Last weekend, “Captain Marvel” scored $455 million in box office cash, the sixth biggest global movie debut to date. The myth that female- or minority-led films struggle at the box office has been debunked again.
“Captain Marvel” succeeded despite right-wing calls for a boycott. Alt-right movie outrage has targeted several films now. Right-wing activists called on moviegoers to skip “Ghostbusters,” “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther,” “Aquaman,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the four newest “Star Wars” films — all films in which the lead wasn’t a white man. The fact that these boycotts have fizzled reveals the alt-right’s limited influence on conservatives offline.
The alt-right and pop culture
The alt-right label is applied to a variety of causes, from men’s rights activists to neo-Nazis to Internet pranksters. One segment of the alt-right opposes liberal politics in stereotypically male-dominated parts of popular culture, such as video games and comics. The best-known instances are Gamergate and Comicsgate.
Alt-right Internet activists get particularly annoyed by action movies that cast a female or nonwhite lead in what was once conceived of as a white man’s role. Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson is the lead in “Captain Marvel,” even though the first superhero with that name was male. (It gets worse; spoiler here.) Aquaman, a native of Atlantis, was a pale blond character in the past. In 2018, he was played by Jason Momoa, a descendant of Native Hawaiians.
On the Internet, the alt-right harasses journalists, actors, creatives and fans and tries to influence public perception of the quality and popularity of media projects. Criticisms of popular culture are an entry point to the alt-right, offering fun subject matter and a jokey culture that obscures commentators’ far-right politics. People with extreme alt-right ideals build camaraderie with newcomers who do not yet share their views.
Mainstream media heavily covers alt-right campaigns against major studio films. Before anyone knows if the film is good or what the politics in the film will be, left and right begin battling for and against it on social media.
But is the alt-right getting any purchase offline — influencing some potential moviegoers to stay away?
We already know “Captain Marvel” sold a lot of tickets. That doesn’t rule out a conservative backlash; maybe the movie drew in more people than it pushed away. Did the film underperform in conservative media markets but make up ground elsewhere?
How I did my research
To help answer that question, I looked at Google search traffic for “Captain Marvel” and compared it with that of other Marvel films. Search engine data is a tool to study behavior in contexts in which people might not tell the truth if asked directly.
I recorded opening weekend searches for “Captain Marvel” across the 210 U.S. media markets. Marvel’s ensemble films are its most popular — interest in an ensemble film indicates how well a Marvel movie should do in a particular market. And so, as a point of comparison, I measured the “Captain Marvel” search traffic in relation to opening weekend searches in the same media market for the 2015 Marvel ensemble movie “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” I also benchmarked against other films in an analysis you can find on my website, along with more details on the research.
‘Captain Marvel’ in Republican media markets
Nationally, “Captain Marvel” generated about one-third of the search traffic that “Ultron” had. To find out whether the alt-right campaign influenced conservatives, we would need to see whether the drop-off was more pronounced in conservative areas.
I found no evidence of conservative outrage. “Captain Marvel” actually got less search traffic from more Democratic than Republican areas. In markets where Democrats won more votes than Republicans in the 2018 midterms, “Captain Marvel” had 34 percent of “Ultron” traffic. In the markets Republicans won, that figure was 35 percent. If anything, conservative media markets were more interested in “Captain Marvel” than we would expect based on past films.
Could Internet traffic in conservative markets reflect anger rather than interest? Probably not. Conservative rage on that scale would have shown up in mainstream conservative media. According to the TV News Archive, last week Fox News had minimal but positive coverage of “Captain Marvel.” Fox viewers skew older than the superhero movie demographic. Even so, Fox commentators regularly decry liberalism in other parts of young adult life, such as higher education. The alt-right’s concern with diversity at the movies has not won similar coverage.
Nontraditional superheroes don’t lose conservatives
In fact, none of the superheroes protested by the alt-right underperformed in conservative markets. I gathered opening weekend Google traffic for “Captain Marvel,” “Black Panther,” “Aquaman,” and “Wonder Woman.” I benchmarked the first two films against “Age of Ultron.” The other two are compared with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the earlier ensemble film in their cinematic universe.
In general, conservative audiences have not penalized female and minority superhero movies. Conservative audiences were no less interested in these movies than in ensemble superhero films.
On the other hand, all four films drew people who might not have seen a traditional superhero movie. “Black Panther” matched and even surpassed “Ultron” in media markets where a large portion of the population is black, such as Atlanta, Tallahassee and Birmingham, Ala. “Aquaman” overperformed in markets where Hispanic and nonwhite people are larger demographics.
Did “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman” draw women to the theater? That is harder to gauge using geography, as women are spread fairly evenly across media markets. College-educated women have the most liberal attitudes on gender. I found that “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman” enjoyed a boost in media markets where a higher portion of women have some college education.
Female and minority superheroes got the attention of some people who ignored Marvel and DC ensemble films, without turning off conservatives who would otherwise watch this genre. Movie studios have seen nothing but upside from diversifying their heroes.
The pop culture alt-right is not a bellwether
Culture wars are an animating force in conservative politics. For example, controversy over players kneeling in the NFL was a case of conservative anger that had a measurable effect on public opinion. Activists have tried and failed to harness similar right-wing anger for boycotts of high-profile films. The alt-right’s pop culture activism is a fringe cause even among conservatives.
Bethany Lacina (@bethany_lacina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester.