First off, I want to be clear about this: I am absolutely here for any and all movies and TV shows that feature women helming their own action/adventure stories. Give me more Haywires, Mad Max: Fury Roads and the like. I’d tune in every week (or buy an iTunes season pass or binge on Netflix) a series that for once featured a quirky, socially-dysfunctional woman helping the police solve crimes over yet another white guy whose name I struggle to remember.
So I was excited to see the trailer for Atomic Blonde debut last week. The movie, which is debuting at SXSW, stars Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent during the Cold War who’s sent to Berlin to secret an important document out of the city, relying on her wits and skills to do so.
(Brief sidenote: Is James McAvoy playing Jai Courtney playing a part here? I swear he’s sporting the same coat and beard Courtney wore in Suicide Squad. Let’s move on…)
The initial write-ups of the trailer mostly seemed to want to call this the “female John Wick” since it’s yet another story of someone who’s hyper-competent at killing people without blinking an eye. That’s an easy journalistic shorthand to create some sort of relatable touchpoint for the audience, especially given how the Keanu Reeves-starring sequel just recently came out. If this had been released last August the headlines might have read “female Jason Bourne.”
And that right there is the first problem I have. The press has immediately framed this as a derivative of a male-starring movie, thereby putting it into second-class status. This hasn’t been intentional, I know, but still the potential repercussions of doing so are vast. If we get months of this sort of narrative construction in the media then that will seep into the minds of the audience, who may pass on it because “Meh, it just looks like a female John Wick.” That then leads to this movie under-performing and less willingness on the part of studios to greenlight female-driven movies that aren’t titled with the names of holidays.
To put it more simply: Writers and editors have a play a huge role in the success of movies simply by how they frame the narratives around those movies. Don’t undermine something with sexist wording, however unintentional.
The second problem I have is that Atomic Blonde is being sold in a way that’s 180 degrees from the initial marketing of John Wick. If you go back and watch the trailer for the 2014 original, the one that introduced us to the mysterious assassin, you’ll notice that nowhere does he engage in any homesexual sex. Nowhere is there a lingering camera shot of him attaching a listening device to his body while wearing lace undergarments. Nowhere does he emerge naked from a bathtub amidst cool, soft lighting. No, instead Wick is presented as a cool, efficient gunman who gets the job done without the studio showing us his body every 25 seconds.
Perhaps the better comparison would be to James Bond. After all that long-lived super-spy has often used sex to get the inside track on his targets, seducing jilted wives and bored secretaries to get the information he needs in a way that’s similar to how Theron’s Lorraine Broughton does in the AB trailer. Even there, though, the trailers for the last few entries in that franchise have seemingly taken pains to *not* focus on Bond’s knack for falling into bed with every beautiful woman who crosses his path. A similar point can be made about the marketing for the Bourne franchise, which has certainly shown he has some love interests but there isn’t the lingering, sexualized fascination on his body that’s obvious a central theme of the Blonde trailer.
There’s little other conclusion to come to than that someone at some point, whether it was a writer, director, producer or other studio executive, felt that in order to sell the movie the focus needed to be focused on Theron’s body. But that’s not the only way to get people out to a female-led action movie. The trailer for 2011’s Haywire, starring Gina Carano and directed by Steven Soderbergh, doesn’t take that approach at all. Neither do the trailers for this year’s upcoming Wonder Woman. There is another way, it’s just not being taken here.
This isn’t me being a prude. It’s not an attempt to impose some sort of religious-based morality on movies and the women who star in them. The free expression of one’s sexuality, whatever it is, is good and important. The Atomic Blonde trailer, though, seems to play it for titillation, something to get the same crowd of excitable gamers and hard-core action fans that made John Wick into an instant cult classic to turn out. If a woman wants to show off her body in a way that she’s comfortable with, she has the right. If she doesn’t, she has that right as well.
This isn’t the “female John Wick.” Nor is it the “female Jason Bourne” or anything else that makes it seem like a second-rate knock off of a male-led action series. It can and should stand on its own two feet. And any comparisons to what’s come before should be made while fully conscious of the very different tactics being used to raise awareness and interest in each movie being cited.