So if women built on momentum in 2016, what is happening this year? A fair amount, given that the “summer blockbuster” season for 2017 started in early March with Fox’s Marvel X-Men entry Logan and reboot film Kong: Skull Island. Women play principle roles in both those movies – young Dafne Keen playing a mutant girl with Wolverine-like abilities, and rising player Brie Larson is in the new Vietnam-era set Kong as an intrepid war photo-journalist, along with Tian Jing playing a biologist.
Some other action movies have already rolled out in the last two and a half months as well, as the former dumping ground of the new year has become a potentially fertile time period. The two reigning queens of the horror action films, Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich, have returned with Underworld: Blood Wars (which was pushed forward from its original October 2016 release date,) and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Jovovich’s final film for the game tie-in franchise. The new Resident Evil racked in $307+ millions on only a $40 million budget and still going, for an all-time high for the franchise. Underworld: Blood Wars has had a slower start, but brought in over $81 million on an even smaller budget and still going globally. The two actresses together also got some extra press for their work in these successful but often dismissed franchises, since media has noticed that women are now taking point just a tiny bit more in hit action and SFF films.
On a slightly different spoke of the action wheel, Disney’s live action musical version of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, had a record-breaking opening weekend with over $170 million domestically and has earned over $392 million in world box office. That’s good since the budget for the film was quite huge with the motion capture effects, and they estimate it might reach the billion dollar mark. Disney doing live action alt versions of its animated princess classics has so far been nothing but extremely popular, so more transformation of the vault properties are planned, as well as things like the up-coming 2018 Mary Poppins sequel. That’s going to give quite a few up and coming actresses spotlight roles backed by Disney’s machine.
The horror franchise of The Ring finally got its new one out, Rings starring Matilda Lutz. Rings has brought in over $81 million on a $25 million budget. And on a smaller scale, Before I Fall, adapted from the hit YA novel, stars Zoey Deutch and a female-heavy cast with a story of a teenager who relives the day of her death over and over, trying to change things. It hasn’t brought much money in yet, but has had a limited release.
In addition to Fifty Shades Darker bringing in audiences for nearly $375 million on the psychodrama front, women have so far this year played key roles in hits xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, The Great Wall, The LEGO Batman Movie, horror thriller Split, John Wick: Chapter Two, sleeper horror hit Get Out, and kid-friendly adventure Monster Truck. There’s also been a cluster of high grossing global Asian films, such as Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga and the animated film Your Name, in which women are doing major leads.
But what are the big up-coming films for the rest of the year with women leads? Chief among these for 2017 is first off Wonder Woman, out in June, starring Gal Gadot — the movie we’d come to believe would never actually happen as nervous studio executives just weren’t sure about risking big budget girl cooties. But DC Comics is in a film franchise arms race with Marvel/Disney, with The Justice League of which Wonder Woman is an integral part to be its answer to The Avengers. And DC is getting to beat Marvel to the punch with having the first woman-led film in their franchise, since Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie got pushed back to make room for Spider-Man being incorporated into their schedule and the Black Widow movie isn’t yet on the timetable. So they’ve poured quite a lot into promoting the film, with appealing trailers, and expectations are high for the first live action film of the most famous female superhero. Which of course raises the specter of studios possibly again blaming all actresses if Wonder Woman isn’t a blockbuster, and using that to try and nix future woman-led superhero movies as too risky. At this point, however, the momentum seems unstoppable – the machines of these comics franchises are just too big to risk leaving out the women. So Wonder Woman gets her movie shot and that’s a high water-mark for actresses in action.
The biggest film of the year, however, is likely again to be Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, at the end of the year. Daisy Ridley will once again take up Rey’s light saber as the character learns of her history, and she’ll be backed by the late, great Carrie Fisher in her last performance, Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie, and the additional talents of Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, and Billie Lourd. Most folks were relieved and pleased by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and embraced Ridley’s desert survivor protagonist, (as well as enjoying woman-led Rogue One last year,) and so anticipation for the new entry is high. The film is likely to make the billion dollar box office club and might give us two years with a woman-led film as number one, proving once again that women leads are not a hindrance in big action/FX franchises.
Also getting a lot of attention for this year is Ghost in the Shell, the live action adaptation of the popular Japanese manga-anime franchise. Part of that attention isn’t happy – Scarlett Johansson is playing the originally Japanese cyborg lead, backed by Juliette Binoche, Rila Fukushima and a host of Asian and non-Asian actors. This white-washing is unfortunately still often standard procedure, based on the racist myth that well known white stars are safest for the leads in big action franchises, especially Asian-themed ones. The fatigue over this issue may affect the box office adversely. But until filmmakers stop putting up the Asian barrier (which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke a long time ago with major box office and did it with sub-titles,) a white actress in the lead is at least an actress starring instead of also being replaced by a white man. Johansson is the leading action actress of the times, thanks to Black Widow and hit films like Lucy, so she at least will hit the role running. It will be an expensive experiment and here’s hoping it’s not another Last Airbender.
