On the surface it may not seem as if this week's big Marvel Comics news stories are related, but they actually have a major connection. That is, the rise and power of women within the realm of comic books as both consumers of the comics themselves as well as the film adaptations which earn the real money for the corporations. Marvel has made no secret of specifically courting the readership of women this year, and one can see demonstrations of how that audience, long neglected in favor of men and boys, has the power to both elevate or criticize within the industry, thanks in no small part to the Internet and social media.
Today, Box Office Mojo released their totals for the biggest box office tallies for this weekend, and an extraordinary thing happened; "Guardians of the Galaxy" is once again the number one film at the U.S. box office despite it being its' fourth week of release. While the Michael Bay produced "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" loses steam and the long overdue "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" (an adaptation of comics by Frank Miller) tanked, "Guardians of the Galaxy" topped the box office with $17.2 million. It has grossed over $251 million domestically and at the end of the week is projected to surpass April's "Captain America: the Winter Soldier" as the best grossing film of not only summer 2014, but 2014, period. Overseas, the film took in another $20.7 million for a four week worldwide total of over $488.6 million.
How do women figure into this? Business Week confirmed that at least 44% of the film's initial week's audience were women, which is the highest percentage of women attending a Marvel Studios film since 2012's "The Avengers" (whose audience was reportedly 40% ladies). From "Frozen" to "Malificent" to even Warner Brothers' "Gravity" or the "Hunger Games" films, movies appealing to and starring women in lead roles seem to be performing exceptionally well at the box office - not just in initial weeks, but in the long haul. "Guardians of the Galaxy" not only co-starred Zoe Saldana as Gamora, but had meaty roles for Karen Gillen (Nebula, the right hand to Lee Pace's Ronan) as well as a strong cameo role by Glenn Close as Nova Prime. Two of the male leads - Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) and Dave Bautista (Drax) continue Marvel Studios' trend of showcasing their male actors shirtless with the same flair as many similar films play up actress' figures. Plus, adorable and layered characters such as Groot and Rocket Raccoon seem to appeal to all genders. There are many reasons for the success of this film (a strong script, good direction, solid performances, and great imagination), but one of them may be that the film not only did nothing to offend a female audience, but instead made many signals to include them. The core audience of comic book films are no longer simply little boys or teenage to middle aged men; women have been flocking to the theaters for superhero cinema in increasing numbers ever since the end of the 90's. How well a comic book film includes or appeals to women in the audience may make or break its' success.
If "Guardians of the Galaxy" is an example of how appealing to ladies can make things go right, then the recent tempest over the upcoming "Spider-Woman" comic book relaunch displays what happens when things go wrong. As ICv2 summarized two days ago, Marvel Comics revealed an exclusive variant cover of the heroine's latest series as drawn by Milo Manara. Although the artist has been contracted to draw for Marvel Comics before, this time his "day job" of drawing erotica (re: soft core porn) for European magazines seemed to backfire on all involved, as his cover was met with both mockery and disgust by those within social media. Both it, as well as the defensive arguments made by Manara, senior editor Tom Brevoort and "Amazing Spider-Man" writer Dan Slott met with criticism from websites such as the Mary Sue, DC Women Kicking Ass, and io9. It reached such an internet frenzy that even entertainment reporter Linda Stasi from the New York Daily News mentioned it in yesterday's Sunday edition. The overall consensus isn't that Manara drew the heroine posing in a vaguely pornographic nature, but that Marvel commissioning cover art for a super-heroine they wish to sell to general audiences (especially women) from an artist whose career is in drawing erotica for a living sends the wrong message. The interior artist for the series will also be Greg Land, whose "photorealistic" style has long been criticized for being "inspired" (or Photoshopped) from both pornography as well as wrestling magazines and Associated Press photos. Writer Dennis Hopeless is now already on the defensive before the first issue has even shipped, and this sort of negative publicity cannot be a positive thing for a heroine who not even Marvel's Eisner award winning creative team of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev could make last a year in 2009. The shame of it is is that the original Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew) is the only one of Marvel's heroines who ever headlined her own animated series (on ABC, circa 1979-1980) and will only be one of two who has ever gotten her own TV show, period, once "Agent Carter" debuts. The chance to appeal to a wider audience with a better selection of artists and especially without putting the "porn cover" front and center within initial promotional material has been lost.
To recap, welcoming a female audience only aids in the sales for a film, while deliberately or accidentally offending them can spark a firestorm over a comic book. Marvel Comics' zeal to appeal to this "new" demographic (or at least to make a more concerted effort to entice a demographic that was always there) is honorable, but seems to be something the company still needs to work on when it comes to the comics themselves.