The first big chunk of 2019 is past and it’s been a remarkably busy season in the land of film. The idea of a summer season has largely been abandoned by Hollywood. While the big releases do still crowd the summer months, the expected blockbusters now start coming out in February or March and the schedule slows down only briefly in late August and September before October’s horror celebration and the run of big holiday movies for the end of the year.
And while 2018 may have been a bit more lackluster than expected when it comes to actresses in big movies and action, 2019 has been putting women front and center, and with more to come.
The Scene So Far:
The first big woman-led movie of the year turned out to be James Cameron’s adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel. Originally supposed to be out in 2018, the film got pushed back and was released unceremoniously in mid-February. It did very well in foreign box office, however, earning over $404 million globally, well past its large budget. While the white-washing of the Asian main character was not ideal, rising star Rosa Salazar did turn in a nice performance as the cyborg heroine, backed by Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eliza Gonzalez.
A few weeks later, in March, we got the long awaited first woman-led movie from Marvel, Captain Marvel. The film starred Oscar winner Brie Larson in the titular role of the human fighter pilot Carol Danvers turned space warrior, along with legend Annette Bennet, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan and Akira Akbar. The movie, set in the 1990’s and being the penultimate chapter in the decade-long Avengers movie saga, was expected to do well, but it went beyond “well,” bringing in over $1.1 billion and still going in global box office. While Marvel’s future plans for films in the Marvelverse are less well-known, it now seems likely that several of them will be woman-led films, including the Black Widow prequel film.
Other woman-led films in the uneven February and March part of the season were a mix of hits and misses. Sequel time loop thriller Happy Death Day 2U debuted for Valentine’s Day, with Jessica Rothe returning to her starring role, backed by Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, and Sarah Yarkin. The low budget film took in over $64 million, which might mean another entry for the franchise will be in the works. Animated movie Wonder Park, starring Brianna Denski, with Jennifer Garner and Mila Kunis, successfully took in over $115 million. Jordan Peele’s much anticipated new horror movie, Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o with assistance from Elisabeth Moss and young star Shahadi Wright Joseph, brought in over $253 million and still going on a modest $20 million budget.
Actresses also scored with other low budget movies such as the reboot What Men Want, starring Taraji P. Henson, which took in over $72 million on a small budget, Rebel Wilson’s spoof Isn’t It Romantic, with over $48 million and British wrestling comedy Fighting With My Family, starring Florence Pugh for over $39 million. The action thriller Miss Bala, starring Gina Rodriguez, however, failed to do more than meet its small budget in box office. And psychological thriller Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz, did not break out, earning only a bit over $13.5 million.
April brought us horror film The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini, which made a successful $113 million plus on a tiny budget, showing once again that women can make horror quite profitable. Children’s movie Mia and the White Lion, starring Daniah De Villiers, only took in $26 million on limited distribution but had a small budget. Other April woman-led movies did not break through – superpower drama Fast Color, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, could not get a wide enough release; comedy Little, starring Marsai Martin (the teen actress who came up with the film,) Regina Hall, and Issa Rae, has made a small profit at $47 million so far; Rust Creek, a backwoods thriller starring Hermione Corfield, also made very little in limited distribution; Stray and A Hole in the Ground and Level 16 are horror movies that barely made a blip; and religious drama Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, only really earned in international markets as an art film.
The newest women-led movies out this month are comedy caper The Hustle, starring Rebel Wilson, who also co-produced the film, and Anne Hathaway, which has pulled in over $32 million its first week. We also got Poms, a comedy film full of older actresses, led by Diane Keaton, which has just debuted this weekend.
Moving to the big action films where women have major supporting roles in the first part of the year, the big gorilla was the release of the final part of the Avengers inter-linked movies – Avengers: Endgame at the end of April. The giant time-travelling finish had most of the Marvel women returning, with key roles for veteran Scarlett Johanssen, Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan. Despite not being in any way a summer release, Endgame took in over a billion in box office just in its opening weekend and is now over $2.5 billion, smashing records left and right.
Other big releases were animated sequel How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, featuring America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett and Kristen Wiig, for an over $517 million global take, and animated/live action mix The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, starring Elizabeth Banks, Tiffany Haddish and Alison Brie, which earned over $190 million, (probably less than they were hoping for.) Dumbo, a mix of live action and CGI and the latest of Disney translating their classic animated movies, starred Nico Parker and Eva Green. It took in over $344 million in box office but that is about breaking even for it because of its large production and publicity budgets. Still, Disney knows how to monetize over the long term. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, another animation/live action mix, just debuted and has made over $187 million globally, with supporting performances from Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse and Rita Ora.
