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What the Success of ‘Atomic Blonde’ Means for the Future of Female-Led Action Movies

The Charlize Theron-starring feature is the latest female-centric actioner to hit theaters; is the industry finally getting hip to women who kick ass?

Atomic Blonde (2017)Charlize Theron

“Atomic Blonde”

Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

With the Charlize Theron-starring “Atomic Blonde” exploding into theaters this weekend (opening night tally: $1.5 million), four members of IndieWire’s film team traded emails on what this summer’s latest female-led action movie means for the future of the genre.

DAVID EHRLICH: I think people tend to talk about the future of female-driven action movies because it always seems like we’re waiting for them to come into their own, waiting for Hollywood to produce them with enough regularity that they no longer feel like the exception to the rule. To that point, there’s an understandable hesitation to declare that the future of female-driven action movies is here, as there’s a danger in using one kickass victory for representation as a smokescreen to obscure the pervasive sexism that continues to infect the entertainment industry.

Having said all that…at long last, I think we’re finally living in the present of female-driven action movies. They’re here, and they’re everywhere. The patriarchy is being smashed from inside the house. “Wonder Woman” was such a watershed moment because Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot were breaking into a very particular, very influential, very gender-stratified genre, but Diana Prince is hardly the only game in town.

“Wonder Woman”

2017 began with “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,” in which torchbearer Milla Jovovich retired the stubbornly iconic action heroine she’s played for 15 years and lit the way for the women who have followed in her footsteps. “Ghost in the Shell” was severely problematic, but it contributed to the consistent drumbeat of female-driven blockbusters all the same. “Kong: Skull Island” is a terrible movie, but it was almost worth it to see Brie Larson firing that flare gun with such authority. Almost. The bonkers and under-appreciated “Alien: Covenant” continued that franchise’s proud tradition of celebrating female strength and tenacity, while Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” only came to life when Cara Delevingne’s character muscled her way to the fore.

And so we arrive at the neon glory of “Atomic Blonde,” a low-budget, high body count delight from one of the madmen behind “John Wick.” While the title of the film may call explicit attention to the gender of its protagonist (played with bone-crunching resolve by Charlize Theron), the film itself does very little to cast her as an outlier. On the contrary, it nimbly threads (or sutures) the needle between reckoning with the character’s feminine mystique and exploiting it — her gender isn’t incidental, but it’s also not her defining quality. As a result, “Atomic Blonde” never feels gimmicky, never feels like a one-off, never feels like the kind of movie that could be accurately described as a female twist on some dick-swinging male classic. This is just what an action movie looks like in 2017.

The war for proper representation is hardly over, but this is one fight that women might be well on their way towards winning.

JUDE DRY: I agree that we may have reached a saturation point. There are finally enough female-led action movies that we can ignore the bad and only celebrate the good — which is where “Atomic Blonde” comes in. The character of Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is effortlessly cool, blowing smoke in the faces of her so-called superiors, and never up their asses. There were so many things the movie got right; that thrilling one-take action sequence, which boasted a few genuine laugh out loud moments (like every time Lorraine nearly collapses before getting in one last punch), and though the 1989 Berlin setting feels like a hip backdrop, Leitch doesn’t brush over the fundamental liberties that are at stake.

But in assessing a female-driven action movie, it’s just as important to single out what Leitch didn’t do. Lorraine isn’t objectified int he movie; by the other characters or the camera. She is clothed fully in a long trench coat and black turtleneck, probably one of the least revealing outfits a woman action star has ever worn. She doesn’t seduce anyone in exchange for information, or play dumb while distracting a source with her cleavage, and no men in the film even make the mildest of comment about her looks. Her romantic subplot happens to be with a woman, which is also treated with little fanfare. The same-sex affair is neither overly emotional or strictly sexual, and at no point does the movie suggest Lorraine would prefer a man.

Kong Skull Island

“Kong: Skull Island”

Warner Bros.

The lesbian sex scene is just hot enough to get people talking, but remains just this side of tasteful. Though perhaps an obvious play at nerdy fanboys, it’s inoffensive enough to allow lesbian viewers to relax and enjoy as well. What a victory that our first female James Bond delivers the goods — hand to hand combat and a sexy French spy.

CHRIS O’FALT: Clearly the desire for female-led action films has always been there, but now that the studios are seeing financial rewards (shocking how that works) from “Wonder Woman” and presumably “Atomic Blonde,” it’s hard to imagine there won’t be still more coming. I’m somewhat hopeful this demand can result in Hollywood, led by women, making a different type of action film.

Beyond adding female characters — and writers and directors?! — it welcomes a different perspective and storytelling voice. Just seeing Jenkins and Gadot move the D.C. hero needle from wallowing self-sacrifice to a joyful sense of life and the need to protect it, one hopes women can remove the pall of darkness and seriousness that’s been hanging over superhero movies since “The Dark Knight.” Since the big comic book properties have been just as bad at developing female characters as Hollywood, I’m also hopeful that studios will seek out fresh source material (like “Atomic Blonde”) outside the well-established and tired franchise brands, or (shhhhh!) even original scripts.

Ever since action films started to become a Hollywood staple in the ’80s, there’s been this fetish with brawn, as if Sly and Arnold’s oversized muscles made the explosions and stunts more believable. And still today, we watch Damon, Pratt, and Hemsworth not only get in shape, but by transform their bodies adding 20 pounds of muscle. What we see with Charlize Theron in “Atomic Blonde,” and a dancer like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, is what makes for better action stars is agility and the talent to maintain and consistently choreography. This also applies to scenes where the action develops inside the frame and the viewer has a more visceral and visual satisfying experience compared to the heavily edited, handheld substitute.

KATE ERBLAND: This summer has unquestionably proven the appetite for action films led by ass-kicking women — “Wonder Woman” alone proved that, and now here comes “Atomic Blonde” to really drive the point home with a swift kick to the, well, wherever — but I have to echo the sentiment that what will really be the next big step are more films that don’t just substitute a woman in a traditionally male role, instead expanding out the genre and adding new dimension to it. It’s easy and cool to call “Atomic Blonde” a “female James Bond movie” and the parallels between “Wonder Woman” and a traditional Superman movie are obvious and intentional, but I’m eager for new kinds of heroes. That’s how you sustain this momentum.

When “Bridesmaids” proved to be a smash hit in 2011, suddenly everyone was convinced that we were bound for a golden age of women-centric comedies, but that never really panned out. Or, if it is, it’s only doing so years later, with something like “Girls Trip” breaking out in a crowded summer field. The movies we saw after “Bridesmaids” that centered on women tended to crib from the first film’s formula, and while it’s nice to see more of the kind of stuff we like, it’s far more satisfying to see those themes and ideas pushed ever-outward. More is sometimes just more, audiences also want different.

No, I won’t complain if the next year or so breeds a slew of other spy movies that feature women as their leads or superheroines with hearts of gold, but I will be sad if that’s what we’re still getting in five years. This is just one step forward, even if it is one that lands with a pretty hefty punch.

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