“American Assassin” opens in theaters this weekend, and it tells a story audiences have heard before: A tragic loss turns a broken young man into a reluctant hero. It’s the same formula that turned Bruce Wayne into Batman, James Bond into 007, and pulls John Wick out of retirement and on a bloody path toward vengeance. Still, despite stiff competition from “It,” audience will go see Dylan O’Brien get mentored by a gruff and reluctant Michael Keaton, hunt down terrorists, and save the day. But that courtesy is rarely extended when women are put into similar circumstances.
When the first trailer for “Red Sparrow” arrived on Sept. 14, it teased Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian ballerina who is recruited by the Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service that trains young people like her to use their bodies and minds as weapons. If the plot sounds familiar, it should. It’s very similar to the background of Marvel’s Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, the femme-fatale character played by Scarlett Johansson, who is trained to become an assassin from a young age in the Red Room, a covert Russian spy program. Romanoff was given false memories to instill loyalty, and she believed herself to be a ballerina.
Understandably, the reaction to “Red Sparrow,” while generally positive, also included some criticism about the plot similarities. Comments like “Isn’t this just Black Widow?” or “We already have Black Widow” began flooding the internet. Others claimed that there was no need for “Red Sparrow” because “Atomic Blonde” already came out earlier this year. There was also mention of Johansson’s role in “Lucy” and Angelina Jolie’s spy-thriller “Salt.”
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
While none of these comments will actually prevent “Red Sparrow” from being released, they do hint at a troubling double standard when it comes to badass women on the big screen: that one great character is enough. But was James Bond enough? Was Jack Ryan enough? Was Jason Bourne enough? Was John Wick enough? On average, audiences never seem to question the proliferation of male action heroes, no matter how basic their packaging, no matter how much they seem like carbon copies of one another, slightly altered and kitted out with enough flashy technology to seem distinct enough. When it comes to women, this courtesy is never extended. Put Jennifer Lawrence in an ice-blonde wig and suddenly it’s “Well, we already had ‘Atomic Blonde.'” Never an homage, never influenced by, just a rip-off.
There doesn’t seem to be much room for women when it comes sequels either. While news that “John Wick” was greenlit for a third film is certainly a great thing, female-led actions films, with the exception of “Wonder Woman,” haven’t been as lucky in recent years. Where is the Furiosa “Mad Max” movie? Where are the “Salt” and “Haywire” sequels? To use the adage that “audiences don’t want more of the same” against female characters, while churning out sequel upon sequel for male characters, seems pointed. Male characters can falter at the box office and get a franchise, while women have to over-perform for a single sequel.
With “Red Sparrow” and Taraji P. Henson’s “Proud Mary” both slated for release next year, audiences will get to see two women kicking ass on the big screen, one of whom is a black woman. This isn’t one too many; quite frankly, it’s not enough. But hopefully it’s a positive sign of things to come, where more than one ass-kicking woman can thrill us on the big screen.