I’ve eaten Stella Parks‘ desserts, and, oh, man, they are so good. So I’m delighted to give her space today to let her tell you about her debut cookbook BraveTart, which examines and celebrates a branch of America’s culinary tradition Parks thinks is overlooked and underappreciated. Is she right? Read on.
When people hear that I’m a classically trained pastry chef or that I work at a place called Serious Eats, most everyone will ask how I got my start. I can’t help but imagine they want to hear about a magical summer in France or else how I learned to bake at my mother’s side. Maybe they want me to say that I always loved Julia Child, or that I saved up my allowance to buy my first croissant. Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way at all.
I grew up in suburban Kentucky, my summers spent with Puddin’ Pops on the porch, my winters passed one mug of Swiss Miss at a time. I loved the tongue-scorching sweetness of a McDonald’s apple pie from the drive-thru window and the muffled scrape of a plastic spoon against the bottom of a chocolate pudding cup (the tinfoil lid curled back and licked clean, natch). At the supermarket, I learned the heft to a tube of cookie dough, the lightness in a bag of marshmallows, and the rattle of rainbow sprinkles in a plastic jar. That’s how I got my start—somewhere between the milk-logged squish of an Oreo and the snap of a Crunch bar.
Sure, it sounds a little trashy compared to that whole Proust thing with madeleines and tea, but I find those bites are just as transportive, little triggers that send me flying back through time. Chances are, if you grew up in America, you’ve got some memories like that as well. Maybe it’s the a dollop of Cool Whip on pumpkin pie, the sticky fingered bliss of an ice cream sandwich, or that familiar slab of birthday cake on the conference room table. Those shared experiences, however mundane, connect us across most every demographic.
It’s a common phenomenon, but a culinary tradition we pay little respect—we call it junk food. Truth is, mass produced snacks have a lineage as respectable as any other. Animal crackers, vanilla wafers, and Fig Newtons all date back to the 1800s, and even newcomers like Rice Krispies Treats, Reese’s Cups, and Milky Way bars are nearly a hundred years old. For anyone raised in America and alive today, these sweets have always been a familiar part of life. Yet they’re not really ours; industrial formulas are subject to change or even cancellation outright (RIP, Coke Zero; adios, Magic Middles).
So when I set out to write a cookbook about American desserts, I knew I couldn’t leave the “junk food” behind. It had damn well earned a place at the table—right alongside “proper” American desserts like devil’s food cake, chocolate chip cookies, and apple pie. With that mandate in mind, I spent nearly six years writing, researching, and developing recipes for everything from Snickers to snickerdoodles. In the end, I don’t think of it as a cookbook so much as a culinary time capsule, stuffed full of recipes, vintage images, history, and photography to tell the story of American desserts as a whole.
There’s the saying that “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” but in order to learn your history, sometimes you have to dig deeper — much deeper — than what is commonly known. This is a fact that has relevance for author Beth Cato and her latest novel Call of Fire.
I love that historical fiction can be entertaining and educational at the same time. When I began to research prior to writing Breath of Earth, the first novel in this series, I was genuinely excited to delve deeper into turn-of-the-20th-century California history. My books feature a 1906 America that is allied with Japan to form the Unified Pacific, a world power in the midst of conquering China as part of its goal to dominate mainland Asian. I bought a number of books on Chinese immigration and experiences in America in that era.
As my research continued for my second book, the newly-released Call of Fire, I found that I dreaded reading more on the subject. I’ve been a history geek since I was a kid and I went into this with the knowledge that Chinese immigrants had been treated poorly, but I had no real comprehension of the horrific abuses they endured.
This wasn’t just about far-off California history anymore, either. This was about my hometown, the place I was born.
Like many other San Joaquin Valley cities, my hometown of Hanford was founded by the railroad in the late 19th century. Chinese men did much of the hard labor to lay the tracks and blast their way through mountains to connect the state with the larger continent. Centrally-located Hanford had one of the largest Chinese communities in the valley. These days, the city is proud of what remains of its China Alley. There’s a lovely tea room there, as well as a preserved Taoist Temple with a gift shop. The Moon Festival each October is a big draw.
When I was a kid, though, I was puzzled that Hanford still had its China Alley but other nearby cities–even larger ones like Visalia and Fresno–did not. My mom told me something like, “They were probably torn down over the years.” That made sense to me. Hanford’s China Alley has some decrepit buildings, too, and it’s only been in recent years that other parts have been lovingly restored to become a year-round attractions.
