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.