It's hard to feel sorry for Sean Penn, but after "The Gunman," which he starred in and produced, got whacked this weekend by "The Divergent Series: Insurgent," maybe a little sympathy is in order. Then again, maybe he's just one more aging male movie star this winter -- after Will Smith, Vince Vaughn, and Liam Neeson -- who's run up against the hard fact that girls and young women are the driving forces behind the box office so far in 2015.

"Insurgent's" success should have been a surprise to no one. It opened with an estimated $54.0 million, only about $600,000 less than the original "Divergent" opened with on this same weekend a year ago. Since the first film, "Insurgent" stars Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Miles Teller have become bigger draws. Plus, the new movie has a 3D ticket surcharge that the first one didn't. Even if it didn't reach the upper 50s like many pundits were predicting, it was clear that the movie was going to dominate the box office this weekend, to the detriment of every other movie.

It used to be considered a smart strategy to counterprogram against anticipated blockbusters by offering a film that played to the diagonally opposite quadrant. In this case, "The Gunman" would seem to be a draw for older men, the group least likely to be attending a movie like "Insurgent" that's aimed at girls and young women. Even so, expectations for "The Gunman" were modest -- no one seemed to think it would open higher than about $8 million. And still, the movie's estimated $5.0 million debut (opening in fourth place) didn't even reach that low bar.

The fate of the Sean Penn action thriller -- directed by Pierre Morel, the same filmmaker who made Liam Neeson's first "Taken" -- echoes that of Neeson's "Run All Night" last week. That action thriller was seen as smart counterprogramming against Disney's "Cinderella." But girls and young women bought $67.9 million worth of tickets to the live-action fairy tale, while Neeson's crime drama sold just $11.0 million worth. A week later, "Cinderella" has grossed a total of $122.0 million, compared to just $19.7 million for "Run All Night."

Sure, you could argue that Penn's movie is a special case. For one thing, Penn has never been a box office draw. The two-time Oscar winner has certainly never been seen as an action star, so "The Gunman" is a genre gamble for him. Moreover, it was foolish to open it so soon after "Run All Night."

Then again, you could argue that it was equally foolish to open "Cinderella" and "Insurgent" just a week apart, and yet neither of them is having trouble selling tickets. And these movies don't follow too far on the heels of "Fifty Shades of Grey," which has earned $163.8 million in six weeks and is the top-grossing movie of 2015 so far.

Hollywood likes to treat movies starring or aimed at women as flukes when they're successful, but how many flukes have to happen in a row before they're the rule, not the exception? So far this year, women have done most of the muscle-flexing at the box office, while once-reliable box-office leading men like Smith, Vaughn, and Neeson have faltered.

That doesn't mean action thrillers, especially those driven by older men, can't succeed in the current landscape. "Kingsman: The Secret Service," featuring Samuel L. Jackson and unlikely action hero Colin Firth, opened the same day as "Fifty Shades" and has earned $114.6 million to date. This weekend, it was still in the top five, in fifth place, while "Fifty Shades" fell to No. 14. But "Kingsman" was also a surprising, even shocking piece of filmmaking. It certainly appeared fresher and more original than Penn's "Gunman," Smith's "Focus," Vaughn's "Unfinished Business," or Neeson's "Run All Night" and "Taken 3" (his January 2015 disappointment).

If you can't muster up that kind of originality in your action thriller, you can at least find an action protagonist with a fresh face, one that makes action heroics palatable to an audience that doesn't usually patronize action thrillers. Which is why the most credible action butt-kicker currently in theaters is Shailene Woodley.