During my research, though, I finally found the real answer to my childhood question. The other Chinatowns weren’t simply torn down. In the 1880s and 1890s, they were firebombed and the surviving Chinese were run out of town. There were even race riots in vineyards near Fresno.
Hanford still managed to retain some of its Chinese population, but that didn’t mean all was well during that period. I found mention of an editorial from my hometown paper in 1893 that admonished young white women of the county to improve their kitchen skills so that they would not hire Chinese cooks.
I called up my mom. “Did you know about all of this?” She did not. I called up my grandma. Same answer.
That’s when I became angry.
What the Chinese had endured had been erased from local history. Men were murdered. Families terrorized. Livelihoods destroyed. Then the butchery and abuses they endured were forgotten.
When I write about these kinds of racist incidents in my books, I imagine many readers will think that the stuff is pure fiction, all part of the elevated drama of my alternate history. That’s exactly why I include an author’s note in each book along with an extensive bibliography (which I also have on my website at BethCato.com). I want readers to know about the ‘Dog Tag Law’ that required Chinese immigrants to carry an identity card, America’s first internal passport, starting in 1892. I want them to know what happened in Tacoma, Washington, and Honolulu, Hawaii.
I hope people enjoy my books Breath of Earth and Call of Fire, but I also want readers to learn, as I have, that our beloved hometowns may possess dark secrets that need to see the light. We can’t undo the crimes of the past, but we can learn. We can remember.
Denouncing Nazis and the KKK and violent white supremacists by those names should not be a difficult thing for a president to do, particularly when those groups are the instigators and proximate cause of violence in an American city, and one of their number has rammed his car through a group of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring dozens more. This is a moral gimme — something so obvious and clear and easy that a president should almost not get credit for it, any more than he should get credit for putting on pants before he goes to have a press conference.
And yet this president — our president, the current President of the United States — couldn’t manage it. The best he could manage was to fumble through a condemnation of “many sides,” as if those protesting the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists had equal culpability for the events of the day. He couldn’t manage this moral gimme, and when his apparatchiks were given an opportunity to take a mulligan on it, they doubled down instead.
This was a spectacular failure of leadership, the moral equivalent not only of missing a putt with the ball on the lip of the cup, but of taking out your favorite driver and whacking that ball far into the woods. Our president literally could not bring himself to say that Nazis and the KKK and violent white supremacists are bad. He sorely wants you to believe he implied it. But he couldn’t say it.
To be clear, when it was announced the president would address the press about Charlottesville, I wasn’t expecting much from him. He’s not a man to expect much from, in terms of presidential gravitas. But the moral bar here was so low it was on the ground, and he tripped over it anyway.
And because he did, no one — and certainly not the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists, who were hoping for the wink and nod that they got here — believes the president actually thinks there’s a problem with the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists. If he finally does get around to admitting that they are bad, he’ll do it in the same truculent, forced way that he used when he was forced to admit that yeah, sure, maybe Obama was born in the United States after all. An admission that makes it clear it’s being compelled rather than volunteered. The Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists will understand what that means, too.
Our president, simply put, is a profound moral shambles. He’s a racist and sexist himself, he’s populated his administration with Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists, and is pursuing policies, from immigration to voting rights, that make white nationalists really very happy. We shouldn’t be surprised someone like him can’t pass from his lips the names of the hate groups that visited Charlottesville, but we can still be disappointed, and very very angry about it. I hate that my baseline expectation for the moral behavior of the President of the United States is “failure,” but here we are, and yesterday, as with previous 200-some days of this administration, gives no indication that this baseline expectation is unfounded.
And more than that. White supremacy is evil. Nazism is evil. The racism and hate we saw in Charlottesville yesterday is evil. The domestic terrorism that happened there yesterday — a man, motivated by racial hate, mowing down innocents — is evil. And none of what happened yesterday just happened. It happened because the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists felt emboldened. They felt emboldened because they believe that one of their own is in the White House, or at least, feel like he’s surrounded himself with enough of their own (or enough fellow travelers) that it’s all the same from a practical point of view. They believe their time has come round at last, and they believe no one is going to stop them, because one of their own has his hand on the levers of power.