Also likely to provoke some controversy is the assassin thriller The Assignment, in which a hitman is set up and surgically given the body of a woman by revenge-minded surgeon Sigourney Weaver. The lead is played by Michelle Rodriguez, rather than a trans actress, and its treatment of a transition that is an unwanted assault in a time of trans people’s repression in the U.S. and the world is already raising a lot of issues and may not be welcome at the box office. But it’s a woman-led picture with a non-white actress getting some buzz, so we’ll have to see how it does and how it handles its story.
Also getting some notice in a less conflicted manner is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron, the woman who turned the Mad Max franchise on its head for starters. (She is also the producer on the film.) The spy thriller is an adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City and its teaser trailers are attracting notice. Jennifer Lawrence is also entering the spy world towards the end of the year, as a Russian agent who might defect due to love, an adaptation of the novel Red Sparrow.
Melanie Lynskey stars in the adaptation of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World, about a woman who suffers a home invasion and investigates the case herself. Actress Margot Robbie has her own production company and it’s putting out this year the thriller Terminal, in which she stars as a woman who throws a kink into the plans of two hitmen. (I’m sensing that spies and assassins are in this year.)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a psychological horror thriller starring younger stars Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton and Emma Roberts, is also drawing attention. Emma Watson, having a busy year, is taking the lead in the cult-themed thriller The Circle, set in the tech world, adapted from Dave Eggers’ bestselling novel. Kate Mara stars in Megan Leavey, a biographical movie about a Marine bomb detector dog handler and her canine partner that she tries to save. And Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen star in the psychological thriller Ingrid Goes West.
On the more SFF end of the pond, we have Suspiria, where Dakota Johnson encounters a ballet company run by Tilda Swinton that seems to be hiding a dark unworldly secret. Suki Waterhouse stars in The Bad Batch, a horror thriller film about a woman trapped in the post-apocalyptic wastelands of former Texas. Kristen Stewart has been getting buzz for thriller Personal Shopper, about a woman working as an assistant who also may communicate with ghosts. The Little Mermaid offers a very different take on modernizing the classic fairy tale involving a carnival and starring Poppy Brite. Abagail Breslin does the lead voice honors for the animated adventure Yamasong: March of the Hollows, about a girl and her warrior tortoise on a quest. And Anne Hathaway stars in the surreal sci-fi comedy Colossal, about a down on her luck woman who discovers she accidentally controls a giant monster rampaging through South Korea.
We may or may not see this year the adaptation of horror SF bestseller Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez, about a scientific expedition into a dangerous zone of possibly extra-terrestrial phenomena. Emilia Clarke takes the lead in the psychological supernatural thriller Voices from the Stone. Other women-led horror franchises include Intrusion 2: Disconnected with Katie Stewart and Anabelle 2 starring Miranda Otto. Cult of Chucky renews that franchise and stars Fiona Dowrit.
In comedy action, the women have firmly cemented their involvement in raucous comedy. Soon to be out is Scarlett Johansson’s Rough Night, a dark comedy about a bachelorette weekend turned horribly wrong. There’s also Girls’ Trip, starring Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish on their own down and dirty vacation. Amy Schumer’s next feature is Snatched, also starring Goldie Hawn lured out of retirement, about a mother and daughter who get kidnapped on vacation. (I’m sensing vacation trips are also popular this year.) Anna Kendrick teams up with the table of oddballs she’s sitting with at a difficult wedding in Table 19, and she returns in Pitch Perfect 3 with Rebel Wilson and Brittany Snow. Jessica Chastain, who is having a busy year, will star in Molly’s Game, about a poker player. Victoria Justice and Eden Sher take up the high school comedy duties with The Outcasts. And Mila Kunis returns with Kristen Bell and Jessica Hahn to do a sequel to the sleeper comedy hit of 2016, Bad Moms, with A Bad Moms’ Christmas at the end of the year.
With bigger budgets and more gravitas, we’re also getting some major historical drama movies that are women-led. The Zookeeper’s Wife, adapted from the book, will star Jessica Chastain as the real-life Polish woman who sheltered and helped Jews escape from the Polish ghettos during World War II by using her husband’s zoo. And Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning will head up The Beguiled, adapted from the novel, about a female boarding school in Virginia during the Civil War that ends up hiding a wounded Union soldier. Emma Stone is set to play Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes, about the legendary tennis player’s match against Bobby Riggs.
