LOS ANGELES: As a student at Harvard University five years ago, Julianna Aucoin penned an essay she called “The Superhero Diversity Problem.”
“Why do super-powered genetic mutations select white people almost exclusively?” asked Aucoin, a history and literature major who lamented the scarcity of female leads in more than 30 superhero films over the prior decade.
“Why, if super-soldier serum and weaponized armour allow for heroics regardless of natural strength, are there no super-strong women?”
She would write a different essay today.
Aucoin, now a 24-year-old working in marketing in New York, planned to be among the first to see “Captain Marvel,” a new Walt Disney superhero picture featuring a woman as the lead character.
“I’m excited,” she said.
Disney’s new superhero film comes on the heels of other such pictures that have defied stereotypes and dominated the box office with women and African-Americans in starring roles.
“Captain Marvel” is the first film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe focused on a female hero, an important precedent from Disney – the company that turned comic-book characters into the industry’s most dependable source of cash.
Ticket sales on Thursday and Friday were US$61.4 million, according to Disney.
The company boosted its weekend projection to as much as US$155 million from a more conservative US$125 million.
Researcher Box Office Pro estimates the film will to take in US$175 million domestically this weekend, a sum that would rank in the top 10 of all-time debuts.
“Hollywood has turned a corner, but revenue will be the true test,” said Monica Casper, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona who has taught a course on superheroes.
“It would be a mistake to assume that moviemakers have suddenly developed a massive collective consciousness about race, gender and other identities.”
Hollywood had largely left women out of the superhero stable, in part because of early bombs such as 2004’s “Catwoman” and 2005’s “Elektra.”
But there is increasing evidence that audiences respond to films featuring more-inclusive casts.
Warner Bros’ “Wonder Woman” lassoed US$822 million in worldwide ticket sales in 2017.
Disney’s “Black Panther,” the first major superhero film to have a majority African-American cast, was the top-grossing picture in the US last year and took in US$1.35 billion globally.
Female moviegoers made up 52% of the audience seeing “Wonder Woman” in its opening weekend, compared with 38% for last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” the latest instalment in that series, according to data from Comscore.
“Black Panther” viewers were 37% African-American, more than twice the share for “Infinity War.”
The success of superhero films starring women and African-Americans raises the possibility that other groups may get films devoted to them.
The internet was abuzz this week with rumours that Disney is considering a gay superhero.
The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Captain Marvel” tells the tale of Carol Danvers, an Air Force fighter pilot who gets caught up in an intergalactic fight between two alien species.
The film stars Oscar-winner Brie Larson as the title character and Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, the future espionage-agency chief.
Larson has already had to endure criticism from online commentators not happy with her portrayal of the character or her public calls for diversity.
Disney, nonetheless, pulled out all the stops for the picture, its first release this year.
The company introduced Larson as the star at the influential Comic-Con conference three years ago and created a series of online animated videos to introduce the character to a broader audience in 2017.
It also named Anna Boden to direct the film with Ryan Fleck, making her the first woman in that role for Marvel.
More recently the company aired a trailer during the Super Bowl, where ads cost US$5 million for 30 seconds and enlisted a squadron of US Air Force Thunderbirds to fly over the film’s March 4 premiere in Los Angeles.
“Overall, we’re in a better place,” said Aucoin, author of the Harvard essay.
“Consumers are demanding it.”