1) For starters, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent opening to $70 million at the US box-office tells us that Disney is leading the way with its female-centered narratives. It tells us that they’re a studio who never really lost sight of the female audience through the dark clouds of underrepresentation, releasing three uber-prominent films in recent years (Brave, Frozen, and now Maleficent) that feature female leads, and are in part made by women (Maleficent was written by Linda Woolverton, Frozen was co-directed by Jennifer Lee, Brave was co-directed by Brenda Chapman).
The only problem is that even a studio like Disney doesn’t have enough faith in a female director to give her sole control over a commercial blockbuster (animated or otherwise). Chapman and Lee co-directed their respective films, when an abundance of female artists crafted the rest of the film around them–everywhere from the costumes, to the makeup, to the scripts, to the songs that still linger in our heads and on radio airwaves some six month’s after Frozen‘s release. Disney is returning to a landscape they cornered: films–about women–that are universally appealing.
2) Next, it tells us that Angelina Jolie is one of the few remaining box-office stars of the contemporary era who has a consistent, proven ability to attract audiences. Maleficent opened to $100 million at the international box-office, which is huge. The film undoubtedly had a built-in audience (what tentpole doesn’t?) seeing as it’s directly related to another Disney film, but the studio instead chose to market the almost entirely around Jolie (just take a look at the minimalist poster) versus capitalizing on familiarity with Sleeping Beauty. It’s a film riding on the strengths of its star and not the other way around.
Without any disrespect to the talents of a star like Jennifer Lawrence, she’s the prime example of an actress whose appeal coincided with great roles that became box-office hits; The Hunger Games was not successful because of Jennifer Lawrence (nor was X-Men, nor American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook). Jolie’s stardom will forever transcend any role she takes, and Maleficent is riding high on her appeal. Content transcends the star in so many of today’s blockbusters. Gone are the days when Will Smith or Johnny Depp could lead material that was equally as interesting as they were to new heights of monetary success based on their presence alone. The individual meant something. Instead, we now have material that sweeps its interchangeable stars up in a pre-established swirl of padded appeal. The fact that Jolie is a woman–and the fact that two of the five or so remaining box-office titans are women (Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock)–speaks volumes about worldwide audience’s active support for stories about women.
3) Lastly, it tells us that the divide between audiences and critics is completely meaningless as film critics lose sight of their duties. Critics, as a whole, dismissed Maleficent as ho-hum, and the conversation on Twitter and Facebook (the “internet court”, as I call it) quickly focused on that because it’s easy to. 140 characters don’t do the middle ground any favors; social media has turned us into a culture of white and black with little (or no) grey area. Maleficent was either going to soar or fail; when the initial reviews came in, the film was deemed a complete embarrassment by the internet court; no one cared that a woman was given the chance to headline a summer blockbuster (when was the last time that happened?). Film critics have forgotten their responsibilities. In a film landscape that repeatedly denies women their due behind and in front of the camera, Maleficent is a marvel for relying on the appeal of its female star and for telling a story revolving around female characters when the industry around it constantly shows us that this is anything but typical. If the film critics don’t make this the conversation, who will?
Sure, you can point to other female-driven blockbusters as indicators of the rising prominence of female stars, but those films (namely The Hunger Games series) and their stars don’t fit in with the discussion about Maleficent or box-office stars for a few reasons:
1) The Hunger Games film series is a Young Adult adaptation, meaning it has a pre-established audience regardless of the actress in the lead role, which means its success cannot be attributed to Jennifer Lawrence. Maleficent had a connection to another beloved Disney classic working in its favor, but there’s no way casual affection for an animated version of Sleeping Beauty translated to $170 million in worldwide ticket sales for a different (live-action) film all on its own.
2) The Hunger Games was not initially marketed on Jennifer Lawrence’s appeal, simply because she wasn’t a superstar when the first film was released. Sure, she had Winter’s Bone (and subsequent Oscar nomination) under her belt, but she had no proven track record as a box-office draw. The film could have starred anyone and still found success. A true star-driven film relies on the power of its star’s ability to transcend the role and bring people in to see them and the movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s presence in The Hunger Games merely coincided with the already-proven success of the book series. It would have taken off with or without her.
Maleficent is a film that rests almost entirely on Jolie’s shoulders. It has always been her film to carry. Disney marketed Angelina Jolie over Maleficent, whereas Lionsgate initially pushed The Hunger Games over Jennifer Lawrence until their self-made circle of stardom churned Lawrence out as a megastar.
Lawrence’s career undoubtedly skyrocketed after the first Hunger Games film, but it is the franchise that created her, whereas Maleficent’s circle of success begins with–and carries on–with Angelina Jolie at the head.
The same things we’re saying about Maleficent can be said about Salt–again, another summer blockbuster starring Jolie–because Jolie was marketed by herself as the sole reason for people to see the film. The public seems to like Jolie much better when she’s the sole draw. Even The Tourist (which wasn’t an abysmal box-office failure) faltered a bit because Jolie’s presence wasn’t compartmentalized from other aspects of the film. She’s sort of an all-or-nothing star when it comes to attracting audiences; if the focus is on her, audiences are intrigued. She doesn’t work well as an accessory.
Jolie has proven herself as a vital component, and the success of Maleficent (as well as her upcoming sophomore directorial effort) solidifies her as a star to champion as an integral part of the feminist film movement whether she’s actively going for that or not.
The fact remains that Maleficent‘s $70 million weekend shouldn’t be telling us, as audience members, anything. Female-centered narratives should be the norm and not the headline. The people who should be learning something from Maleficent’s $70 million domestic weekend are the studio heads. After all, they’re the ones with the ability to change the landscape and make Maleficent the rule and not the exception. We, as audiences, also have a duty; let’s hold up our end of the bargain and focus on the rarity that is Maleficent, and allow it to serve as a the sturdiest foundation for a new wave of female characters we’ve seen in quite some time.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi