In the last year, Hollywood has graced the American viewer with a few female action heroes to capitalize on the growing popularity of mainstream feminism. Most notably this year, Gal Gadot in Wonderwoman and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell made headlines for trailblazing as strong female action leads, not without fair criticism from the feminist community. In these films and most similar films before them, being a woman isn’t central to the plot of the story. Instead, producers tend to use female leads to attract sexual attention and cash in on the latest wave of girl teens who genuinely want to believe in a woman on screen. If Atomic Blonde had been made without Charlize Theron, I suspect it would have fallen into the same trap.
In a graphic novel clearly written for the male gaze, the spy protagonist Lorraine Broughton is yet another under-developed and over-sexualized lady spy beguiling her enemies with dry wit while hustling around town in a pair of heels. However, as a character brought to life by the inimitable Theron and adapted for the screen by Theron’s production company, Lorraine Broughton is simultaneously deep and impenetrable, genius and foolhardy – she is at the center of the plot and each of its emotional subplots.
All this is not to say that Atomic Blonde is above money — the movie made $18M opening weekend. It’s not a purely artistic film, and it definitely employs some “girl power” marketing. But at the very least the story is real and attempts to represent the true complexity of being a woman fighter. Unlike any comparable female-led action film, Atomic Blonde does not use the idea of a woman, so to speak, to cater its plot to a feminist audience, rather it is singularly about a highly skilled, effective, and intelligent woman thanks to Theron’s deft interpretation of the tortured spy.
The thing that Atomic Blonde does best is stick within the parameters of a good action movie. It has a tortured hero, a secret love story, assassins, politics, and a couple of very good car chase and crash sequences. The script and opening scenes don’t spend much time on backstory, letting the viewer fill in the blanks on Broughton’s history while watching her privately unwind from a clearly brutal mission. Pretty soon after the opening sequence, we are taken to Berlin, arguably a character in and of itself, central to the plot development of the movie and where all of the action takes place.
The rest of the plot unwinds in a semi-cliche, but lovable form. Broughton is in a wicked web of espionage and the viewer is brought to question her motives. She’s harsh, straightforward, and, at first, completely closed off to emotion. Although the movie has a few intriguing twists and turns, the plot most of the time functions as a vehicle for carrying Broughton through to the next (amazing) action sequence. But that’s not out of the ordinary for good action movies, considering a majority of Jackie Chan movies or the Die Hard franchise.
Atomic Blonde fits into a long line of action movies that use the main character’s calm, sometimes chilling demeanor to illustrate bravery, confidence, and cool under pressure. Charlize Theron pulls this off with the same kind of raw, understated realness that she brought to the screen as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. What sets Theron apart from the on-going lineage of action marathoners is that she developed more emotional layers in a straightforward action hero than any male lead I can recall in the last five years at least.
Theron adds emotion where the dialogue or original storyboarding may not have provided any, particularly in tender scenes with the woman who in the story is Broughton’s foil. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that Broughton meets and gets intimate with another female spy. They flirt, they talk about clubbing, and later, they share what was in my opinion one of the most emotionally intriguing and revealing scenes of the film. This means that with regards to the Bechdel standard, this movie passes. The emotionally pivotal conversations between Broughton and her counterpart reveal that Broughton’s sympathy for her friend and lover is her weakness. I can’t be the judge of whether the love scene between the two spies is fair or accurate, but I believe that at least the movie does justice to the emotional bond between them.
Another notable aspect of the film, and one that’s getting a significant amount of press coverage, is that Theron does more of her own stunts than the average action hero. Director David Leitch said she’s in the “top one percentile of actors to do their own action.” A movie fixture that I believe has plagued most female action heroes is the idiocy of being made to fight in heels, which thankfully, this movie eschews. On the inevitable subject of clothing, Theron doesn’t wear overly revealing clothing without reason or unless it serves the plot, especially not when fighting. And that’s all the discussion that the fashion in this movie deserves.
My only reservation about this movie actually represents a broader issue in television and film that I wouldn’t expect this movie to solve; I’m not sure whether Atomic Blonde fairly represents a woman’s body without sexualizing or fetishizing it for the male gaze. The most visceral parts of the movie in my opinion came in the first few scenes where Broughton is taking an ice bath and nursing black and blue bruises all over her body. I couldn’t help but think that the imagery was too raw, and that there must be some on-screen fascination with seeing bruises on a woman’s body. Some might say that representing Broughton’s body so roughly was a choice made to increase the story’s realism. However, it weakened the movie by using Broughton’s injuries to note that bruises on a woman look bizarre, and thereby draw attention to an imaginary contrast between her toughness and her femininity.
This movie stands alone on Theron’s ability to wrap complexity and depth into a protagonist, which is commendable and rare in this day and age when most others of her ilk are relegated to female spy hell a.k.a “hot decoy” status (see: Mission Impossible). Although the movie’s packaging and promotion may read like mainstream feminist marketing, the movie is worth seeing for Theron’s performance alone, if not also to soak up the creative, colorful aesthetic. The story isn’t extraordinary on its own but the cool tricks, gadgets, and fight scenes pay off to create an exciting atmosphere of intrigue.
by Katya Abazajian
Katya lives in Washington, DC and spends her time lounging at the pool, gardening, and riding her bike when it’s not winter. For the rest of the year, she is buried in her apartment watching movies and criticizing them. She primarily writes short fiction and film criticism. She has been published for short fiction in When Women Waken and Argot Magazine.