According to the suits, the summer movie season is for dudes. It’s the time of the year that Hollywood, more so than the rest of the year even, unabashedly targets boys 18-24 in hopes of cashing in on their post-pubescent fantasies with huge explosions, women gyrating in slow motion, and fart jokes. This year, though, there was a seismic shift in how these cheap thrills were delivered. Two summer films clearly marketed to men illustrated the potential for a shift in the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster. Audiences embraced “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a dystopian franchise film featuring a strong female lead (opening weekend gross: $45.4 million), and avoided the HBO bro-series film “Entourage” like a can of stale Sunday morning Bud Light Lime (opening weekend gross: $10.4 million).
In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller, Charlize Theron, as Imperator Furiosa, leads a group of women away from the ultimate metaphor for an oppressive patriarchy, a leering villain called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe divides women up into two groups: breeders and those who are milked to sustain Joe’s army of muscled men led by Joe’s son, the ham-fistedly named Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones). Furiosa kidnaps Joe’s “special” cache of beautiful, model-looking wives with the hopes of returning them to her homeland of wise, independent women. Max, played by Tom Hardy who slips comfortably into a character previously played by anti-Semitic loon Mel Gibson, stumbles onto this adventure after being held captive by Rictus and his War Boys, Joe’s cult of car worshippers who spray chrome on their mouths before dying. Theron’s Furiosa, with her makeshift cyborg arm and steely gaze, smuggles the wives out in her war rig. Max, meanwhile, remains a glorified hood ornament for a War Boy car as they pursue the renegade Furiosa. It is a new kind of action movie.
The character of Furiosa makes obvious what so many of us suspected: that a powerful female lead can be both a strong character and a box-office draw, despite Hollywood’s constant belief that strong, older women characters just can’t fill seats. Warner Brothers has been holding up a Wonder Woman movie forever due to their belief that woman can’t bring in action movie numbers, and women-led action films such as “The Long Kiss Goodnight” have famously flopped. Marvel still refuses to release a Black Widow toy despite her pivotal role in the Avengers franchise.
Despite bro websites expressing horror that a classic action movie was suddenly “FEMINIST,” it’s worth pointing out that “Mad Max: Fury Road” director George Miller has always cast strong female leads throughout this franchise with actress Virginia Hey, whose character is literally named “Warrior Woman” leading a group of petrol-thirsty nomads in “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and Tina Turner’s epic turn as Aunty Entity, a powerful mother figure who creates the city of Bartertown in the middle of a post-atomic desert in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” Also, Miller has always been a rather intersectional action maestro, sensitive to inclusive casting, writing a badass gay couple into “Road Warrior” and featuring actors with disabilities in both “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Cleverly, Miller caters to the young dude set only as much as he has to, so “Mad Max: Fury Road” is filled with blind heavy-metal guitar players riding on walls of amps through the desert, women hosing off in the hot sun, and two hours of car chases and explosions, but it also gives the finger to misogynist studio logic that doesn’t think a woman can lead an action film in a movie about a male action hero and still make bank.
A few weeks after “Mad Max: Fury Road” defeated the patriarchal tyranny of Hollywood, however, the studios belched out the mid-2000s throwback, “Entourage,” directed by Doug Ellin. The HBO series based on actor Mark Wahlberg’s real-life posse of hangers-on was a huge hit for the cable channel from 2004 until it went off the air in 2011. In the show, Wahlberg’s fictional alter ego is Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier), an action-movie star who, with his crew, brother Johnny (Kevin Dillon), best friend and manager Eric “E” (Kevin Connolly), and driver Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), slithers through party after party living the teen-boy high-five dream of dating porn stars and downing endless shots of tequila with famous jocks and Hollywood superstars. The new film is little more than an extension of the old series tied together with a thin story line following Vince ’s desire to get his latest film financed.
Since the series ended, we’ve seen the stirring of frat culture’s implosion, a more profound mainstream awareness of rape culture, and a widening acceptance of gay culture. Watching a film with jiggling boobs, homophobic punchlines weakly delivered by the usually acerbic Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), and dude-bro ass-slapping now is like cringing at your dad’s racist joke at the dinner table. The opening weekend gross reflects that.
“Entourage” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” represent two kinds of men in films. The Vinces of the screen are, as indicated by the tanking box-office numbers, may be on the way out. Maybe we’re seeing a rise of action heroes who have no interest in sleeping with their female counterparts but just want to get the job done regardless of gender. Max never lusts after some “hottie,” a message that “Entourage” promotes to an almost religious degree. Though even “Entourage” isn’t without a strong female character. UFC champ Ronda Rousey plays herself and the love interest of Turtle. She’s great. As herself. Still, it is telling: The minds behind “Entourage” couldn’t even write a strong female lead in the film for fear of taking away from Chase’s male dominance, so they just took one from real life.
Next month, Emilia Clarke, who plays powerful queen Daenerys Targaryen on the rape-heavy “Game Of Thrones,” co-stars with OG action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger in the new Terminator film, “Terminator Genisys.” Clarke plays matriarch of an uprising Sarah Connor and takes on killing machines from various timelines. According to the trailer she saves hero Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) after uttering “come with me if you want to live.” The line was spoken by the original Reese (Michael Biehn) in 1984’s “The Terminator” as a scared Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) ran through a nightclub. When Clarke says the line in the new trailer, it feels as though the torch is being passed to a new, more inclusive action-movie genre. Do girls finally kick ass in Hollywood? We’ll wait and see how the box office numbers for “Terminator Genisys” turn out.