As The Expendables 3 gets set to hit theatres in a few weeks, the recent online leak notwithstanding, rumblings of the upcoming female version of the popular franchise are bubbling up yet again. Before you run out and light those fireworks that spell out “FINALLY” in the clear night sky, take a moment to really think about it. Does it not seem a little too cart before the horse? How can we really get excited for an all gal based Expendables when we have not quite reached the cinematic golden age of female action characters yet? We are getting close though.
The primary allure of The Expendables series is the nostalgia it evokes for the blow them up first and ask questions later nature of the testosterone laden 80s action films. An era when guys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Wills ruled the box office playing characters named Rambo, Dutch and McClane. Even second tier heroes played by Norris, Segal, and Bronson left a notable mark in theatres and on Blockbuster rental shelves. Not every film they made was a hit, frankly some were downright awful. Still, each actor’s filmography had enough fisticuffs and explosions to stir up lengthy “who would win in a fight” debates.
Unfortunately actresses, for the most part, did not get to participate in the fun. For years the major studios tried to, and still do to a certain extent, sell us the lies that: 1) women do not like action movies, and 2) men are only inclined to watch action films that star white males in the lead. As a result female characters were regulated to nothing more than the attractive love interest who undoubtedly needs saving at some point.
Looking for a fun drinking game? Gather some friends together and start listing iconic action films one by one. Anytime a film is mentioned where the lead actress is captured everyone must take a shot. You can thank me for the hangover in the morning.
This is not to say that there were not women who helped to break through the wall of oversized biceps and overcompensating guns. To this day Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, from Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day respectively, are frequently cited as the pinnacle of strong females in action films. Years before Gina Carano wowed audiences with her physical prowess in Haywire, Cynthia Rothrock was beating down her male counterparts in films like China O’Brien and Tiger Claws. To say progress has been slow since is a major understatement. Outside of Angelina Jolie, there has been a long drought in regards to female leads carrying action heavy films.
Thankfully the tap is finally opening and we are beginning to quench our thirst for kick-ass female characters on-screen.
While the momentum has been building slowly, 2014 truly feels like we are on the precipice of the golden age of female action characters. The fact that a film like Lucy dominated the box office in its opening weekend, including wiping its feet all over Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Hercules no less, and left audiences giddy in the process warms the heart. Say what you will about the film’s plot being silly, but the fact of the matter is studios only care about their return on investment…and Lucy brought in big returns.
People spoke with their wallets and they spoke loudly. Considering that Lucy opened in a year where female led films like Divergent and Maleficent pulled in big numbers, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is almost guaranteed to dominate in the fall, studios have no choice but to take notice. The interesting thing is that, this year, female characters have had audiences cheering even in more male-centric films.
Audiences raved about Scarlett Johansson’s work as Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier just as much as they did for Chris Evan’s shield wielding hero. Though the underappreciated sci-fi gem Edge of Tomorrow did not light up theatres financially, Emily Blunt’s Special Forces warrior Rita completely stole the show from Tom Cruise. Eva Green and Lena Headey took 300 Rise of an Empire to number one in its opening weekend. While Zoe Saldana showed once again that she can tussle with anyone by playing Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Even the criminally under seen animated film How to Train Your Dragon 2 had a wonderfully well-rounded character in Valka. Voice by Cate Blanchett, Valka is a nurturer and a fierce warrior who added a rich and fascinating layer to the film. I am sure there will be those who cite The Lego Movie’s Wyldstyle as another example as well. Though I disagree with her inclusion, that is an argument for another day.
The point is, so far, it has been the women who have been the bright spot for many of the action related films of 2014. It is another step which brings hope that we are getting even closer to a new golden age where strong female characters will be leading films to box office glory. I long for the day when people will discuss Johansson versus Saldana, or countless other female action stars, with the same second nature ease that comes with all those Stallone versus Schwarzenegger debates.
There is still a lot of work to do as studios are currently stuck in their comic book adaptations tunnel vision. However, as long as audiences keep spending their dollars on films like Lucy, Maleficent, Divergent and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 in record numbers, then the major companies will have no choice but to produce more content that meets the demand. The golden age of female action characters is not here yet, but hopefully it is very close.
I’ve been hearing a lot about the all-female version and I have mixed thoughts. I do enjoy seeing some action girls but according to IMDB the premise involves them posing as prostitutes and that combined with the working title (ExpendaBELLES, get it?) suggests they might be looking for excuses to oversexualize things.
What I honestly don’t get is why such a film is necessary. Why did the first film have to have the team be made up entirely of men? Would it have really killed the filmmakers to write two or three of the mercenaries as women?
I think I see what you’re getting at with the way Hollywood likes to pretend action movies are only for men. They seem to have the same view towards firefighters (http://hitchcocksworld.blogspot.ca/2014/05/female-firefighters-dont-exist.html).
Still, at least we have gotten a few great action girls here and there: Ripley in Aliens (and Alien, to a lesser extent), Sarah Connor, Trinity, Lara Croft, Xena, Sif, Black Widow, Rita in Edge of Tomorrow. Lots of great choices.
Hopefully they do not follow through with that particular plot. Essentially turning the women into characters from a Russ Meyers film would be a huge mistake. It reminds me of The Catwoman film starring Halle Berry. They focused more on putting her in a skimpy outfit rather than giving her a sensible plot to work with.
As for your examples of strong female characters, I am a little sad that they never Xena film. Considering how popular that show was the studio missed out on a golden opportunity.