DC’s entry so far this year was Shazam! which took in over $360 million and is still climbing, and had supporting performances by Faithe Herman and young Grace Fulton. M. Night Shyamalan finally completing his superpower trilogy with much buzzed film Glass for over $247 million on a small budget early in the year, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson and Charlayne Woodard. YA romance adaptation Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson, did better than the YA films of last year and earned over $78 million on a small budget.
Several prominent horror films were also released this spring with mixed results. A reboot of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, starring Jete Laurence and Amy Seimetz, took in over $109 million with a very modest budget. Escape Room, starring Taylor Russell and Deborah Ann Woll, did very well with over $155 million in box office on a tiny budget. The reboot of Hellboy, which went for a more violent horror approach to the superhero, featured Milla Jovovich as the chief villain and Sasha Lane, but it failed to get much foreign distribution and has not earned past its mid-sized $50 million budget. The Prodigy, which starred Taylor Schilling, turned a small profit because of its low budget but hasn’t cracked $15 million in box office.
The Women Take the Lead:
In addition to Alita: Battle Angel and Captain Marvel, several big action films this year are woman-led movies. In the superhero category, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, moved back from 2018, is debuting soon. The complicated alternate timelines of the X-Men franchise have this film doing an alternate version of the Jean Grey-Phoenix saga, this time sticking closer to the original comic book series. It stars Sophie Turner reprising her role as young Jean Grey, in what is a busy year for her on t.v. and in her personal life as well. She is supported by a returning Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, and the also much in demand Jessica Chastain joins the cast.
To add to all its live action remakes this year, Disney is putting out a sequel to the one that kick-started that movie strategy. Maleficent 2: Mistress of Evil will see Angelina Jolie return to her role as the complicated fairy sorceress of Sleeping Beauty fame, going beyond the original legend and animated film. Elle Fanning will also return as Princess Aurora and legend Michelle Pfeiffer will join the cast as her mother, the queen. And in December, Disney rolls out the sequel to its billion dollar animated smash, Frozen II, starring the returning voice work of Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, and having Evan Rachel Wood join the cast. Let the hit songs and massive merchandising commence.
Spy detectives Charlie’s Angels gets a sort of reboot/sort of sequel, thanks to entrepreneur Elizabeth Banks, who is co-producing, co-wrote, directed and plays the role of Bosley in the film, with Drew Barrymore’s blessing. The three angels will be played by Naomi Scott, Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska. On the more kid-oriented side, we’re getting a live action mixed with CGI adaptation of kid’s cartoon show Dora the Explorer in Dora and the Lost City of Gold, in which an older teen Dora sets out to rescue her missing parents. The film stars Isabela Moner as Dora, with support from Eva Longoria, Q’orianka Kilcher, Madeleine Madden and Adriana Barraza.
And then in December, we get one of the most anticipated films of the year, the last of the original George Lucas-conceived nine film saga – Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Daisy Riddley will return in her role as Rey, the scavenger pilot turned Jedi warrior of the last three movies. Kelly Marie Tran, Lupita Nyong’o, and Billie Lourd will all return in their roles, and be joined by Keri Russell. The late, great Carrie Fisher will also appear in a cameo role constructed from archival footage they had of the previous two movies. Will the Star Wars film surge past Avengers: Endgame’s take? Disney wins either way. More Star Wars films are coming after this in the wide SW universe and we’ll have to see if other women get some of the leading roles.
Moving out from the big action franchises, a solid crew of thrillers are also continuing to come out this year. The Kitchen, like film Widows last year, has mobsters’ wives desperately continuing their husband’s criminal enterprises, based on the Vertigo comics series. It stars Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish, star utility player Margo Martindale and Melissa McCarthy, giving us another fun ensemble movie of accomplished actresses. The Woman in the Window, the Rear Window-ish thriller adapted from the bestselling novel, stars the very busy actresses Amy Adams and Julianne Moore in the main roles.
In the spies and assassins area, we’re getting Anna, the latest action fest from Luc Besson, starring Russian actress Sasha Luss as an assassin and backed by legend Helen Mirren. Anne Hathaway is starring in the adaptation of Joan Didion’s story The Last Thing He Wanted, in which a woman gets embroiled in her dying father’s shady arms dealing. Blake Lively’s entry this year is the spy revenge thriller The Rhythm Section, in which her character avenges her family’s murder. Also in pursuit of revenge is the Australian adaptation of the bestseller The Nightingale, set in WWII and starring Aisling Franciosi as an Irish woman hunting vengeance for her family.
