When Agent Peggy Carter came out swinging on the small screen in 2015, her fighting scenes were something to behold. Not only did we have a female action hero, but she was an action hero with a hard-hitting, so-called masculine style. She didn’t Black-Widow-backflip. She just socked men twice her size to the floor.
Now she’s far from the only one of her kind.
With the newly rebooted Tomb Raider, theaters of the last three years have seen a host of brutal women: Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman smashing open buildings, Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde kicking in faces, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther absolutely wrecking a casino (without super suits) and Theron, again, as Furiosa in Fury Road, toppling an oppressive regime behind the wheel of a war rig.
Alicia Vikander, the new Lara Croft, is the most typically feminine of our crop of heroes. In her origin-story reboot Tomb Raider of this year, her narrative involves her journey into accepting and applying violence. While this isn’t the most sophisticated hero’s journey I’ve ever seen, there’s something undeniably powerful about witnessing the bombshell-hyper-sexualization venom drawn from the franchise. (See: each and every between-Angie’s-thighs shot of the original movies.) Lara’s body is certainly the centerpiece of the 2018 movie, but in the sense that this spare, millennially-broke young woman is lean, muscled, and increasingly dangerous as the film rolls on. Surrounded by irrational men overwhelmed by their emotions, Lara’s violence is glorified and heightened with vicious ease. As her character develops, so does her ability to inflict harm and to do so remorselessly. As Vikander tugs and strains through her own stunts, we’re sold strength and endurance, ferocity and brute force.
Women taking on such stunts themselves have become a calling card of the Brutal Woman: Vikander does hers; Theron did hers; Gadot, the ex-IDF combat instructor, made it a condition of her Fast and Furious contract that she do hers. The market value of these movies isn’t that women act violence. It’s that they enact it.
Often these movies are marketed on the basis of the violence of—not on—women’s bodies. In Facebook and Instagram feeds, Theron and Vikander were both featured in sponsored videos to make sure that it was clear these women are landing the punches you see on screen. Theron joked that she didn’t think all the actors she’d beat to a pulp were over their hard feelings about it. Atomic Blonde was also notable in the sense that it showed the record of violence on the protagonist’s body: where Lara Croft will get light, aesthetically-placed scrapes and Wonder Woman remains divinely unscratched, Agent Lorraine Broughton’s body evidences the harm she feels or inflicts. Her knuckles split. Her face bruises. Her body reflects the brutality of her character—and not just in sexy little scrapes that accentuate her cheekbones. She is a woman immersed in and equal to violence, not a pretty action hero thrown into the mix.
The admission into the hyper-masculine club of the action hero isn’t a win in itself. The violence of these brutal women isn’t in itself revolutionary. What is remarkable about it is the ferocity of the trend itself—five blockbusters in three years—and how that trend has manifested. The Brutal Woman is distinct from her Underworld or Matrix predecessor: the distinguishing feature is the force behind her punch and the She-Woman roar that goes along with it. She will not do a ballet leap slowed for a sexy view of her body in black leather; instead, she will punch through a brick wall in a split second. What gets portrayed on screen is power. Literal empowerment.
The flip side of this development is that female characters are so often wiser about when to deploy that power. Wonder Woman’s defining moment at the film’s climax is her control—her realization that although she is immensely, devastatingly powerful, the core of that power’s virtue is its awareness and restraint. These characters never take the nuclear option. They bear intellectual and physical supremacy, and they outsmart as much as outpunch the almost-exclusively male competition.
That tenuous mixture of the Brutal Woman’s brains and brawn is at the core of her fast-moving trend. The typically feminine intellect, the typically male brawn. It’s an archaic breakdown, but as we see these narratives unfold, it’s clear which side of the equation appears more revolutionary. Very often the Brutal Woman is marooned in a sea of men accustomed to and ready to inflict violence. The spies of Atomic Blonde, the warriors of Fury Road, the soldiers of Wonder Woman, the armies of Black Panther. The Brutal Woman remains distinct, a female minority in the movie as a whole, so that her power is novel both to the audience and to the men witnessing her in-narrative.
The Brutal Woman is the most dangerous character on screen. She carries the assurance of victory, and she is at the center of a genre film—the superhero movie, the action movie, the James Bond spy caper—where we are used to seeing a man.
Suddenly, massive blockbusters resolve around the power of a woman’s body, to a greater degree than its sexualization. Three years ago I despaired: what ever happened to my Black Widow movie? But this trend is more than I envisioned. These brutal women are the wickedly, unapologetically powerful characters redrawing the genres that so long excluded them—and doing so not as novelties, but as icons.
As Theron says in Atomic Blonde: “Who’s the bitch now?”