“Atomic Blonde” proves female action heroes are just more fun to watch

Don’t mess with this woman.
Don’t mess with this woman.
Image: Universal Pictures
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Every man is supposed to want to be James Bond. Handsome, dashing, unflappable in the face of danger and irresistible to beautiful women, the action hero is one of pop culture’s most iconic blueprints for masculinity. Now the movie Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a sexy, sleek, unstoppable super-spy, has promised to give audiences a “female Bond.” Which may seem a little odd. After all, if James Bond is a masculine fantasy, shouldn’t he be played by a man? 

The answer, as it turns out, is—rather gleefully—”no.” James Bond, for all his virtues, tends to render his films inert through the very blandness of his masculine perfection. Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is less physically imposing and less predictable. Therefore her triumphs, via brains or brawn, are a lot more satisfying. James Bond, it turns out, would have been better if he’d been Jane Bond the whole time.

Atomic Blonde is set in 1989, at the very end of the Cold War. Lorraine lives a life very different from that of a classic Bond hero. She does not jet-set around the world, oozing money and aspirational class. Instead, the entire film is set in the street-level grime of Berlin, in the shadow of the wall.

Bond, the masterful man, occupies a glossy, high-tech environment. He uses nifty dart-shooting watches; makes clean, efficient kills; and lobs dry quips while leaping between rooftops. Lorraine is impossibly cool too; this is Charlize Theron playing her, after all. But Lorraine is also, in part because of her gender, coded as vulnerable. The camera lingers throughout the film on Theron’s battle-scarred face, including a nasty black eye. One of the first shots of the movie is of a naked Lorraine emerging from a bathtub full of ice, revealing cuts and bruises on her back. The viewer (male or female, given the film’s bisexual scenes) is meant to both desire Lorraine and to feel sympathy for her.

Tough, vulnerable women who fight against overwhelming odds aren’t generally the main focus of James Bond films. But they’re not new to the screen. They’re central, for example, to slasher films like Halloween or Alien. In those movies, monsters chase the Final Girl throughout the runtime, slavering and terrifying, until the desperate, beaten protagonist finally turns the tables and turns the phallic knife on her pursuer.

In her 1993 study of horror films Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argued that slasher films manipulate gender roles to create exciting, sometimes deliberately perverse power fantasies. Slashers often star women, because women are seen as more vulnerable, thus heightening the horror as they are pursued and threatened. But Clover argues that men who watch these films aren’t rooting for the monster—the movies put them in the position of identifying with the woman being attacked. The reversal, when the woman stabs the monster and wins, offers a visceral rush. Suddenly the disempowered woman takes the traditional position of the empowered, traditionally masculine hero. That’s an exciting narrative for men, women, and everybody else.

Clover’s book suggests, in fact, that women protagonists make for better, more viscerally satisfying film fantasies. It’s more exciting to watch a character evolve from seemingly disempowered to empowered, or submissive to dominant, than it is to watch a male character exert effortless mastery for the whole darn film.

Atomic Blonde is very aware of this dynamic. Lorraine’s bisexuality is handled with welcome matter-of-factness. But it also provides an avenue through which she can be desired at some points, desiring at others. In one scene, a guy tries to pick Lorraine up in a bar; she turns him down in favor of Delphine (Sofia Boutella), the woman who turns out to be her main romantic interest. In other words, first Lorraine is the woman scoped out by a James Bond-type; then she gets to be the sexually aggressive James Bond herself, pushing Delphine up against a wall for a heavy make-out session. That makes just being James Bond, stuck in one sexual role in film after film, look kind of dull.

The fight scenes also, very self-consciously, make use of Lorraine’s apparent vulnerability to ramp up tension and increase the satisfaction when she starts kicking ass. The choreography in general is inventive, but the most masterful set-piece is a grueling, exhausting, exhilarating knock-down brawl in multiple stairwells, with Lorraine increasingly bloody and exhausted, staggering over and against equally exhausted KGB antagonists, all of whom can barely stand, much less fight. One bad guy, who thinks he’s finally won, calls Lorraine his bitch. When she finally wins, Lorraine tells him with satisfaction, “Am I your bitch now?” This is why people watch spy films: so you can feel what it’s like to be the person on top.

What sometimes gets lost in the Bond films, however, is that stabbing the other spy with the ice pick is even more empowering when you genuinely think you may get stabbed yourself.  That’s why Atomic Blonde easily surpasses the last umpty-ump Bond films in dash, inventiveness, and delivering on those empowerment fantasies. Women, it turns out, make better super-spies. People of every gender will have more fun by putting themselves in Charlize Theron’s shoes—or high-heeled boots, as the case may be.