Ed Power: Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde proves there's an appetite for hard-punching action movies starring women
Action cinema has traditionally been a man's world. From James Bond to Jason Bourne via Rambo and whatever variation of his screen persona Arnold Schwarzenegger happened to be playing at any particular moment, the genre was dominated by slap-happy chappies - typically toting a rocket launcher and bottomless supply of pithy wisecracks.
But there are signs that, after decades of gruff machismo, this blokiest of movie categories might be getting in touch with its feminine side. Consider that the summer's highest grossing film, Wonder Woman, both stars and is directed by a woman.
This weekend's big release, meanwhile, is Charlize Theron's Atomic Blonde, in which the South African actress plays a take-no-prisoners Cold War spy. Seven days from now, Netflix's The Defenders will, for its part, see cool-as-ice superhero Jessica Jones team up with the much less interesting boy's club of Luke Cage, Daredevil and Iron Fist.
These franchises, it should be noted, are not the first to put a dent in action cinema's glass ceiling. In 1986's Aliens, Sigourney Weaver memorably faced off with the xenomorph queen. And the first two Terminator movies - as with Aliens, directed by James Cameron - gave us Sarah Connor, waitress-turned rifle-waggling saviour of mankind.
What's especially interesting about Atomic Blonde is that it arrives when the stock of the conventional action film has never been lower.
Arnold Schwarzenegger can't get his career back off the ground; Sylvester Stallone is condemned to a purgatory of old-timer-filled Expendables sequels and Rocky spin-offs. The last time you saw Jean-Claude Van Damme, it was in a beer commercial. The muscle-bound action hulk is a dying breed.
Superheroes, it is true, continue to soar. The upcoming Thor Ragnorak promises to be a testosterone-soaked buddy pic featuring the eponymous Norse god and his new bestie, the Incredible Hulk. Guardians Of The Galaxy 2, the second biggest summer smash after Wonder Woman, was moreover built on the bromantic charms of Chris Pratt.
Nonetheless, Wonder Woman is perceived as changing the conversation about women in big-screen punch-fests. On the heels of its scorching box-office run, the forthcoming Justice League film was extensively reshot to give more screen-time to Gal Gadot's high-kicking Amazon. And in 2019 Alicia Vikander takes the title role in the Lara Croft reboot, while Brie Larson will star as Captain Marvel, to be co-directed by Anna Boden.
"For our films to be successful and make a lot of money, as well as having a female lead, sends a huge message to the world that this is something possible," said Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. "People are watching and paying attention."
The success of Atomic Blonde - it has already grossed $50 million worldwide - for its part shows mainstream films are increasingly open to challenging gender stereotypes. As coolly laconic spy Lorraine Broughton, Theron cuts an impressively mad and bad figure. An already iconic fight scene halfway through sees her punching, stabbing and gouging two heavily armed male opponents - defeating them not with Schwarzenegger brutishness but with street-smarts and determination.
"Because she's a woman and she's fighting men, if they use one hand she will use two," explained Atomic Blonde director David Leitch.
"If they throw one punch, she'll throw three - or use the environment around her to gain an advantage... part of the problem is that many directors treat female characters too often as precious," he added. "Or they want to live in a fantasy world where they just do spinning hook kicks and knock out guys who are 6ft 4in, and that doesn't work either."
"I don't think we've ever given women a fair shot to really have the opportunities to take on roles like these," said Theron, who also made for a memorable action anti-hero in Mad Max: Fury Road (right). I remember seeing Sigourney Weaver in Alien when I was young, and it really left an impression on me. Tons more women could be amazing if they just had the opportunity."
"There's a definite push in popular discourse towards female representation - which we can only absolutely support, even if it is also 'hip'," says Dr Ciara Barrett of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media at NUI Galway. "And at the same time, as 'sincere' iterations of the thriller/action hero films in particular see more female protagonists - e.g. Wonder Woman, Furiosa (Mad Max) - we see more 'complicated' men like X-Men's Wolverine, or men who can make fun of themselves and the genre, like the casts of Baby Driver and Baywatch. Maybe the last 'straight' male action hero retired with Liam Neeson in Taken 3. But male action heroes haven't disappeared.
"The next thing I think we're going to see regarding action cinema, and female heroes therein, is a proliferation of female-directed films - and I think it's going to be really interesting to look back in five years' time at how the genre has changed as a result, provided this trend in female direction continues. Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Woman; Anna Boden is co-directing Captain Marvel for 2019. Maybe I'm too hopeful that actually represents a 'trend'.
"It stands to reason that female representation behind the camera affects female representation onscreen, but, unfortunately, we don't have significant enough numbers yet to yield significant results."
Let's not credit Hollywood too much, however. Audiences have made it clear they want greater diversity in their screen heroes. The industry is bowing to demand, not shaping it. "The growth of female-led action films might be understood as an institutional response to public appetite for less uniformity in mainstream films in regards to characters," says Dr Sarah Arnold, lecturer in media studies at NUI Maynooth.
"Hollywood studios will invest in films so long as they are perceived as profitable. f audiences have demonstrated their enthusiasm for female action heroes and they have proven financially successful elsewhere, then Hollywood will follow, even if it won't necessarily lead.
"Hollywood studios have been under a lot of pressure of late, with organisations such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media lobbying the industry to recognise its own shortcomings and to recognise the financial viability and success of female-led films."
Moreover, female action heroes are still required to be conventionally attractive. Only when a woman can appear on screen as beaten up as Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis will true equality have been achieved.
"We could argue that this year's Wonder Woman - directed by a female - is played by a conventionally beautiful actress and therefore doesn't offer a departure from the pin-up-look of the leading female," says Dr Aileen O'Driscoll of the school of communications at DCU and a founder of Dublin's Feminist Film Festival.
"But the fact that the film is populated so heavily by women, and is strongly predicated on a collective idea of women as a self-sustaining and powerful community, still remains significant and rare."