The rise of the action woman

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Alicia Vikander, one where she talked about her role as the new Lara Croft and how the character has been rebooted as a more realistic heroine for modern women.

She mentioned how it seems there’s momentum these days, indeed appetite, towards high quality, well put together, action-driven films that feature a female lead. She mentioned Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and others, which got me thinking, is there momentum? Was there a specific moment that was the turning point?

Thinking back, Angelina Jolie has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since about 2000, with Charlize Theron playing her part too. But did they pave the way for the films we see now or has this been a longer time coming?

For me, I think the ’90s are a good place to start.
So below are the films and the various time periods that, for better or worse, I consider to have had a hand in where we are now. I’ve listed the actress, character, film, year, whether they were lead, co-lead or in a prominent supporting role, and the Rotten Tomatoes score, to give a rough indication of how the film was recieved by audiences.


THE 1990s

Yes we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien at the tail end of the ’70s, but the ’80s were dripping in macho testosterone. So, for me, the ’90s is where this movement started to gain traction, with actresses like Linda Hamilton and Geena Davis leading the way, putting in decent performances in exciting, entertaining movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) 92%
Sarah Connor (supporting) – Linda Hamilton

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) 68%
Samantha Caine (lead) – Geena Davis

G.I. Jane (1997) 55%
Jordan O’Neil (lead) – Demi Moore

The Matrix (1999) 87%
Trinity (supporting) – Carrie-Anne Moss

THE 2000s

The good work the ’90s women put in gets somewhat undone at the start of this decade, with a bunch of terrible films (Eon Flux the biggest offender) and, whilst it’s no fault of the various actresses involved, it took a one-two punch of Angelina Jolie (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to set things right. So by the end of the decade we were getting better films – and characters – with greater frequency (Hanna, Salt).

Then, by 2012, we’d probably reached a turning point. Angelina Jolie (aged 35 in Salt) couldn’t fly the flag forever, so others had to step up. Enter women like Jennifer Lawrence (22 in Hunger Games) and Saoirse Ronan (17 in Hanna), actresses that appealed and inspired a younger generation and helped push things further forward.

Charlie’s Angels (2000) 68%
Natalie Cook (co-lead) – Cameron Diaz, Dylan Sanders (co-lead) – Drew Barrymore, Alex Munday (co-lead) – Lucy Lui

Tomb Raider (2001) 20%
Lara Croft (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Resident Evil (2002) 34%
Alice (lead) – Milla Jovovich

Eon Flux (2005) 9%
Eon Flux (lead) – Charlize Theron

Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) 59%
Jane Smith (co-lead) – Angelina Jolie

Kill Bill (2003) 85%
Beatrix Kiddo (lead) – Uma Thurman

Wanted (2008) 71%
Fox (supporting) – Angelina Jolie

Salt (2010) 62%
Evelyn Salt (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Iron Man 2 (2010) 73%
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (supporting) – Scarlet Johansson

Hanna (2011) 71%
Hanna (lead) – Saoirse Ronan

Hunger Games (2012) 84%
Katniss Everdeen (lead) – Jennifer Lawrence

2015 ONWARDS

In 2012 Disney acquired Star Wars as a property and set about making plans to expand the franchise with new films and characters, ones that would appeal to a modern audience. The majority of moviegoers want to see female characters better represented on screen, so franchises like Star Wars really need to lead the way.

Additionally, along with Marvel’s MCU and a smattering of female superheroes, even DC studios got in on the act, with a female-led action movie in Wonder Woman (something Marvel could only really match with supporting characters in films like Black Panther). Momentum and quality, though, had really shifted. If the below selection are anything to go by.

Mad Max (2015) 97%
Furiosa (supporting) – Charlize Theron

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) 93%
Isla Faust (supporting) – Rebecca Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 93%
Rey (co-lead) – Daisy Ridley

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (2016) 85%
Jyn Erso (lead) – Felicity Jones

Wonder Woman (2017) 92%
Diana Prince (lead) – Gal Gadot

Atomic Blonde (2017) 77%
Lorraine Broughton – Charlize Theron

Black Panther (2018) 97%
Shuri (supporting) – Letitia Wright and Okoye (supporting) – Danai Garira

My top seventeen films of 2017

This year has been a bit of a bumper for good films. Putting together a list, yet again, I realise there are so many I haven’t seen. Here’s those that I have, a top seventeen and the order in which I liked them. Plus a rather large number that I am yet to see, but want to, and have heard good things.

1. Get Out

Off-kilter and deeply unsettling. The first two thirds of this film puts certain deeply held prejudices into stark focus. Little micro-aggressions of racism that people of colour experience, in a way that white people simply cannot comprehend. This film achieved big at the box office, from a miniscule budget – doing strong numbers in the States. Frightening, vital storytelling.

2. Thor: Ragnarok

Taiki Waititi is an odd man. This is not an understatement. His past work includes a documentary style vampire film, What We Do In The Shadows and a highly unusual road chase movie Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Then Marvel gave him a superhero sandpit in which to play. The result is Ragnarok, the funniest, strangest film to come out of a studio that’s seventeen films in.

3. Baby Driver

Edgar Wright left Ant-Man over creative differences to go and make this. Silver lining and all that, because this is, by far, Wright’s best film. It’s practically a musical, in terms of how effortlessly and brilliantly songs are weaved into its DNA. And the performances across the board are surprising and inspired. A helluva lot of fun.

4. A Monster Calls

This came out New Year’s Day 2017, so you can be forgiven for forgetting it. But you shouldn’t, because it’s one of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve ever seen. Utterly heart-breaking stuff from director Juan Antonio Bayona.

5. Moonlight

Oscar winner (eventually), this film should be on your ‘must watch’ list. A big break for director Barry Jenkins, with outstanding performances from all three leads, playing the same man at three key points in his life. Languid, dreamy, painfully well observed.

6. Logan

It’s nice that director James Mangold got another crack at Wolverine as a character, because he could finally create the film he wanted to create, with the studio giving him a huge amount of freedom. The result being a very much stand-alone X-Men film, but also the best Wolverine story by some distance. And a fitting send-off for Jackman in the role.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2

The first Guardians film had little expectation, but surprised everyone, particular in terms of comedy. And then came the difficult second album. It doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of the first film, but there’s loads of good stuff in it, and it comes darn close to topping the first.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, two chaps that had a crack at the role. Neither are as good a fit as the latest bloke, Tom Holland. It helps that this film is now part of the MCU and Iron Man’s inclusion adds a nice wrinkle to Peter Parker’s progress as a hero; in that Tony becomes a sort of surrogate father figure. Plus, Michael Keaton as a bad guy. Someone you’d want in any movie, if you can get him.

9. mother!

Darren Aranofsky is no stranger to controversy. He wrote this script in what he described as a ‘fever dream’, with star Jennifer Lawrence reportedly throwing it across the room after reading it and telling the director there was something wrong with him. Only to later say he was a genius. This film works on many allegorical levels and granted, it’s a tough watch, but a visceral one from an auteur filmmaker.

10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Coming from a background of indies such as The Brothers Bloom, Brick and Looper, Rian Johnson was an interesting choice for Disney, in terms of continuing the story of Luke, Leia and the gang with all that force stuff. It’s hugely polarised a small portion of the internet but still opened to the second biggest weekend in movie history, so it can’t be that bad. For me, I thought it was a great story and possibly the best of the new films yet.

11. Wonder Woman

Finally, DC came up with a movie that was less of a CGI-fest, although they couldn’t resist descending into this territory come the film’s final third. Luckily, the rest of the movie was more progressive and engaging, and all the fish out of water stuff with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince was a delight. It also gave us a female superhero as the lead of a blockbuster for the first time, one that has gone on to inspire countless women and girls around the world.

12. Free Fire

Ben Wheatley, as a director, is no stranger to dark stories and messed up visuals. And he’s always had mostly a British cast to work with. As his name has grown everyone wants to work with him now, and this film represents his biggest, most A-list cast to date. So what does he do? Stick them all on the floor in a dirty warehouse crawling around shooting at each other for an entire movie. Hilarious and genius.

13. Hidden Figures

This film is about racism AND sexism. It tells the story of the amazing work done by three women of colour who worked at NASA during the space race with Russia in the ‘60s. All three were instrumental in some of NASA’s biggest achievements at the time. Definitely file under ‘feel good’ movie, but it’s also one that highlighted the true story of three women who dealt with ingrained racism and sexism in the most magnanimous, humbling way.

14. Blade Runner: 2049

Living up to the original film must be a tough gig, and it’s a brave director that takes on the challenge of giving us a sequel, but Denis Villeneuve, hot off of films such as Arrival, Sicario and Prisoners, thought himself up to the challenge. It helped that he had the legend that is Roger Deakins on cinematography duty. It’s too long, but a decent sequel and Gosling was a good fit.

15. The Lost City of Z

Based on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, and his forays into South America and the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city. The film is too long, but takes its time setting everything up, and has a real Apocalypse Now feel about it at times. Recommended.

16. What Happened To Monday

Netflix release, this film went under a lot of people’s radars but it’s pretty darn good. Starring Noomi Rapace it’s a sci-fi set in a world where families are only allowed one child, due to the population. Willem Defoe’s character ends up with seven identical girls, which he names after each day of the week. On their name day they take turns going out into the world. So Monday goes to work on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday and so on. Then Monday vanishes. It’s up to the remaining sisters to discover what happened. Outstanding performances from Rapace as all of the sisters.

17. okja

Okja, this year, was one of those modern oddities, in that it was released exclusively on Netflix and featured an A-list cast, including Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal. It tells the story of a world where food is scarce so a corporation grows super pigs. A girl becomes attached to hers and fights to save it from slaughter. Directed by Bong Joon-ho it’s supremely strange but lovingly told.


There’s also a rather hefty list of films I have yet to see. These are:

Dunkirk
Lady Macbeth
The Meyerowitz Stories
Call me by your name
The Florida Project
God’s Own Country
Personal Shopper
The Shape of Water
Mudbound
Raw
War For The Planet of The Apes
The Death of Stalin
La La Land
John Wick: Chapter 2
Logan Lucky
The Beguiled
Detroit
Elle
Jackie
The Handmaiden
Paddington 2
Manchester by the Sea
Split
Lion
Prevenge
The Love Witch
Collosal
My Cousin Rachel
Patti Cake$
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
A Cure For Wellness
Gerald’s Game

Wonder Woman: a review

Sitting in the pub with my partner after having just seen Wonder Woman, we got down to the tricky job of dissecting the latest DC offering in a balanced way, lest we get carried away with the hype. (I say we, I’d better recuse her from this review henceforth – as all these opinions are my own. And she’s die-hard Marvel anyway.)

Because when I say hype, I mean the fact that this is the first* superhero film (from Marvel or DC) to have a female lead (Gal Gadot) and director (Patty Jenkins).

*Captain Marvel will have a female lead, director and two female screenwriters, but it’s not out until 2019.

Which, in 2017, is a somewhat ridiculous state of affairs. I mean, how have studios ONLY NOW become dimly aware that women can create good movies that’ll get you a decent return on investment? They can write them, direct them, act in them and produce them. And audiences want to see them. What a revelation. It’s a crazy world in which we live; this Hollywood sausage fest.

But I digress. I’m a guy so I’m part of the patriarchy and thus part of the problem. And it is still a problem, as the backlash to the women-only screenings of the film have demonstrated.

So it’s clear we needed this film to do well.

Not only from a feminist point of view, but also commercially. Because after the slamming DC took with Batman v Superman and Man of Steel and Suicide Squad they badly needed a hit. Not that we can force this film to be good through sheer willpower, of course. But we can hope.

And happily, it’s decent. There you go, there’s my review. You can all go home now. Oh, you want more? Ok fine.

To bring you up to speed, Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, lives on a hidden island inhabited solely by women (Amazonians), which is led by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). We meet Diana as a wild child who wants to be a warrior, which is against her mother’s wishes. This is because the land in which they live was created by Zeus to protect them from the God of War, Ares. And Diana, of course, is special.

Then we jump ahead to her all grown up and now the best fighter on the island. She’s ready for a scrap but with no enemy. Luckily, WWI fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) literally crashes into her world; when his plane falls into the sea.

She rescues him and meets her first man. Then learns of the outside world and the fact that it’s engaged in the biggest war in history. Naturally, she suspects Ares is behind it and wants to help. So she joins Steve on his return to civilisation before they take on evil bad guys.

Plot wise, that’s the setup.

And suffice to say, after the relatively damp squib that was Suicide Squad (Margot Robbie aside), this story feels fresher. Perhaps because it’s simpler and the WWI setting helped. Perhaps because it’s got more humour than the last two DC movies. Whatever the case, it’s an exciting ride and fits comfortably in the middle of the DC pack. (Which is no bad thing, sitting behind, in my mind, the likes of The Dark Knight Rises and Watchmen.)

Gal Gadot very much looks the part, too. Lithe, limber, exotic, and immensely beautiful. The one question that hung over her is whether her acting chops were up to it? After all, she’d really just had a few Fast & Furious films to her name. For the most part she’s convincing in the role.

We have to remember she has a lot of screentime and needed to hold the audience throughout. It helped having Chris Pine alongside her and the two worked well together. Trevor as the weary spy, the realist, the pragmatist. Diana as the optimist, full of love and new to the world of man and his murky moralities.

And on the feminist front it has a few nice touches in the script. Such as when Steve and Diana discuss the ‘pleasures of the flesh’ and whether men are needed, other than for procreation. And when Diana is trying on clothes and remarks, ‘How am I meant to fight in this?’

Ultimately, this was a tough gig for both Patty Jenkins (who hadn’t directed since Monster in 2003) and Gal Gadot, to not only deliver a superhero film, but also ensure it was as feminist as it could be, and also got a big return for the studio. No pressure then. Happily it’s smashed the Box Office and seems to have been a reasonable hit with feminists.

I guess the question for DC is, what next? For if they’re clever they’ll introduce more female characters into their movies and, perhaps, it could be their unique selling point over Marvel?

You could argue that female superheroes are nothing new (Catwoman, Aeon Flux, Lara Croft), but this feels like a turning point. In that Hollywood are actually putting some effort, talent and budget into these movies now.