Great article, Courtney. When I think of kick ass women, you have to give credit to Tarantino for creating all his women strong. Uma Thurman in Kill Bill always comes to mind. I also admire Asian film makers for making their women strong. Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh are two beautiful, strong-as-they-come stars for me.
Tarantino has done a good job of having kick-ass females in both Kill Bill and Death Proof. You are right about Asian directors being ahead on the curve. They have had strong female characters in their action films for years. It is actually shameful that Hollywood is only now starting to catch up in that regards.
I’m glad there’s women kicking ass as I really do think there should be a female version of The Expendables made but with Meryl Streep leading the pack with a bunch of top actresses and to be helmed by Kathryn Bigelow.
That would be pretty cool, but it would be nice if they could find a premise that didn’t involve oversexualizing everyone.
A Kathryn Bigelow take on The Expendables, any version, would be awesome. I like the idea of Meryl Streep being in the film, but only if it was in a Chuck Norris style cameo. I envision her being the scene stealer in the film…similar to how Helen Mirren was in Red.
Exactly. Michael Bay’s version of that would be to introduce women by having a shot of them in short-short daisy dukes and a close-up of their asses or their cleavage. He is so evil.
I agree we’re getting closer to the golden age. Gwen Stacy is another example of that.
But, as a minor point, I would take Valga off the list. See this site for why:
Having just watched The Amazing Spider-Man 2 last night, I would not include Gwen Stacey personally. She is too much of a passenger for most of the film. By time she does jump into action, it is so implausible that I ultimately felt nothing for her in the end. I would love to see Emma Stone in a Black Cat movie, at least then she would have something to actually do in the film.
That was a great piece by The Dissolve. I still think Valka deserves a little more credit than Tasha Robinson gives her, but I can understand her point of view.
Then, I guess we’re mildly disagreeing on both characters. I think Gwen a supporting player, certainly, but not a passenger. She is not idly sitting by, waiting for Peter. She’s taking initiative to apply for a scholarship that will have her move out of country. She’s getting a good resume-padder at Oscorp and then taking initiative to search the database for Max. Earlier, she’s listening to Peter’s insecurities, trying to raise him up before finally losing patience and concluding with, “I break up with you,” which is, in every way, the opposite of making everything better for him. Later, Peter comes to get her council, and she is pre-occupied, mostly interested in getting rid of him, right up until he’s about to say he loves her.
She isn’t there just to be rescued by Peter or endangered by the villains. And she isn’t there simply to be the tool upon which Peter rebuilds his battered psyche (see, in my opinion, Valka’s purpose in How to Train 2). Gwen is a vibrant character, one with her own motivations and aspirations, only one of which is being with Peter.
And then, in the end, she serves a purpose in the story.
I think she’s easily the best developed character in Spider-Man 2, considerably better than Peter and far better than any of the other names.
Yep we are on opposite ends on this one. Put I see your points though.
I think both characters help to build up the male leads’ confidence/psyche to a certain point. At least Valka has spent the last twenty years saving many of the dragons she cares for, or so we are told, from poachers like Drago. She also takes part in the battle outside the dragon sanctuary. Yes she loses when going toe-to-toe with Drago, but at least she attempts to face him head on. Plus, if I remember correct, none of the characters really beat him one on one.
I agree that Gwen is the best developed character in Spdey 2. She is an intelligent individual who is stronger than Peter from an emotional standpoint. She even gives Peter a good tip regarding magnetizing his web-shooter. Despite these good qualities, she spends a good portion of the film blissfully putting herself into dangerous situations. First she stands idly by a metal guardrail as random electrical bolts fly everywhere and Time Square collapses around her. Gwen may have taking initiative to search the database but it is Peter who must save her from the security guards. Plus, the information she gathers is nothing more than “they deleted him from the system” …which ultimately does little to further the plot. Worst of all, after all the talk about Gwen knowing the grid better than anyone, in the final battle her role is basically to turn a key and push a button. You could have substituted anyone in that scene and the results would be the exact same. Especially since Harry does not show up until a few minutes later.
While I loved the non-costume scenes of flirtation and romantic conflict between Gwen and Peter, I had major issues with the film. Granted, Gwen is the least of my qualms, in the grand scheme of things, but the film as a whole left me angry.
I don’t really like Spiderman 2 either. It’s not good and certainly misses many opportunities.
But Gwen is a good character, a point on which I don’t know that we really disagree all that much. Seems you’re criticizing the movie more than the character. Take one of your points: yes Gwen throws herself into repeated dangerous situations. But not because she’s been asked to by the male lead – she does it because she makes her own choices. She gets herself into trouble and ultimately pays for it. Because of what she chooses to do. (This is the first lesson in Creative Writing classes – everything that happens to your character should be a direct result of their decisions, not random chance.)
Take another of your arguments. Yes anyone could have turned the key in that grid scene. But that isn’t on Gwen the character – that’s on lazy writing for not capitalizing on previous merits.
As to Valka. Her plot-based purpose (saving dragons) all happens off screen. We don’t see any of it. Her plot based purpose on screen is nil. In the end she doesn’t help win the battle – she tries and fails. The only thing she helps with is hurriedly rebuilding the male hero.
Therein is the difference between the two. You can criticize the way Spidey’s writers have Gwen help Peter fight – that’s fair game, because their execution is sloppy. But I don’t think we can deny that she helps him. She doesn’t stand around, make a speech that makes him happy, and then disappear. She actually DOES something useful.
Oh. I will say, On Valka. I think Valka has potential to be a great character. She is set up to be complicated.
I just DeBois wastes her by trying to tell two feature worthy stories in one film.
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