When evil believes you are one of their own, and you have the opportunity to denounce it, and call it out by name, what should you do? And what should we believe of you, if you do not? What should we believe of you, if you do not, and you are President of the United States?
My president won’t call out evil by its given name. He can. But he won’t. I know what I think that means for him. I also know what I think it means for the United States. And I know what it means for me. My president won’t call out evil for what it is, but I can do better. And so can you. And so can everybody else. Our country can be better than it is now, and better than the president it has.
1. I’m both super pleased with the list of winners and even more pleased that the ballot could have fallen differently and that in nearly all cases I still would have been happy. There was so much great work and so many great people celebrated this year that it was almost impossible to go wrong (there were a couple of troll attempts in there too, but they were never really a factor in the actual finalist voting. I’ll talk more about that in a bit).
2. I discovered that The Dispatcher was number seven in terms of the nomination tally for the Novella category, a category with six finalist spots. How do I feel about that? Pretty darn good. The Dispatcher was in audio form for the entire nomination period, which is not the usual format for works considered for the Hugo ballot. So I think it’s pretty cool it got close. Also, you know. It was a finalist for the Locus and three separate Audie awards (winning the Best Original Work category), so it was certainly honored enough. And I happen to think that all the finalists in the Hugo category were excellent. No complaints!
3. And, why yes, women won in nearly every category. Good for them. Their work certainly deserved it.
4. This was the first year nominations for the finalist ballot were run through the “E Pluribus Hugo” process, a complicated procedure involving fractional votes that aimed specifically to blunt the effect of “slating,” i.e., jackholes trying to swamp the ballot via lockstep nominations. It’s also the first year of “5/6,” in which people could nominate five people/works in each category but six people/works were on the final ballot — again, to minimize the effects of slating.
And how did it work? For the purposes of defeating slating — pretty well! To the extent that the jackholes who have been slating work for the last few years were able to get on the ballot at all, they were confined to one finalist out of six. All those jerkhole-related finalists were dealt with appropriately in the voting — most appearing below “no award” (i.e., we’d rather not give an award than have it given to this finalist). The signal-to-noise ratio of the Hugo ballot was much closer to the mean this year than it’s been in the last few, and that’s a good thing.
Which is not to say EPH in particular doesn’t have its issues — there were people/works this year that would have gotten on the ballot under the old system that missed out in this one (not The Dispatcher, I note, which would have been in the #7 position in either system). And I think some people noted that the jerkhole movement was muted this year in any event, so factoring for it might not even have been necessary — there was a motion at the WSFS business meeting to have EPS lifted next year.
My own thinking on this is that it was muted because the jerkholes knew the Hugos were that much harder to game, and given the scope of the slating nonsense — which lingered over four years of Hugo voting — maybe dropping anti-slating measures after just a year is a little precipitate. It does appear that others agreed with me on that, since the motion to suspend it for next year failed. Good.
5. Speaking of the jackholes, I did like that when when voting process sorted everything down, the chief jackhole got outvoted by “no award” in his category by a ratio of about 12:1. That seems about right to me. Aaaaand that’s all the mental energy I’m expending on that dude.
6. Overall, a very fine year for the Hugos. Congratulations to all! Let’s do this again next year.
I note this particular tweet (which, if for some reason you can’t see it, is here), not just because it amuses the crap out of me, although it does, but it because it’s an example of a phenomenon that I think might be unique to Twitter — namely, because of the way Twitter formats pictures and retweets on its service, much of the time (if not most of the time) you’ll see a punchline or a snarky reply before you read the set-up or instigating comment.
And because it does, it changes a lot about the dynamic of the humor, and often in interesting ways. It’s like the Jeopardy version humor. Of course, some people just change things around so their comment is the set-up and the picture or previous comment is the punchline. But when they don’t, I almost feel like it creates a new kind of joke.
So, wait, you were going to withdraw from the Dragon Awards but now you’re not?
Yup, that’s basically right.
Why did you change your mind?
Mostly because the administrators asked if I would reconsider.
How did that conversation go?
Me: I’d like to withdraw.
Them: We’d like you to stay. Please?
Them: What if we say, pretty please?
Them: What if we say, pretty please with sugar on top?
Me: Oh, fine.
More seriously, and as noted in the statement I gave to the Verge, the folks at the Dragon Awards suggested they were willing to put in some work to listen and learn, and the honoring of Ms. Littlewood’s withdrawal request and their commitment to rethink aspects of their process was a good first step. Enough that I was willing to reconsider withdrawing from the ballot.
