Before Atomic Blonde: Selling Female Action Heroes

Last week Universal Pictures pulled out a number of stops to sell Atomic Blonde, an action-packed spy thriller starring Charlize Theron. Set during the Cold War 1980s, Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an agent of MI6 who must go into Berlin and evade enemies, friends-turned-enemies and other dangers to retrieve some form of Macguffin before it falls into the wrong hands, as these things are apt to do.

A good chunk of the marketing for the movie focused around how Theron was not only willing to do but capable of doing her own stunts. Interviews covered her training regime, featurettes showed her working out the fight choreography and more. While the formal campaign emphasized the sleek, stylized world of spycraft Theron’s Broughton operates in, the rest of it made sure audiences knew it was the actress herself who was doing the punching that’s seen on-screen.

That focus almost made it seem like this was the first time a movie campaign needed to sell the idea of a female action hero. The implied message seemed to be some version of “Women : They’re just like men.” which was…strange for 2017. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve been asked to see a woman kicking just as much hinder as a man would in a movie. It’s not even the first time this year (cough, Wonder Woman, cough). And it’s not the first time Theron has been at the center of the action.

To prove that point, let’s look at six other ways female action heroes have been positioned as the main value proposition for audiences.

The Young Adult Chosen One

If you’re not familiar with the name Katniss Everdeen, I’m not sure what to tell you. The Hunger Games made Jennifer Lawrence a household name after she was cast in the film adaptations of the popular young adult novels. While the Divergent series didn’t reach those box office heights (the final novel’s adaptation is rumored to be going to TV), it too positioned a young girl (Tris, played by Shailene Woodley) as the bright light leading the way out of a bleak, dystopian society. The trailers for the movies in both franchises featured the young women at the center of the stories engaging in equal amounts action and inspirational speeches. Both campaigns proved that fighting the good fight wasn’t just about inciting rebellion and disrupting the status quo but also shooting arrows and throwing punches when necessary.

Sci-Fi Queens

Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley weren’t the first actresses to lead their own science-fiction franchises. Before them came Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich, who took lead roles in the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises, respectively. The marketing of both these series has heavily featured the stars engaging in all sorts of special effects-driven action, whether it’s taking down Lycans or fighting against the evil Umbrella Corporation.

Angelina Jolie: Action Star

Jolie has become more political and socially-conscious with her films of late but the 2000s had her taking on a number of action roles. Between 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and 2010’s Salt, she starred in a number of movies that had her exercising her stunt muscles on-screen. Salt had her on the run after she’s accused of being a Russian spy (which may not even be illegal anymore) and the trailer pulls heavily from the scenes of her evading arrest by running, jumping and more. She’s positioned more as the sexy mentor in the trailer for 2008’s Wanted, but is still capable of curving a bullet if she needs to. She’s deadly and dangerous in the trailer for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where she plays one half of a married couple who don’t know the other one is also a spy.

Unstoppable and Out For Revenge

Anyone compiling a list of cinematic grievance has to put “That we only got one Haywire movie” somewhere near the top. The trailer shows Mallory Kane (MMA star Gina Carano) as a government operative out for revenge after she’s betrayed by those in power. Similarly the trailers for both parts of the Kill Bill films makes it clear The Bride (Uma Thurman) has been wronged and it out to address her grievances with those she formerly called teammates. That quest ends with a confrontation with Bill (Keith Carradine) himself, but not before Thurman has shown herself quite capable at swordplay.

Solo Action Stars

It’s not as if the female action hero is a new innovation. In 1993 Bridget Fonda starred in Point of No Return, the American remake of La Femme Nikita. As the trailer shows, Nina (Fonda) is a force to be reckoned with, even before she received the training to become an assassin. The trailer for the French-language original takes a different tack that’s much more dramatic than action-packed. And we can’t go without mentioning the one-chick hit squad that is Foxy Brown. The trailer features enough jive talk that you might need Barbara Billingsley to translate, but the message that Foxy is not to be trifled with comes through loud and clear. Finally, there’s this year’s Wonder Woman, which had an entire campaign that wasn’t about Gal Gadot’s training regime but about how compassion and love spur the hero to enter the world of men to fight for the helpless.

The Alien Gold Standard

No, the female action star is not exclusive to the years post 1990. Foxy Brown predates it, but the mold of this particular kind of hero was cast in the Alien franchise (pre-Prometheus, of course) with the iconic Sigourney Weaver. The trailer for the 1979 original may not show very much of Ripley as it’s more focused on the general chaos on board the alien-infested space craft. But by 1986 with the trailer for Aliens things had changed and Ripley’s combat skills come to the forefront. She’s more the inspirational leader and the one who warns of danger in the trailer for Alien 3, but that was a very different movie, going back to being more about hidden terror than mech-suit battles. By the time Fox was marketing Alien: Resurrection Ripley was positioned as a creepy artificial construct, not a hero with her own agency.

2 Comments on “Before Atomic Blonde: Selling Female Action Heroes

  1. love that you included Bridget Fonda/Point of No Return – for some reason that one is one of my favorites of those listed here (maybe year released/age watching?). Looking forward to seeing Atomic Blonde!

  2. Pingback: This Week on Cinematic Slant – Chris Thilk

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