Sienna Miller stars in American Woman, about a mother searching for her missing daughter in rural America. The also very busy Laura Dern stars in legal thriller Trial By Fire as a lawyer defending a parent accused of killing their children. Allison Williams stars in The Perfection, a psycho-suspense story about a musical prodigy. And Gina Carano, who’s been putting out low budget thrillers about once a year, returns with Daughter of the Wolf, as a military veteran who goes after the men who kidnapped her son up in the mountains.
Paradise Hills, a futuristic escape tale starring Emma Roberts and Eiza Gonzalez as wealthy teens, premiered at Sundance and may have wider release later in the year. Famed YA novel Where’d You Go Bernadette, about a young teen searching for her missing anxiety-riddled mother, has been adapted and stars Emma Nelson and the formidable Cate Blanchett, as well as Troian Bellisario, Kristin Wiig and Judy Greer. Lucy in the Sky is a dark character study starring Natalie Portman as a returned astronaut losing her grip on reality.
In horror, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Ma, a woman with ulterior motives who lets teenagers party in her basement. It also stars Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Missi Pyle and Alison Janney. Ready or Not, starring Samara Weaving and Andie McDowell, has a bride encountering a dangerous game from her new family. Katie Holmes stars in the horror sequel Brahms: The Boy II as a mother with a disturbed son. Crawl stars Kaya Scodelario as a young woman trying to save her father in a hurricane with some very upset alligators. Young women also face off against sharks, always popular, in the sequel 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, starring Nia Long, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Brianne Tju, Sistine Rose Stallone and Corinne Foxx. In Little Monsters, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays a teacher protecting her students from zombies.
Women are also getting to lead in more prestige dramas and biopics this year. Classic work Little Women is yet again being adapted with an all-star cast – Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern and legend Meryl Streep. Movie Ophelia tackles Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the viewpoint of the women characters and makes it more of an action suspense thriller. It stars Daisy Ridley as the title character and Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude. Renee Zellweger will take on the task of portraying star Judy Garland in the bio film Judy. Molly Shannon portrays the poet Emily Dickenson in the film Wild Nights with Emily. Taraji P. Henson plays activist Ann Atwater, who faced off against the Klan over school integration in 1971 North Carolina, in Best of Enemies. British film Vita and Virginia, starring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki and festival premiered last year, explores the romantic relationship between writers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Keira Knightley stars in Official Secrets, about British government whistleblower Katharine Gun.
On the more comedic side, we have the up-coming Late Night, starring legend Emma Thompson as a talk show host and writer/producer Mindy Kaling as her chief writer. This is yet another instance of a film that is getting a limited theater run before being more widely distributed on a streaming service, in this case Amazon Prime, but this one is getting a lot of PR for the movie release. Melissa McCarthy’s solo comedy this year will be Margie Claus, playing the wife of Santa who has to save the big day. In the same neighborhood is Noelle, in which Anna Kendrick plays the daughter of Santa and has to help her dad out. Also for the holiday season is British film Last Christmas, written by Emma Thompson, who also stars, in which Emilia Clarke encounters romance and mishaps. Moving into YA territory, we have the adaptation of the romantic drama The Sun is Also a Star, just out this weekend, in which Yara Shahidi plays a Jamaican teen trying to avoid being deported from the U.S., who waits for news of her fate while hanging out with a handsome stranger. Also up-coming is Booksmart, a coming of age party comedy starring Kaitlyn Dever and Billie Lourd as two graduating seniors who try to squeeze the fun they missed in high school into one night.
So 2019 is a stellar year for women leading in big event movies. It also has a decent line-up of more modest budgeted fare in action suspense and horror, though not as robust perhaps in those areas as some past years. And actresses are using both drama and comedies to their advantage to get bigger audiences and more opportunities.
Women in the Franchises:
In addition to the women-lead projects, actresses are carving major roles in big franchise and ensemble movies for the rest of the year.
The dominating superhero contingent is further represented for the year. In the Marvelverse, we get the Avengers epilogue Spider-Man 2: Far From Home, with the resurrected Peter Parker taking his show on the road for a school trip with the help of Zendaya, Marisa Tormei, Colbie Smulders and Laura Harrier reprising their roles, and Angourie Rice playing Peter’s pal Betty. DC will put out Joker, an origin film for the famous supervillain, with Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy in key roles.
Godzilla returns in the sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters, with young Millie Bobby Brown in a critical role, along with Vera Farmiga, Sally Hawkins and Ziyi Zhang, dealing with both the giant lizard and even more giant creatures (hopefully with better lighting this time.) Men in Black: International is a new entry in the alien franchise, with Tessa Thompson teaming up with her Thor co-star Chris Hemsworth as agents facing new alien threats and a possible mole in their secret organization, with supporting performances from Rebecca Ferguson, very busy legend Emma Thompson and Jess Radomska.
