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As ‘Wonder Woman’ Soars, Movies Starring Men Fail to Connect at Box Office

Cammi Martino, 36, is standing outside the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 shaking her head. “I like them both, but I’m not planning to watch it,” she says, talking about Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron and their summer flop “Baywatch.”

She’s asked about Tom Cruise. “Eh,” she responds. “His earlier days were a lot better.”

Charlie Hunnam? “I don’t know who that is,” she says.

As we’re speaking, though, she perks up. “I just saw ‘Wonder Woman,’ and I loved it,” she says. “It was better than I thought it was going to be.”

Such has been the story of the box office so far this season, as one by one, movies fronted by male stars have crashed and burned in the U.S. Call it the Summer of Unspectacular Men.

Hunnam led the charge with “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” a $175 million movie that opened to a devastating $15.4 million in North America. Then came Michael Fassbender in “Alien: Covenant” ($36.2 million opening weekend in the U.S.); Johnson and Efron in “Baywatch” ($18.5 million); and most recently Cruise’s “The Mummy” ($31.7 million). Even Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” saw the lowest opening for a “Pirates” movie since the series original.

“I think this summer has made it clear that there are less true movie stars than people thought,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood. “But what it underscores for me is the consistent, persistent underestimation of women.”

The death of the movie star has, over the past decade or so, been proclaimed ad nauseam. Point to the rise of television for luring in big-name stars — even Julia Roberts is crossing over. Or blame social media for inventing a new, more accessible brand of celebrity for young people to fawn over. Maybe Norma Desmond had a point about the size of pictures. 

But in the summer of 2017, add one more factor to the equation: President Donald Trump. The election and inauguration of the 45th president has hurled an unprecedented swirl of information at a pace that has caused cable ratings, late-night talk shows and the quantity of mobile push notifications shrieking “Breaking News!” to skyrocket. Each day seems to bring a fresh catastrophe (if not more than one). What if the box office results are in some way a reflection of an oversaturation of men with populist appeal and power?

One of the summer’s lone bright spots so far is “Wonder Woman,” a movie starring and directed by a woman. The film has fired on all cylinders, earning almost unanimously positive reviews and soaring to a $103.3 million opening weekend. Like many recent films targeting a female or minority audience, it was labeled as one that exceeded expectations. Could even a sliver of its success also be a reflection of this political moment? Audiences were hungry for a female-centric superhero movie, clearly, but maybe some viewers also just wanted to see a woman win.

But while Gal Gadot crushes Johnny Depp, male movie stars and their multimillion-dollar contracts keep getting signed. To explain, look (among other places) overseas, where the latest “Pirates” has already earned more than $460 million, and “The Mummy,” more than $140 million in its first weekend. Still, by trusting international audiences’ love of American movie stars to guide the choices made by the industry, studios are once again under fire for being behind the times, and this go-around not even The Rock can save them.

“These are the people who are making the cultural decisions in our country,” Silverstein said. “By not having the guts to trust women and people of color, they are doing a disservice to all of us, and to our culture.”

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