Doctor Sleep, one of this year’s most anticipated movies, released in early November and quickly petered out. The Stephen King adaptation had a meager $14 million opening weekend, falling behind Veterans Day competitor Midway.
A disappointment, the film directed by this generation’s horror maven Mike Flanagan has garnered to date only $30 million domestically and a total of $67 million worldwide. Analysts have been all over this and offered their reasons why it performed so poorly when, critically, Doctor Sleep was received quite well.
I have my own possible, very underreported reason why that has implications extending beyond this one film but I’ll get to that. First, what the “experts” say. A big reason that was given by some outlets, which I already mentioned, is Midway.
The historical WWII epic and its dogfights came out of nowhere, at first glance, and threw Doctor Sleep off course. When you think about it, though, a war movie coming out over Veterans Day weekend is a no-brainer in actuality. That’s logically what a surviving veteran, history buffs, or a class field trip would go see.
For that matter, so would an average middle-class family that wants a heroic depiction of America and the military without an agenda. You’d think – and I’m not the only one to point this out – somebody at Warner Bros. would have taken into consideration holiday movie-going preferences. Conversely, that they moved Wonder Woman 1984 to June makes more sense now, but that’s another matter.
Another cause mooted is fatigue from all the Stephen King movies. 2019 had four King adaptations to its credit: three in theaters, two of which were remakes, and one on Netflix. They are Pet Sematary, IT Chapter Two, In the Tall Grass, and (yes) Doctor Sleep – in that order.
Diehards and casuals alike had to wade through the schlock of Pet Sematary earlier in the year and then wait months, until the tail end of summer, for Andy Muschietti’s so-so and all-too-familiar conclusion to a story two years in the making. In the Tall Grass dropped on Netflix in October and ranks the lowest of the four on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and among critics.
By November, a dose of burnout was sure to set in among let-down King fans, especially at the prospect of a two-and-a-half-hour movie. But fatigue can only go so far as an excuse and it’s an overstated one in this case. Doctor Sleep’s quality is so easy to see and speak to, word of mouth should be able to ameliorate any trepidation.
One more potential cause of Doc Sleep’s misfortunes is Joker. Todd Phillips’ little $40-million tribute to Scorsese and The Clown Prince of Crime turned into a billion-dollar runaway success nobody saw coming.
Although Joker might have robbed Doctor Sleep of some steam, here’s the thing: are we to believe everybody saw Joker a bunch of times and had no money to set aside for a Stephen King movie arguably up their alley? You get the idea.
However, there was something Joker did have working in its favor – a controversy that created serious cash. Worries ginned up by the media the film would inspire mass shooters and likening the character of Arthur Fleck to a misogynist incel backfired, making people want to see it all the more.
An audience built in, Warner’s gamble was anointed the grown-up guy movie of the year anti-SJWs went to see seven times and counting. Consequently, Joker is still in theaters. You can’t say the same for Doctor Sleep, so what happened?
My theory has to do with Ewan McGregor and contains broader implications for his next big release through Warner Bros. Weeks before Doc Sleep hit theaters McGregor started promoting Birds of Prey in interviews. He wasn’t shy about the latter’s feminist themes and how they appealed to him.
The script, for one, has a “real fine look at misogyny,” he told Premiere in October:
“What interested me with Birds of Prey is that it’s a feminist film. It is very finely written, there is in the script a real look on misogyny.”
Society needs that – more than ever, apparently – he explained, and men “need to be taught to change.”
“And I think we need that, we need to be more aware of how we behave with the opposite sex. We need to be taught to change.”
McGregor went further later that month talking with Men’s Journal and didn’t pass up the opportunity to bring President Trump into it. He called Black Mask a villain for “the Time of Trump” and “an absolute narcissist.”
Black Mask was elaborated on this way:
“spoiled in his upbringing to the point of having no contact with what life or people are about, who has a skin this thin and wants nothing more than to be the center of attention.”
McGregor’s big statement to Premiere on subtle “everyday misogyny” and “mansplaining” drives my point home:
“Misogynists in movies are often extreme: they rape, they beat women … And it is legitimate to represent people like that, because they exist and they are obviously the worst. But in the Birds of Prey dialogues, there is always a hint of everyday misogyny, of those things you say as a man you do not even realize, mansplaining … All it’s in the script in a very subtle way. I found that brilliant.”
You think people by the millions won’t read that and decide to stay away from your movies? His words might as well be a Scarlet Letter on his career going forward. McGregor has no clue what ramifications they have or how they sound; he lives in a bubble.
People boycotted various franchise entries this year and didn’t flock to Charlie’s Angels due to their “wokeness.” Doctor Sleep isn’t positively woke; the most powerful being in it is a 12-year-old girl of color but that’s pretty much the size of it. Elizabeth Banks and her ilk can complain or say “good, whatever” and invoke the usual refrain – “well, it wasn’t made for you.” It won’t bring back the money they flushed down the drain or fix their denial.
Dismissal and open alienation of an entire segment of the population, one with money to spend, is a bad, unsustainable business model. These people hear what Hollywood is saying and react accordingly via their wallets. Joker will be embraced while stuff like Charlie’s Angels gets passed over. Doctor Sleep is a slumbering silent victim of this trend.
It won’t be recognized that way but the times we live in are a big part of what’s afoot. The star goes on record declaring what a feminist boogaloo one of his next movies is going to be; American filmgoers, the quiet majority, respond by staying away from his latest release. And instead, they plunk down their hard-earned money for the war movie retelling the story of that time their guys won.
It’s that simple: no male feminist Ewan, no “sneaky” Elizabeth Banks-brand feminism, just old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys, shootouts, winners, losers, stuff getting blown up, and a much-needed remembrance of history. Ironic, isn’t it? A war movie turns its competition into a casualty of war – a culture war.
Doctor Sleep doesn’t deserve to be one of the fallen; the film itself is like unto a wounded innocent bystander no matter what else is out, if there’s too much Stephen King proliferating throughout the year, or what McGregor says in the press. It’ll make a lot of year-end top-ten lists and deserves to be seen. Mike Flanagan is a brilliant filmmaker on a hot streak and still on the rise.
If his movie suffers, imagine what’s going to happen when the calendar turns to February and Birds of Prey’s release date. I could make a sound prediction but we’re all counting on the same outcome, aren’t we? Let’s wait and see.