But what about the dudes ginning up the whole “culture war” angle? You said you just couldn’t even with those dudes.
They’re still there and they’re still tiresome, and I’m not really looking forward to that nonsense, but, you know what, fuck it. Here’s the deal: Did you enjoy reading my book? Enough to vote for it over the other works in my particular category? Groovy. Then vote for it. Otherwise, don’t vote for it, please. Repeat with every other work in my category, and so on in the other categories. This is not actually complicated.
(Incidentally, and in case it’s not clear, please don’t paint every other finalist with the “I’m just here for the culture war” brush. I don’t. You can tell which ones are around to gin up a culture war. They’re pretty obvious about it.)
I JUST THINK YOU’RE HELLA INDECISIVE, SCALZI
Seems reasonable and I accept your judgment.
I still have issues with the Dragon Awards.
That’s fair. They’re new and still figuring this out, which is not an excuse but is an explanation. In my discussions with the folks running them, my sense is that they really do want to make the awards something that is viable and useful (and fun) for fans of the genre. They have a lot of work to do (this is, I suspect, in the nature of awards in general). Hopefully they’ll get there. As I noted, some of the steps they’re taking now indicate to me they want to get it right. Your mileage may vary. In the meantime, with this as with anything, you’re perfectly within your rights to have issues and criticism. Fire away.
So are you going to the awards ceremony now?
Nope, I’m still counter-scheduled in Washington DC that weekend.
What if I was going to vote for you but you said not to and I voted for something else?
I mean, that’s on me, isn’t it? So that’s fine. If you voted for something you enjoyed, that’s good enough. I’m okay with other people winning awards I am also up for. I’ve won my fair share over time. It’s nice to win, but it’s nice to see other people win, too. I’ll be no worse off. And then someone else has to worry about how to ship a trophy home. That stuff adds up.
It is sometimes said that someone is a person of their time — which may make you wonder what might happen to that person in different times, and what those times would do that person. Kathe Koja might, anyway, and it’s one of the reasons her novel Christopher Wild exists.
Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.
He’s a London guy, but he’s been around the block, he knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him. They say he’s a scholar and a poet, they say he’s a spy, they say he likes guys; he says he likes guys, and likes smoking, and thinks religion is all about control, not love, among other free-thinking opinions. Some people—most famously a dude named Dick who ratted him out to the authorities—suggested that the “mouth of so dangerous a [man] should be stopped.” And the authorities agreed, and had him killed.
But he was, he is, a writer. And so his work kept on speaking in tandem with that brief, steep, outrageous life—as I write this, this guy, this Christopher Marlowe, this Kit, is studied in universities around the world, his plays of turbulent men with violent ideas are produced and debated and relished, and he’s stealing the show in a show called Will.
There are more than a few Marlowe biographies and novels: you may have met him there. Anthony Burgess’ gorgeously written A Dead Man in Deptford was my own introduction to Kit, and the life pointed to the work—I’d heard of Faustus, that soul-selling literal daredevil, but the other plays (like Edward II and Tamburlaine) were ravishingly new to me. And the poems, sexy, erudite, unforgettable poems . . . I thought, who is this guy! I thought, oh god this guy. I thought, I have to write about him too.
And so my newest novel, Christopher Wild.
But befitting its subject who loved to challenge, this book was such a challenge that I was bewildered how to even begin. I don’t write about real people, I write fiction that works to make characters seem real. And no one is ever going to write a better, more beautiful bio novel than Burgess. So how could I reincarnate this man?—whose voice I was crazy in love with, and whose life has resonance not only with his own time but every era where power seeks to throttle truth, and fear sits side by side with stifling caution; which is to say, every era . . . And most of all, first and last of all, he’s a writer, a gloriously original and badass writer, how could I do him full justice on the page? All I had was doubt, and a giant pile of notes and research reading.
But I wanted to hang out with Marlowe.
So I took the leap, I plunged: I planned the structure of the novel then threw that structure totally away, I found a new way, I found that the way to show his contemporaneity was to place him in places where silence shouted loudest, where danger was deepest for a man who can’t keep his mouth shut, ever: places like his own grimly glamorous Elizabethan world, then a tense and humid McCarthyesque mid-20th century, then a darkening future just slightly past our own horizon, where punishing surveillance is the 24/7 norm.
The voice that flowered in those ages, and my pages, was a confident one, a fierce and passionate one, one that I followed every bit as much as I led: I knew him better then, I learned as we went on. Is it the book I expected I’d be writing? Not at all. But that’s what it’s like when you hang with a bold new friend, he takes you places you didn’t imagine you’d go.
Which is why I opened up the process to early supporters, who received a monthly email with research notes and cool or silly factoids (Kit Harington plays Faustus! Sniff a Marlowe perfume!), along with excerpts from the novel in progress—another thing I’d never done before, or contemplated doing.
And then all the writing was done, and Marlowe was ready, again, for his close-up, he was climbing into a big-finned yellow Buick, he was heading up the crusty subway stairs, he was striding down a slick and cobbled alley where life and death murmur together, telling eternity’s everyday secrets; he was here again, with us again, because he’s never left . . . If you’ve met him already, lucky you (and why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner?). But if you haven’t, oh then please grab a seat, get a drink, let me introduce you and we can all go wild.
I’m well-known for being an aficionado of Coke Zero — so much so that I was once given my own weight in the beverage by a science fiction convention — so when Coca-Cola announced it was taking the drink off the market in place of a new, reformulated drink called “Coke Zero Sugar” it was generally thought that my reaction would be to rend garments and howl about apocalyptic seals being broken. I didn’t do any of these, but of course I was curious as to what the new stuff was like.
Well, as it happens, Coca-Cola was kind enough to ship me a couple of bottles of the stuff so I could try it out before it generally hits the market where I live. I tried it two different ways: First Coke Zero Sugar by itself, and then in a sip-by-sip comparison with regular (and soon to be departed) Coke Zero.
When I tried it by itself: I couldn’t really perceive much of a difference between it and my sense memory of Coke Zero with the first couple of swallows. It tasted enough like Coke Zero that my immediate concern (“oh god it’s gonna suck and I will have to wander the desert forever because that will be my life now”) was immediately dismissed. I’m gonna survive the switchover, folks.
After a couple more swallows it seemed to me there were two noticeable differences: It’s not as immediately acidic, and it seems a bit less carbonated. I suspect both of these possibly contribute to the “more like standard Coca-Cola” taste that the company suggests this has over regular Coke Zero. It’s a mouthfeel thing, simulating what you would get with sugar in the liquid; anyone who drinks no-sugar soda and then drinks one with sugar notes the latter feels a little syrupy. Coke Zero Sugar feels a little more like fully leaded Coke than Coke Zero.
This mouthfeel and “less acidic, less carbonated” thing was definitely more noticeable when I was alternating drinks between the two. As a Coke Zero drinker I’m used to the zingier attack of the standard stuff, and would say that overall Coke Zero Sugar is basically a slightly muted version, zing-wise, of the previous iteration.
But, as noted, when I tasted the Coke Zero Sugar in isolation I was not really finding too much difference between the two, and when I did figure out the difference, I didn’t find it objectionable or disappointing. It’s good! It’s fine! I like it! And I suspect that as the old stuff is phased out and the new stuff comes in, I’ll make the switch and continue happily with my life. The only note I would make to myself is a practical one: Coke Zero Sugar should be drunk ice cold because it seems like it goes flatter quicker, which I suspect is down to the apparent less carbonation.
(Oh, one other difference — the aftertaste. How is it different? I can’t really quantify it except to say it is. It’s not bad. It’s just there, like it is with most drinks with artificial sweeteners.)
Coca-Cola wants to suggest that Coke Zero Sugar’s taste is improved, but I think that’s a subjective judgment. I think of it as being a little different, but not so much so that I need to worry about it. Coca-Cola also says it’s more in line with standard Coke’s flavor profile, which it might be, but in my opinion Coke Zero was close enough on this score that this is a case of “why go for the A+ when you’re already getting the A.” I suspect that it’s really down to Coke wanting to accentuate the “no sugar” aspect and needing to fiddle with the formula slightly to justify the repackaging and overall marketing budget. And if that’s somewhere near the case, well, I guess, okay? Mysterious are the ways of large corporations.
But overall: Hey, Coke Zero Sugar is pretty good. I’d say it’s Coke Zero with a subtle nose job: Different, maybe better depending on your personal taste, still largely recognizable for what it is. Which works for me.
Thanks to a dumbass president wetting himself about North Korea and trying to hide it with bluster.
Bear in mind I think we’re almost certainly likely to be fine and everyone will climb down from their current state of rhetorical stupidity. On the other hand, having a dumbass for a president is already tiring.
On the other hand: Kate Bush is awesome. Yay, Kate!
The other day I announced The Collapsing Empire was a finalist for the Dragon Award in the Best Science Fiction novel category, which was neat. Today, I notified the Dragon Award administrators and let them know I was withdrawing The Collapsing Empire from consideration for the award.
The reason is simple: Some other finalists are trying to use the book and me as a prop, to advance a manufactured “us vs. them” vote-pumping narrative based on ideology or whatever. And I just… can’t. I don’t have the interest and I’m on a deadline, and this bullshit is even more stale and stupid now than it was the several other times it was attempted recently, with regard to genre awards.
My plan was to ignore it, but on further reflection (and further evidence that this nonsense was going to continue through the finalist voting period), I decided this was the better course. To the extent this bullshit manufactured narrative is centered on me, well, now it’s not, as far as these awards are concerned. I’m delighted to be able to chop it off at the knees by removing myself from consideration. I wish the progenitors of this narrative luck; now they will have to compete with the other finalists on the basis of the quality of their work instead. They’re going to need all the help they can get with that.
(Mind you, what I expect is the “us vs. them” folks to try to shift their target to someone else. Because that’s the only trick they know, bless their hearts.)
To be clear, the problem is not with the Dragon Awards or their administrators, the latter of whom have been unfailingly gracious in my communications with them. I wish them all the best with their awards. I encourage people to vote for the awards and for the finalists whose stories move them.
And once more thanks to the folks who nominated The Collapsing Empire for the Dragon Award. I do appreciate the nomination, and the novel making the finalist list. You all made me happy.
Which is an award given out at DragonCon. It’s a finalist in the category of Best Science Fiction Novel, which makes perfect sense, really. Here’s the full ballot (there’s more than a dozen categories), and if you’re inspired to vote in one or more of those categories, here’s how you register to do that. As long as you have an email address, you’re eligible to vote. You can vote through August 28th, and the awards will be given out at the convention.
This is actually the second time I’ve been a finalist for a Dragon Award, as I was on the ballot last year for The End of All Things. I declined the slot because I was taking a year off from awards generally, but it’s nice to know my work was remembered again this year. The award has existed for two years, so now my work is 2-for-2 for getting on the ballot. Can’t complain about that.
Thanks to the folks who nominated the book! I’m glad you liked it.
This next weekend Wonder Woman is very likely to crack the $400 million mark at the domestic box office, which in itself is a significant feat (only 26 other films in the history of cinema have managed it) but is particular good news for the Warner Bros. studio and its DC universe of films, after the critical failures of the two most recent DC films, Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, both of which Wonder Woman has now outgrossed…
… Well, sort of. Wonder Woman is the undisputed champ of the three films in the domestic box office arena, but in the global arena, right now (and, given the late date of Wonder Woman’s theatrical run at this point, probably ultimately), Wonder Woman’s overall box office performance is right in line with BvS and Suicide Squad, and both of those films have outperformed WW’s box office in key areas. BvS has a larger global gross ($873 million to $790 million), and Suicide Squad has a larger foreign box office ($420 million to $393 million). At this point, two months since release, it’s possible but unlikely WW might catch up with those numbers (it’ll be easier for the film to pass Suicide’s foreign BO than BvS‘ global). But when all the theatrical grosses are tallied, again, Wonder Woman’s box office performance is likely to be right in line with its DC siblings’ performance.
Given that Wonder Woman’s box office overall is not substantially different than that of BvS or Suicide Squad, why is it being hailed as the savior of the DC universe film franchise? There are a few reasons. One, both BvS and Suicide were critical (if not financial) flops, dark and gritty and depressing slogs that no one really seemed to like all that much, even if the films did in fact pack people into theaters — $330 million and $325 million in domestic grosses are excellent returns. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was a critical success — which was useful for itself but also deemed important for the future of the DC franchise as a whole. Three critical flops would (presumably) have made it difficult to sell the Avengers-like Justice League film that’s next on the slate.