So that’s a fair amount, and I’ve probably missed some horror and thrillers films. (All release dates are subject to possible change.) Some of the big franchises may turn out to be more woman-led than expected. Prometheus surprised me by being such a film when it came out, starring Noomi Rapace. She’s supposedly in its sequel Alien: Covenant that comes out this year, although it looks as if Katherine Waterston might actually be the star of the new film, which concerns colonists who stumble upon the alien mess. Likewise, promos for Transformers: The Last Knight focus on young teen star Isabela Moner, making it unclear whether she or returning actor Mark Wahlberg is actually going to be the lead role. (Also indicating another theme this year – pre-teen/teen tough girls.)
In supporting roles rather than the lead, actresses are also working their way through a rash of big sequels, reboots and sci-fi as major characters. The Fate of the Furious, Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales, reboot Power Rangers, reboot The Mummy, the film version of Stephen King’s It, War for the Planet of the Apes, sequel Blade Runner 2049, reboot Friday the 13th, reboot of Jumanji, animated Pixar’s Cars 3, Smurfs: The Lost Village, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, animated Despicable Me 3, reboot or sequel Flatliners, sequel Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle, animated Coco, the Saw and Insidious horror franchises, animated The Nut Job 2, animated The LEGO Ninjago Movie, SF thriller Geostorm, action comedies Bay Watch, C.H.I.P.S. and The House, apocalyptic Patient Zero, reboot Murder on the Orient Express, reboot Death Wish, prehistoric-set The Solutrean, heist movie Logan Lucky, and mystery thriller The Snowman, all will have women in key parts. On a more annoying note, Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets is an adaptation of the French SF comics series Valerian and Laureline. Laureline is still the secondary lead in the film, played by Cara Delevingne, but apparently got demoted from the title in favor of the male character. (I’m guessing from the completely wrong myth that boys only want to watch teen boy stories.)
In the land of Marvel, in their main franchise, we’re getting three movies now for 2017: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor 3: Ragnarok . Guardians has Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan returning, as well as adding Pom Klementieff and Elizabeth Debicki in major roles. Spider-Man was borrowed from Sony for another teen version of the web-crawler that now fits in the Marvel/Disney Avengers universe. It offers Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, and Angourie Rice in supporting roles.
Thor 3: Ragnarok has disappointingly jettisoned Natalie Portman as spunky scientist Jane Foster and Kat Dennings as her snarky assistant. Apparently Thor broke up with the woman for whom he gave up his kingdom and he’s been traipsing around the dimensions. This is the result of the intent to “shake up” the Thor sub-franchise, a move which almost always means the main women characters get replaced. While it’s possible Portman was too busy or wanted more money than they preferred, the most likely reason seems to be the same one that made a Black Widow movie up until recently a long shot and has made it difficult for having woman-led superhero and action franchises in general. Movie studios often are firmly convinced that it is necessary to offer heterosexual male viewers fresh females, preferably in sexy outfits, to keep them interested in action movie franchises. For them, the actresses are interchangeable fantasy objects – “The Girl” — that you simply switch out as needed, rather than core characters. Jaime Alexander as Lady Sif gets to remain, presumably because she wears sexy armor, and Cate Blanchett as the key villain Hela and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, an Asgardian exile and Thor’s new love interest, are joining the cast. So there will at least be lots of kick-ass action from the women characters as Thor and his buddy the Hulk go on an adventure together.
D.C.’s universe, in addition to Wonder Woman, is giving us the big The Justice League movie, which will also star Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, as well as Amy Adams returning as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta, and will add Amber Heard as Mera, wife of Aquaman, and Kiersey Clemons as Iris West, the Flash’s love interest. How much screen time any of them get in such a huge set piece is uncertain, but the women will still be vital action figures in the dominating superhero realm.
In other words, we’re going to have enough warrior women this year to give the actresses a substantial part of the action pie. Though their participation is sometimes limited and protestations about uppity feminists remain in the industry, women-led action films doing well are getting common enough that studios are following the money over fraternal solidarity. In addition, major actresses like Theron, Robbie, etc., are continuing to successfully produce their own movies and get them through the studio system. And women have become ubiquitous (if seen as sometimes replaceable,) pieces of the big action ensembles even when they aren’t the leads. It’s something that nobody much questions now, and the “trickle, trickle” erosion has become more of a steady stream.
That stream is going to get wider in 2018 and 2019 as well. Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, a rebooted Tomb Raider, Kill Bill: Volume 3, Ocean’s Eight, Alita: Battle Angel, musical zombie film Anna and the Apocalypse, live action versions of Disney’s Mulan and Snow White, a reboot of comics’ Painkiller Jane, a sequel to The Rocketeer starring an African-American woman as the lead, and many more films in the works are going to keep women front and center – and seen less and less as a “risk” or just an appendage. Obviously, from some of the cases of entrenched discrimination mentioned above, that isn’t always a guarantee, especially when it comes to women of color. But if we survive the world and environmental turmoil, it’s going to be an interesting next few years for actresses in film.