Forbes is a global media company that focuses on business, investing, technology, and entrepreneurship. Their in-house entertainment blogger is Scott Mendelson, who is usually a cheerleader for corporate studio films. That’s why it’s a bit startling to see him beginning to come around to the notion that diversity and inclusion may not the best way to lead when you’re producing mainstream Hollywood movies. When it comes to film properties like Superman and similar IPs, Scott argues that they’re “being continued not because the audience demands it, but because the studio shareholders require it.”
In his recent article “Fear of a Black Superman” he further opines:
Studios are using diversity and inclusivity to justify reviving old franchises. It provides an alibi for keeping ongoing brands on proverbial life support and rebooting existing brands. After 40 years of disappointing/underwhelming Superman movies (Superman II, the last unmitigated success, opened in June of 1981), Warner Bros. and D.C. Films are still trying to succeed Superman Returns, and Man of Steel failed. Even presuming good intentions and artistic value, there is an apparent cynicism in using the “But this time, he’s Black!” hook as a way to defend another go-around preemptively. That’s especially since we’re dealing with an I.P. that’s arguably closer, in terms of awareness versus interest, to Robin Hood, Tarzan and Peter Pan than James Bond and Batman.
F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black: International starred Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. Still, most audiences just chose to watch Men In Black (or Thor: Ragnarok) again. Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels was more inclusive and more progressive than the McG flicks. I liked it well enough, I’d happily see Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska in a sequel, but audiences didn’t care. They didn’t ask for another Charlie’s Angels, and this soft reboot was the same movie with new “stars.” Tim Miller and James Cameron’s Terminator: Dark Fate cribbed the Star Wars: The Force Awakens formula (young, diverse protagonists with franchise vets acting as elders amid a loose remake of the first film). However, audiences had been burned by two awful Terminator relaunches.
(*plus Tim Miller insulted them with his “woke” proclamations before the movie debuted)
Scott Mendelson is almost there. He partially recognizes that if cinema audiences aren’t interested in a movie, no matter how well it’s done, all the diversity and inclusivity you can cram into it will not lift box office receipts. But make no mistake, Scott is still a big proponent of racial inclusion and diversity, which is made obvious when near the end of his article he complains “that an entire generation of non-white filmmakers is potentially being set up to fail because they are being tasked with fronting franchises audiences about which audiences no longer give a damn.”
That’s not quite it. Merit is what should matter more than melanin. It’s why Will Smith is considered a great actor and got roles that typically were cast as white males, and yet the studio never had to say “but this time, Deadshot is Black!”. Unfortunately, many in media today, like Scott Mendelson, are still not beyond judging people by the color of their skin, instead of seeing the content of their character. But he is getting closer.
And for what it’s worth, diversity may not a hindrance to getting general audiences into the theaters for something they’ve been eagerly anticipating, but inclusivity is never going to be a carrot for something they don’t want to see. Even a highly-anticipated film that turns out to be about little more than checking the diversity and inclusion boxes will see its second weekend box office drop like a lead balloon.
Consumers don’t want to be preached to. They can get that at church or at home. They simply don’t care about inclusivity when it comes to being entertained, and any moviegoers that do insist they care about diversity, are really only interested in seeing it in the films and TV shows that they were already eager to watch. Everyone else complaining because a property is “too white” generally doesn’t actually care about the property at all. They’re just virtue signaling. Unfortunately, we’re also beginning to see this more and more in movie studios that seem to lack any caring for the properties they’re rebooting. It’s just one big virtue signal and audiences are getting tired of it.
The Forbes article goes on to note that:
[T]here is “a difference between Hollywood offering up the “first” Static Shock movie or the “first” Miles Morales movie (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and rehashing an existing I.P. with a “But this time he’s not a white guy!” hook. Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry would have made less of an impact had it been the third Aquaman franchise following ones starring, offhand, Matt Damon in 2000 and Channing Tatum in 2007. Maybe Hollywood should have expanded its casting/filmmaking palate when these franchises were fresh, new and/or popular. Where were was Elijah Kelly’s Transformers the Oded Fehr’s spy franchise or Javier Bardem’s Superman movie during Hollywood’s initial round of tentpole mania? Where was this drive for diversity when audiences would follow Hugh Jackman from X-Men to Swordfish?
Scott still seems to imply that there is a quantifiable value in diversity and inclusion, but the reality is that it simply doesn’t equate to box office success. What he does recognize is that audiences want to see what they decide warrants their precious time, whether that’s a particular actor, or a certain character, a specific genre, or a favorite director or studio. Diversity and inclusion don’t move the needle in terms of box office success. They never have. And corporate studios must surely understand this. And yet their appearance of doubling down on it then seems to indicate that those studios which rely on it are either engaged in unwanted social activism, or they’re trying to bank on it through some sort of viral marketing in the hopes it will drum up interest.
Which is why there are plenty of media outlets talking about a Black Superman film in spite of the fact that no script has been written, no actor has been cast, and no director has been hired.
Still, it is somewhat encouraging that an outlet like Forbes, which is focused on business and finance, would begin to publicly declare that elements like diversity and inclusion are not a good reason to reboot a tired franchise. In fact, they shouldn’t even be part of the marketing strategy of any film. Just tell good stories that people are interested in and entertain your audience. If it ain’t broke… don’t go woke.