatred. These are the miserablist men—and, um, an alien—of movies in 2018, a sorrowful and pained bunch. Why are all these sourpusses at the nexus of modern movies, art house and mainstream, award-worthy and Moviepassable? Why are their stories still the currency of our cinema?
Perhaps it’s because there aren’t enough women making them. Of the 25 highest-grossing movies of 2018, not a single one was directed by a woman, the first time that has been true since 2014. This has been both an anomalous and predictable bounce-back year at the Hollywood box office. Through 11 months, annual gross is up more than 10 percent over 2017. (And the average movie ticket price is up 17 cents too.) Known quantities constitute the bulk of the success, and thus the shape of American movies: five Marvel-related titles, ’90s-era warhorse franchises in Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible, and annual animated installments from Pixar and Illumination Entertainment. That is the top 10 (with a live-action Disney movie, Mary Poppins Returns, also directed by a man, still on the way). There are intriguing stories on the outskirts of that top 10: Crazy Rich Asians, A Quiet Place, and A Star Is Born refurbished old styles into modern achievements, drawing audiences and elevating their respective forms. A megalodon stalked August. Halloween was reborn in October. Queen captivated in November (all directed by men, too). The biggest movies of the year were propulsive and occasionally surprising, but they were largely preordained for success.
So what lesson should we take from this data? In a persuasive, decades-spanning essay in The New York Times, critic Manohla Dargis recently wrote, “I accept that movies are one way that people make messy meaning of life, and the greatest thing I could learn from them is to refuse to let them or my equally messy pleasures off the hook. Here is what else movies have taught me: They rarely get women right.” It’s a conundrum for the movies, and the (mostly) men who make them go. To look at this year’s results will almost certainly assure a confirmation bias—more Black Panthers, more Jurassic Worlds, fewer things that are not those. If Widows, Steve McQueen’s elegant and elegiac heist movie, was a modest box office disappointment, does that mean Hollywood executives will avoid green-lighting another film that looks, sounds, and defies convention like Widows? You’d hope not, but you’d be hoping for a long while.
Movies are under siege from just about every other time-killing platform on earth. Certainly Netflix and YouTube and social media. It’s become a hack business writer’s trope to cite the strawman preteens who would rather stay at home playing Fortnite than pay $17.50 to see anything not named Deadpool 2. But they’re real enough, as real as the marketing data that sits in front of the people who work at studios telling them as much. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that was kick-started at grand scale more than 10 years ago and now, seemingly, cannot be reversed. So movies are slow to evolve out of the safe and the reliable for fear that they will no longer be the epicenter of American culture. It’s a treadmill race that only grows faster and steeper by the minute.
In 2018, Black Panther was the movie of the year, a culture-shifting experience and an unprecedented global phenomenon. Not the best movie, necessarily, but the most emblematic of our time. It’s also, at its very core, a Marvel movie. It can be—and often is—more than that, but never less. Think of it this way: If you took the gifted cast, craftspeople, and writer-director Ryan Coogler—maybe the most exciting mainstage American filmmaker to come along in a decade—and gave them carte blanche to make any movie they wanted with the same budget as Black Panther, only it had to be an original story unmoored from the safety net of established intellectual property, I don’t think it’d find half the audience. It’s an unprovable theory that will probably never have the chance to bear out. But it’s little surprise that Coogler will likely return to the fold for the sequel. The Marvelness of Black Panther is a buoy and an anchor, proof that big ideas can transcend the vagaries of genre and systematic storytelling, and also proof that the cycle is unbreakable.
One of the most compelling themes of Black Panther is the way in which all of the domineering leaders (men) fail to listen to the women in the movie—mothers, sisters, partners, the Dora Milaje military force. All of the women in Coogler’s film know better, but they’re never heard. It’s one of a dozen subtly drawn observations in the movie; Coogler is always insinuating his ideas without quite announcing them. The other key theme: You cannot escape your past. This year marked a full decade of This Marvel Life; the twin pairing of Black Panther and Infinity War seemed like both an epitome and an apex; I don’t know if these movies can get better than those two, one a sociologically and politically springloaded war movie, the other an Empire Strikes Back-ish, battle-packed downer. And if they can’t get better, where else can they go? I don’t think the art form of movies is being pushed by Marvel, but the business is certainly breaking under its weight.
The counterbalance comes in the form of another well-heeled but considerably younger corporation attempting to fill gaps that movie studios have otherwise abandoned. Netflix has spent the past half-decade looking for cracks in the feature-film floorboards. It was less than a year ago that the much-maligned Bright was released, mocked, and then doubted for its murky, unconfirmable streaming metrics. Things change. In the time since, Netflix has made prestigious festival fare with Paul Greengrass, Susanne Bier, and the Coen brothers. It is the home of the year’s most ravishing film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. It is studio of the reigning Best Documentary Oscar winner, Icarus. And it is the future landing spot of the next films from Martin Scorsese (2019’s The Irishman) and the most recent recipient of the Best Director prize, Guillermo del Toro (2021’s Pinocchio). The service saved Orson Welles’s long thought vanished The Other Side of the Wind! This is historical work being done in service of corporate expediency. But it’s the moves made in the margins of those press-release bullet points that have unlocked a new movie future for the company, and maybe the country. Neither To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before nor Set It Up was on many lists of the most-anticipated movies of 2018. And neither made many year-end lists either. But they found fans, resulting in the enormous growth of the profiles of their heretofore unknown stars, and the revival of two dormant subgenres—teen comedies and rom-coms—virtually overnight (or, 72 hours later, given the Netflix weekend viewing life cycle). Fittingly, both movies were directed by women—Susan Johnson and Claire Scanlon, respectively—star women, and tell women’s stories eons removed from Wakanda. What a novel concept. Scanlon is a TV veteran who had never directed a feature before Set It Up. Now I can’t wait to see what she does next. Netflix, with its shadowy relationship to metrics, is willing to tell us these movies are successful, but not how successful. It’s narrative control of a high order, easy to demonize or mock. I’ve done just that in the past. But there is an unlikely nobility in it—making movies people love that they can’t find in a theater without the anxiety of the box office in tow. That is the value proposition—a threat to a business teetering on the edge of its own IP.
If MoviePass, the laughingstock ticketing service, was a boon to movies that people may not otherwise have been willing to pay for in 2018—and record audiences for documentaries indicate as much—then it’s worth projecting a possible regression in 2019. Perhaps Netflix, still refining its creative approach to feature films, is well suited to usurp even more mindshare. The service produced and/or distributed more than 100 films this year, more than four times as many as any other studio. Imagine if it empowered even more women waiting for an opportunity to make a first film.
At the end of a year when a fading male artist character literally sings, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die …” perhaps it’s time to recalibrate our expectations to create a more lasting movie culture. I know my brain has been fried by the conversation because I recently found myself wondering aloud in a meeting whether Thanos is an incel. It’s also perhaps a sign that the dying masculinity interwoven throughout these movies is a reflection of their own waning relevance. A Star Is Born makes even more sense as a cultural bellwether when you consider the death at film’s end not as a tragic demise but as a signal forward. The old ways have to die so that the new style can emerge; it’s a Hollywood trend as old as the art form. Talkies, Technicolor, mechanical sharks, CGI. Is a gender-balanced creative workforce such a wild leap?