When Robert Rodriguez signed on last week to direct Universal’s “Barbarella,” it marked a rare instance of a female-led action film getting off the ground. Recent history has left a graveyard of tombstones reading such names as “Elektra,” “Catwoman” and “Aeon Flux,” while mausoleums house “Tank Girl” and “Barb Wire.” There are exceptions, of course, such as the “Tomb Raider” and “Underworld” movies, but their sequels failed to capitalize on any goodwill created by the first movies.
On the small screen, female-starring genre stories become buzzworthy cult hits, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Alias” and “Veronica Mars.”
Now the question is what do all those movies have in common and how do they differ from the TV shows listed here. It’s that the movies here rarely have a female character, what they have is a female figure. A female body in an action outfit and very little clothing doing her thing. That didn’t work for Dead or Alive and it won’t work period. No matter what.
The TV shows by contrast had female characters not just female bodies. Buffy and Sydney Bristow and Veronica Mars are people with complex lives, reluctant heroines tossed into a battle they never really wanted but are surprisingly good at.
The female action movie isn’t entirely at fault because it’s essentially a translation of the male action movie, just with less clothing. But that approach doesn’t work and won’t work with female characters. You can’t produce a female Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwartzengger. The closest movies came to that was Geena Davis and Long Kiss Goodnight was pretty cool but it didn’t work either. Barbarella won’t work either.
Charlie’s Angels did work (a glaring omission in the article) but it did it by not remotely taking the material seriously. That’s in line with movies which star women in action roles. But for a woman to carry an action movie, she has to be more Sydney, Buffy and Veronica and less Barb Wire, Tomb Raider and Barbarella.