THE action hero holds a special place in the average American cinema-goer’s heart.
Ever since the 1980s, audiences have been accustomed to hulking male figures, like Rambo and Terminator, dominating the screen and performing heroic feats to the backdrop of massive explosions.
These machismo-pumped action heroes, armed to the gills and ready to rack up a huge body count, managed to tap into the core of the American psyche. As well as providing jumbo entertainment, they have typically acted as beacons of individualist strength – violent, anti-authority and – by their own logic – just. In Rambo’s case, he could fire his way through an army of southeast Asian ‘baddies’ (as he did in First Blood Part II, 1985) and with it claim celluloid redemption for America’s humiliating and fracturing defeat in the Vietnam War.
This brand of male American action hero held a tight grip over the cinematic landscape and the imagination, just like the cowboy, for some time. So lasting is his impact, that the likes Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis have been able to hang out on our big-screen well into their senior years. Refusing to hang up their prop gun holsters and even teaming up in borderline satirical fashion for The Expendables franchise.
The same cannot be said of the female action star. A much rarer breed we have often had to wait years between each sighting. Between a defiant alien-flaming Sigourney Weaver and a gutsy sword-wielding Uma Thurman.
There does, however, appear to be a change in this testosterone-heavy tide.
Last week Lara Croft resurfaced after a 15-year absence to add to a quickly expanding roster of modern female action heroes. Tomb Raider sees Alicia Vikander, who mesmerised us as a sympathetic A.I in Ex Machina, and director Roar Uthaug reinvent the video-game inspired character from Angelina Jolie’s big-screen version.
Through casting alone, the 2018 Croft feels more grounded and accessible than Jolie’s. Moreover, the decision to make Tomb Raider an origin story only furthers this distinction by allowing us to see a more personal side of Croft. Bantering in the locker room and refusing to sign off her father’s death, she shows herself to be disarmingly likeable and humble. This is a Lara Croft – and an action hero – you could get a drink with.
We first meet her midway through a MMA sparing bout. Croft loses but not without a dogged fight. She demonstrates a blend of vulnerability and tenacity that continues through the film, even when she kicks into top action gear.
In her own words, Croft is not a superhero. Despite undergoing a quite remarkable physical transformation for the role, Vikander lacks cinema’s immediate signifiers of the action hero – a ballooning, vascular physique. She cannot compete in the same way Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman did, exuding a physical strength and authority to rival Rambo.
Vikander’s Croft is instead impressively agile – both physically and mentally. She relies on strong-willed determination, resourcefulness and emotion.
In this way she feels reminiscent of the best action hero of recent years – Charlize Theron’s Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. The one-armed Furiosa was by no means physically dominating. But what she lacked in muscularity, she made up for in War Rig mastery and gritty fortitude.
With the weight of heavy emotional stakes (just like Vikander’s Croft), Furiosa’s journey is a final role of the dice, a steely display that resonates on a deeper level amidst the thrills of exploding vehicles and George Miller’s aesthetically stunning wasteland. It is muscle-less action that thrives on excitement, guts and heart – but also fallibility. A quality the male action hero and, to a similar extent, the superhero is often lacking.
Tomb Raider may not be a faultless film, but the Croft character is strong enough to build on the momentum created by the overwhelming critical and commercial success Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman last summer.
Vikander now finds herself somewhere in the growing field of standout female action stars, including Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johansson (Avengers and Lucy), Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, X-Men), Charlize Theron (Mad Max and Atomic Blonde) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars). Action heroes who can spearhead a film or franchise. In doing so, shift big-screen expectations at a time when the treatment and positioning of women in film and throughout society is still a hot issue.
There are still, not to forget, a cluster of female comic book characters waiting in the wings. Most of which have taken ensemble or auxiliary roles like Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers), Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy), Tessa Thompson (Thor), Danai Gurira (Black Panther) and others.
Perhaps some of these characters will get the spotlight just as Brie Larsson’s Captain Marvel will next year. Although it is important not all of them come from Marvel or DC’s superhero conveyor belt. Just imagine Zendaya, Kristen Stewart, Lily James or even Emma Watson stepping into the action genre with another fresh female perspective.
The future of action films looks promising and more diverse than ever before. Time for the machismo action hero to share this evolving landscape or step to one side. The days of the female action hero have finally arrived.