Two, despite global box office being the primary engine for Hollywood these days, domestic (i.e., US and Canada) box office is still hugely influential in terms of perception. As an example, this summer’s The Mummy is widely considered to be a flop despite the fact that worldwide it’s grossed $400 million to date. Had The Mummy done $200 million domestically and $200 million foreign, it wouldn’t be seen as a flop; if it had done $300 million domestically and $100 million in foreign sales, it’d be one of the summer’s winners. Wonder Woman outgrossed its DC siblings here at home, and “here at home” optics still matter.
Three, the financials of Wonder Woman are probably more advantageous to Warner Bros than BvS or Suicide. First, it was a cheaper film to produce: $125 million, where BvS was twice that, and Suicide was $150 million. Second, Warner (generally) gets to keep more of the money a film grosses domestically than internationally, where the grosses have to be shared with distributing partners and are otherwise divvied up in less advantageous ways.
Finally, because Wonder Woman is a woman-centered superhero film with a woman director, and the common wisdom was that the film outperformed financial expectations. Why this bias persists is a long discussion for another time (it’s worth noting that only one other film has outgrossed Wonder Woman domestically so far this year, and that’s Beauty and the Beast, another woman-focused film, and the one film remaining on the theatrical schedule this year that will outgross it will be The Last Jedi, which also has a woman as the protagonist), but it’s there.
It’s worth pointing out that of the four reasons I’ve given here, three of them are explicitly perceptual, rather than about the financial bottom line, and the one that’s about the financial bottom line is probably the one least publically discussed out of all of them. The perceptual issues aren’t fake issues (I’ll explain why further down) but I think it’s worth pointing out that, perception aside, Warner Bros’ DC universe films from BvS onward are doing just fine financially, with an average box office of $802 million globally between them, and an average domestic gross of $350 million. Which, incidentally, is higher than the average domestic and worldwide gross of the (to date) 16 Marvel cinematic universe movies, which are $306 million and $776 million, respectively.
Which leads me to think a couple of things. The first is that generally film quality doesn’t mean all that much for a superhero film’s box office as long as it has a) brand name recognition and b) some really excellent marketing behind it. Two thirds of the DC films get knocked for being crap, but those two films also outgrossed ten of the sixteen Marvel films both domestically and worldwide, all of which have better critical reputations than BvS or Suicide.
Next up, even if Wonder Woman had been a critical flop, I think it’s an open question as to whether that would have had a major negative impact on the financial performance of Justice League, the next DC film in the release barrel. To be clear, I think Wonder Woman’s critical and perceptual superiority to BvS and Suicide is beneficial — it now means JL is likely to get to or even surpass $1 billion in worldwide grosses (and get more than $400 million domestically). But I suspect that had Wonder Woman not been a perceptual and critical smash, JL would still end up in the same $750 million-to-$850 million range the other DC films have managed to this point. These are essentially fool-proof movies, which all things considered, has been a very good thing for Warners, indeed.
This means I also suspect that even if Wonder Woman had not been a critical success, it still would have done reasonably well at the box office: In the $250 million-to-$300 million range domestically and double that globally. And again that’s down to familiarity and marketing and the long pent-up desire to have a woman superhero head up a movie, and especially Wonder Woman, the best-known woman superhero. The critical/perceptual box office premium here is significant — roughly 25% of the box office gross — and nothing to discount. But recent box office successes in the form of Beauty and the Beast, The Force Awakens and Rogue One shows us that established franchises (Star Wars and Disney live action remakes, respectively) don’t automatically take a financial penalty for having women in the lead role (I’m not even bringing up Twilight or Hunger Games here, which established themselves in the lit world before jumping over to film). Wonder Woman, I think, would have been perfectly financially successful even if it had only been critically received only marginally better than BvS or Suicide Squad.
The real issue here, to my mind, is how there’s still any hesitancy to front women characters in franchises, superhero or otherwise. There’s pretty clearly no significant financial penalty for doing so if your franchise is already up and running and your marketing is focused; honestly, at this point there’s only upside, if you manage to make the film better than its male-focused franchise siblings. That upside is perceptual in the short run, as it largely was here with Wonder Woman. But in the long run it’s likely going to add to your franchise financial bottom line. In this case, Justice League will almost benefit from Wonder Woman’s perceptual halo.
And further out than that — well. It will be interesting to see which film will have the bigger opening weekend: The next Batman, or the next Wonder Woman. I do know which one I am more interested in seeing right now.