Does the success of 'The Invisible Man' prove you can get woke and not go broke?

I haven’t seen the 2020 version of The Invisible Man yet, but I want to see it. It has gotten strong reviews and looks like a mashup of thriller and horror movie that should be fun. The movie is already a hit at the box office. It has made close to $50 million worldwide as of today which is impressive for a film with a reported $7 million budget. Of course I’ve seen a zillion commercials for this on television so I’d bet the marketing budget is at least triple the film’s budget. But even so this is going to make some money.

Today, Variety published a piece by film reviewer Owen Gleiberman which argues that the success of the film proves the phrase “Get woke, go broke” is a fallacy. I don’t think he’s right about that but here’s a bit of his argument:

Over the last few years, Hollywood’s mostly superficial onscreen attempt to deal with issues of women’s empowerment has resulted in a track record dotted with box-office failure, and this has given rise to a certain knee-jerk misogynistic appraisal of that phenomenon. It goes back, in a way, to the “Ghostbusters” remake, which was greeted with undisguised hostility before it was ever released. And when it turned out to be a so-so movie, it got beaten up on as if its failures, comedic and financial, somehow meant something.

This has been, for Hollywood, a mostly awkward transitional time (just look at the cringe-worthy fake feminist banter of the Oscar telecast, rightly skewered by my colleague Caroline Framke), and the notion of doing gender-flipped remakes of movies that originally featured mostly male casts will probably go down as one of the more desperate expressions of it. I stand by my (mild) affection for “Ocean’s 8,” and I even stand by thinking that “Terminator: Dark Fate” was an invigorating reboot, but the essential point remains: Making movies like that is not a solution. Serving up a sixth “Terminator” film with a Terminatrix heroine, or a less cosmetic “Charlie’s Angels,” shouldn’t wind up penalizing — or stigmatizing — the primal ideal of empowerment and inclusion in motion pictures. The commercial failure of these films means no more than the commercial failure of the reboots of “Hellboy” or “Shaft” did, but you can always find some wag who’s drooling to add it up into a “Get woke, go broke” tautology…

What the success of “The Invisible Man” points to is how much they do want to see a movie that grapples, urgently and entertainingly, with who women are.

I feel like Gleiberman has done all the work of undercutting his own premise for me. He has highlighted some great examples of films where the industry decided the next sequel to a big franchise would have one key difference: Women in all the key roles! And he has pointed to one of the key problems. These are usually “superficial” attempts to create women’s empowerment. They are, as he put it, “awkward” efforts to please a narrow segment of the audience not with good storytelling but with a politically correct message.

Ghostbusters 2016 is a great example and so is Terminator: Dark Fate. I reviewed the latter when it came out last year and pointed out that it wasn’t just the broad outlines of the film that marked it as an effort to “get woke.” There were major plot elements of the film which were there for only one reason: To preach a timely political message to the audience. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Lots of border patrol agents get murdered trying to stop the terminator in what feels like a callback to the siege on the police headquarters in the first Terminator film. The difference is that this time it’s not clear we’re really rooting for law enforcement. They all seem expendable. None of them are quite real people.

None of the border trappings in the movie seem important to the plot. The writers made Dani Mexican and then created a need for the characters to enter America so they could make the border patrol an obstacle in the film. As a viewer, it feels like we’re being punished with a lecture for having come to see an action movie…

So much of this film feels like it was crafted to appeal to progressive moviegoers that after a while anyone who isn’t cheering for the not-so-hidden messages will probably feel unwanted in the theater.

So when Dark Fate bombed, did that mean something? I think it did. I think it meant that fans of an aging action movie franchise didn’t want a boring lecture about women not needing men and the evils of the border patrol. It really did feel like the entire purpose behind the film was to revise the first film into a more feminist story. Who was asking for that exactly?

The original Terminator film was very much a woman-in-peril film which turned into a woman-empowerment film by the end. In a way, it already had a very feminist message and yet fanboys everywhere loved it (and still do).

From what I hear, it sounds like The Invisible Man is a very similar story. Instead of an unstoppable robot from the future that no one believes is real, we have an unstoppable “dead” husband who can make himself invisible with some kind of advanced tech. The female main character will once again have to stand up for herself in order to survive. It seems genre fans still love this story, just as they did 36 years ago.

That certainly doesn’t prove that “get woke, go broke” isn’t a thing. If you make a bad movie whose main impetus isn’t telling a good story but positioning itself for progressive praise, it will probably bomb. And when it bombs the woke politics that are the sole reason for its existence deserve to take a hit for spoiling another night out for a lot of people. Fans will keep sending the message they don’t like these superficial, awkward attempts at political messaging until Hollywood listens (instead of blaming the fans for being toxic).

It’s still okay to have a very pro-woman subtext in your genre film but that can’t be all you have. A sure way to tell these days is how the movie gets promoted. If the message is ‘you’ll love the girl-power in this movie’ it’s probably junk. If the message is ‘this film is thrilling, scary, fun, exciting, etc.’ then it’s probably pretty decent. The Invisible Man looks like the latter to me. I hope so because it feels like it has been a while since I saw a good thriller.