And James Cameron has returned to his Terminator franchise to present Terminator: Dark Fate. The plot of the newest time-travel killer robot film is very secret, but Linda Hamilton is returning in her iconic role as Sarah Connor, one of the few major action roles for women in the past, with supporting performances from Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Alicia Borrachero and Tabata Cerezo. Hamilton’s presence along with the other big woman-led action films this year (including Cameron’s other entry Alita: Battle Angel,) turns 2019 into something of an action history timeline for actresses, showing that women have actually always brought the heat when given the opportunity.
For further high octane action, there is the spin-off Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, which is blessed with legend Helen Mirren as well as performances from Vanessa Kirby and Eiza Gonzalez. Keanu Reeves has just now returned for another round as the beleaguered former assassin in John Wick 3: Parabellum, and employs the help of Halle Berry, along with supporting performances from legend Anjelica Huston and Margaret Daly, (and Asia Kate Dillon who is non-binary.) The film Shaft is not a reboot but a continuing sequel of the famous movie, with three generations of detectives named John Shaft teaming up to solve a case, with the help of Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall and Luna Lauren Velez.
Mega-selling author Stephen King continues to be prominent in 2019. In addition to the Pet Semetary reboot in April, there is up-coming the sequel It: Chapter 2, in which Jessica Chastain reprises her role as one of a quartet struggling against demonic clown spirit Pennywise. And Doctor Sleep, the sequel novel to King’s famous The Shining, is being adapted this year, with busy Rebecca Ferguson playing a critical role. Also in horror, though not from King, is Brightburn, a dark take on the alien foundling baby concept, starring dynamo Elizabeth Banks as the adoptive mother. And busy Vera Famiga stars once again as Lorraine Warren in the horror doll sequel Annabelle Comes Home.
In other returning action franchises, we get the long awaited sequel Zombieland 2: Double Tap, in which Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin will return to their roles as survivors in a zombie apocalypse and be joined by Zoey Deutch and Rosario Dawson. And the Jumanji franchise gets a third movie of folks trapped in a game, following the success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which will have Karen Gillan, Morgan Turner and Madison Iseman all returning to their roles, plus Awkwafina and Dania Ramirez.
Quentin Tarentino’s take on Hollywood in the time of the Manson murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will feature Margot Robbie and Dakota Fanning, playing historical characters. Ad Astra, a space travel saga, has Ruth Negga, Kimberly Elise and LisaGay Hamilton in supporting roles.
In the animated and kid-friendly side of the pool, Disney has gone into hyperdrive with two more live action/CGI adaptations of their famous animated films – The Lion King and Aladdin. The Lion King puts CGI to the test and makes use of the voice work of music legend Beyonce, as well as Amy Sedaris, Alfre Woodard, Florence Kasumba and Shahadi Wright Joseph. Aladdin stars Naomi Scott as Disney’s determined Princess Jasmine, with support from Nasim Pedrad.
Fully animated sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2 continues that franchise and features Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell and busy star Tiffany Haddish. Animated UglyDolls, based on the popular toys, has just been released and makes use of the voices and singing of Kelly Clarkson, Emma Roberts, Wanda Sykes, Kelly Asbury and Jane Lynch. Angry Birds 2 will also be returning and be supported by Awkwafina, Dove Cameron and Rachel Bloom.
So while we’ll have to wait the year to find out how the statistics stack up, 2019 looks like it’s going to be a lynchpin year for women in action. The combination of woman-led blockbusters and thrillers along with prominent kick-ass roles for women in ensemble franchises, including lucrative animation features, has turned the tables on the old saw that women’s role in big movies is limited. And we’re continuing to see some major actresses leveraging their stardom into producing, writing and even directing major projects – a trend that is only going to increase. The bench of rising young actresses is wide and veteran performers are very much in demand.
If the momentum of all this continues, we may get to see a more rapid progress for women in action in 2020. Already scheduled for that year are some big women-led films – DC’s Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984, Disney’s Mulan and Cruella, A Quiet Place 2, Monster Hunter based on the game, and The Witches, (though films are always subject to being moved around – several movies got pushed back from this year while I was trying to write this up.) These movies are no longer considered unusual or one-offs. And big movies that feature women are bringing in stellar box office so far this year. So while it is still a struggle for women in action and major films, the future is looking fairly bright. Which is certainly something we could use right now.
Women in Action Archives: