‘Ad Astra’ Is The Latest Movie About Toxic Masculinity To Struggle At The Box Office

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As Ad Astra inched past the $20 million mark in its fourth day of domestic release, the odds of being a financial win for Fox and Disney are not in its favor. Yes, it is a visual wonder, and I would argue it has enough action and pulpy material to satiate those mostly showing up for blockbuster thrills. However, James Gray’s mix of Apocalypse Now and Solaris was never going to be as inherently commercial as something like The Martian or even Passengers. That said, with $46 million worldwide so far on a budget of around $100 million (thanks to reshoots following poor test screenings), the (rather good) Brad Pitt sci-fi melodrama is just the latest movie about toxic masculinity to disappoint or outright fail at the box office.

It would make sense that the 2016 presidential election, one whose shocking outcome was partially rooted in institutional sexism and a certain “boys will be boys” mentality, would bring about a wave of movies outwardly confronting the pressing social issue of the day. After all, fair or not, the conventional Hollywood studio picture, be they strong-jawed white dude action fantasies, gritty crime dramas about men behaving badly or romantic comedies which (intentionally or not) lionized stalker-ish behavior and a refusal to take “no” for an answer as a sign of romantic strength, was one element that shaped the culture. You can’t offer “female empowerment” fables on one hand and “bad dude behaves badly, but it’s okay because he saves the girl from a worse dude” dramas on the other.

But there’s a big difference between studios releasing films that confront a given social issue and audiences wanting to see those movies. Even the post-9/11 era of “topical” blockbusters needed the established franchise characters (Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the MCU, Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight sequels, etc.) before audiences showed up. It’s not like Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Brothers or In the Valley of Elah were huge hits. Yes, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was an exception ($132 million on a $40 million budget), but most of the big hits that dealt with the post-9/11 world were metaphorical blockbuster franchise flicks like Avatar or The Two Towers or allegedly apolitical action dramas like American Sniper. Even Black Hawk Down failed to double its $92 million budget in early 2002.

The good news is that Hollywood is confronting traditional attitudes about masculinity in genuinely mainstream entertainments. We can argue that pop culture has a moral/social duty to make girls feel empowered. I have long argued that it has a greater obligation not to normalize and (at least somewhat) glamorize the very aggressive behavior and cultural mindset that makes men feel that they are superior to women and can do whatever they want to/with the women they encounter. A women or girl can have all the self-confidence in the world, but it won’t matter if she ends up hurt or killed for rejecting a man in a bar, for saying no to or getting upset over street harassment, for turning down a prom invitation, or for just ending a relationship.

The bad news is that most of the films dealing with this are underperforming if not outright failing in theaters. Walt Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, which saw its protagonist nearly destroy the Internet in rage after his best gal pal expressed a desire to live a life separate from his, was a solid hit, with $201 million domestic and $529 million worldwide on a $175 million budget. However, it sold fewer tickets in North America than Wreck-It Ralph back in 2012. Warner Bros. The LEGO Movie 2, which essentially presented Chris Pratt’s Guardians of the Galaxy/Jurassic World protagonists as a negative anti-thesis to LEGO Movie’s mild-mannered hero, earned just $191 million worldwide on a $100 million budget. Even Sony’s Angry Birds Movie 2 dabbled in this sandbox.

The (surprisingly good) animated video-game based sequel offered a protagonist (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) who de-valued the women on his hero squad and felt determined to find new perils to be thwarted over fears he wouldn’t be embraced in his community without a threat to overcome. Partially because the first Angry Birds Movie wasn’t very good, the sequel grossed $119 million on a $65 million budget. Fox’s Stuber, starring Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani’s (surprisingly hilarious) R-rated action comedy throwback was very much about varying definitions of masculinity and how stereotypes cause men undue suffering. Alas, it earned $32 million worldwide. Jesse Eisenberg’s biting indie The Art of Self-Defense deserved more than a $2.41 million domestic cume. Ditto the “What if Superboy were evil?” horror flick Brightburn ($17 million domestic).

And now, despite rave reviews and some IMAX-friendly visuals, Brad Pitt’s grim space drama is the latest “toxic masculinity hurts men by discounting emotions and human connections” flick to stumble. Sure, it may leg out, but with a $19 million launch, even legs like First Man ($48 million from a $16 million debut last year) will give it just $54.3 million domestic. The one odd exception to this was, of all places, Angel Has Fallen. The third “Gerard Butler as Mike Banning” actioner traded xenophobia and jingoism for a “rich white corporate dudes are the real enemy” plotting and an introspective look at its conventionally macho hero as he found himself unwilling to admit his own PTSD and in-the-field injuries even when it put the nation in peril.

Ric Roman Waugh’s actioner, which was a better action drama than its predecessors, earned $64 million domestic (more than the $62.5 million cume of London Has Fallen) and $118 million worldwide thus far on a $40 million budget. But otherwise, big movies, even crowd-pleasing, franchise-friendly movies which have dipped their toes into how we talk about and dissect masculinity, have struggled financially. Part of this is just the new normal. In 2019, when audiences are far less likely to go to the movies just to go to the movies, with streaming and VOD entertainment options now available at the touch of a button from the comfort of home, even the seemingly safe/mainstream entertainments are struggling alongside the superhero flicks (we’ll see how Joker plays after opening weekend) and horror movies.

The opposite end of this is two-fold. First, it can be argued that audiences aren’t necessarily keen on spending movie theater money (and time) to encounter to either be lectured to or experience the same icky behavior they must deal with in real life save for an (allegedly, no spoilers) optimistic happy ending. It’s not that different than how comparatively conflict-lite, female-ensemble “party movies” like Ocean’s 8, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Hustlers, Girls Trip and Bad Moms have performed much better than Snatched (about a young woman and her mother who get kidnapped on an overseas holiday) and Rough Night (about four women who face violent peril after accidentally killing a male stripper at a bachelorette party). Confronting the problem of our time isn’t necessarily cinematic escapism.

Ditto Long Shot and its “slob hooks up with Charlize Theron” marketing, even as the film was a pretty good political rom-com with its heart in the right place. Conversely, we should note that Universal’s Good Boys has been a leggy hit, earning $77 million domestic (and $98 million worldwide) on a $20 million budget. Yes, the film is a bawdy, R-rated comedy about profane middle schoolers. But, despite a plot involving kissing parties, stolen drones and drugs, the protagonists, and really most of the main characters, are aggressively “good.” The characters are merely “not toxic,” in a way that feels patronizing. I’d say the same thing about Booksmart, but the pre-and-post-release media coverage holding it up as “the movie we need right now” made it sound like homework.

Hollywood needs to offer something other than what it offered for the last 100 years, give or take various exceptions. Moreover, the definition of masculinity in a rapidly progressing world is ripe material for comedies and dramas, be they aimed at children or adults. If audiences aren’t terribly keen on films that explicitly deal with this, then perhaps they might more willingly embrace films where the male characters just aren’t jerks. We know, peak TV coverage aside, that audiences gravitate to “nice” heroes like Steve Rogers and Ethan Hunt more than stereotypical toxic heroes like Tony Stark (an exception to the rule) and John Rambo. Maybe, instead of forcing audiences to relive the horrors of the outside world, the key is merely providing positive counterexamples as the new normal.

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