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Photo: LucasFilm via AP

With this weekend's release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it's almost assured that the latest entry in the Skywalker saga will become the highest-grossing film of 2017 at the North American box office, jumping over Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman for the top spot. That will make the top three blockbusters of the year all female-led, even at a time when most starring roles still go to men.

Why it matters: With the #MeToo movement rocking Hollywood, and the opportunities provided to female actors and directors more generally, the overwhelming success of these films with strong women at their core can't be overlooked.

Where things stand:

  • The Last Jedi is tracking for an opening weekend in the neighborhood of $200 million, which would put it somewhere in the top five of all time. Its predecessor, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is the highest grossing film ever in North America at $936.7 million.
  • The Last Jedi likely won't reach those heights, but it's expected to surpass the $532.2 million gross of last year's anthology Rogue One.
  • Beauty and the Beast currently sits at #1 for 2017 with $504 million and Wonder Woman is just behind at $412 million.

A big reason that women crushed the box office in 2017: they fronted films that were good. With movie ticket prices hitting record highs, it's hard to get people to fork over their hard-earned cash for just anything, especially as audiences get more discerning with the rise of review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

  • Justice League was one of the most expensive films ever with a rumored production budget of around $300 million — and it prominently featured Wonder Woman, one of 2017's breakouts — but tepid reviews caused it to falter at the box office.
  • That reflects the same trend that the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film's head Martha Lauzen described to Variety last year: "We have now seen over and over and over that female characters, when done well, they're good box office…They're not being relegated to a single genre like romantic comedies. Their fate is not tied to the fortunes of a single genre, and that suggests a more stable pattern."

But there's a problem: An analysis of 2016's top-grossing films found that females hold just 29% of protagonist roles, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. And that very low number marked a historic high.

  • Worth noting: Opportunities weren't so great for women behind the camera either, as women held just 7% of the directorial roles in 2016's top grossers.
  • Check out Jennifer Lawrence's 2015 essay about her discovery — via the Sony hack — that her male American Hustle co-stars made more than she did.

But there's a more concerted effort in Hollywood to attempt to inject more overall diversity in its blockbuster offerings. Pixar's Coco, focused on Mexico's Day of the Dead traditions, is a recent box office and critical success — and Marvel's Black Panther, set for release in February, will feature the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first black superhero.

Go deeper

Home confinees face imminent return to prison

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Thousands of prisoners who've been in home confinement for as long as a year because of the pandemic face returning to prison when it's over — unless President Biden rescinds a last-minute Trump Justice Department memo.

Why it matters: Most prisoners were told they would not have to come back as they were released early with ankle bracelets. Now, their lives are on hold while they wait to see whether or when they may be forced back behind bars. Advocates say about 4,500 people are affected.

The "essential" committee that still doesn't exist

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Nearly five months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the creation of the bipartisan Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, it's not been formed much less met.

Why it matters: Select committees are designed to address urgent matters, but the 117th Congress is now nearly one-quarter complete without this panel assembling. When she announced this committee, Pelosi described it as an "essential force" to "combat the crisis of income and wealth disparity in America."

Biden's ethics end-around for labor

President Biden surveys a water treatment plant during a visit to New Orleans today. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is excusing top officials from ethics rules that would otherwise restrict their work with large labor unions that previously employed them, federal records show.

Why it matters: Labor's sizable personnel presence in the administration is driving policy, and the president's appointment of top union officials to senior posts gives those unions powerful voices in the federal bureaucracy — even at the cost of strictly adhering to his own stringent ethics standards.

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