Traditionally, Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer as kids settle back into school and adults bid bye-bye to their dreams of beach days.
It’s also the end of Hollywood’s favorite movie season, which means it’s time, once again, to celebrate the Badass Ladies of Summer.
The Badass Ladies of Summer originated in 2014 on my first blog, after I spotted an encouraging trend of women delivering strong, wildly entertaining, box office-stealing performances in a typically male-dominated season.
Past Badass Ladies include Emily Blunt in “Edge of Tomorrow,” Charlize Theron as Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Alicia Vikander in “Ex Machina,” Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” and the endlessly funny female-led cast of “Ghostbusters.”
Now, to 2017.
As we all know, this summer was owned by one badass lady in particular. It’s tempting, in fact, to declare that she may be the badass lady to end all summers of the badass ladies.
I’m talking, of course, about Gal Gadot, star of the long-anticipated “Wonder Woman” movie, directed by another badass lady, Patty Jenkins.
Not only is “Wonder Woman” the first legit female superhero movie — “Elektra” and “Catwoman” clearly do not count — it’s a bonafide box office smash, the highest-grossing movie of the summer and the most successful movie in the DC extended universe (a universe populated mostly by dudes.)
It’s worth remembering that “Wonder Woman” achieved these impressive landmarks after enduring months of rumors of the film’s impending box-office demise. There was more than a whiff of sexism in the air as website upon website speculated as to whether a female-fronted comic book movie could ever be expected to soar, let alone survive.
“Wonder Woman” appears to have utterly demolished the Hollywood boy’s club, but as usual, things may be more complicated than they seem. Judging by the rest of the summer, bad-ass ladies are still struggling to make their mark on a testosterone-fueled cinematic season.
Two of the summer’s biggest critical darlings, “Dunkirk” and “Baby Driver,” were almost shockingly male-dominated in terms of casting. Directors Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright may have had perfectly valid reasons for this, but it’s difficult to ignore the absence of central, powerful, or compelling female characters in these admittedly excellent films.
It’s not as if women were missing entirely from the summer landscape, but when they did show up to fight monsters, run away from or trigger explosions, and kick butt alongside male co-stars, their presence was often a disappointment.
Scarlett Johansson’s star turn in “Ghost in the Shell” was all but scuttled by a major white-washing controversy. Meanwhile, Brie Larson, Sofia Boutella, and Cara Delevingne scrambled to be noticed amidst the mediocrity of, respectively, “Kong: Skull Island,” “The Mummy,” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
Katherine Waterston should have had a well-deserved breakout moment in Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” but her Ripley moment was obscured by a series of cheap, misogynistic horror clichés, including multiple, lingering shots of a woman’s severed head and a gruesome nude shower scene.
With something as delectably empowering as “Wonder Woman” on our summer plates, it’s tempting to let all this slide, but clearly Hollywood is still in need of many more bad-ass ladies to give it the kick in the butt it requires to realize that strong roles for women are the way of the future.
That said, we’re here to laud the ladies who did break barriers, cross boundaries, and inspire awe with their bad-ass acting and action prowess. Their ranks may be small, but their performances packed a huge punch.
Dafne Keen in Logan: Keen was only 12 when she starred opposite Hugh Jackman in the latest and bleakest of the Wolverine spin-offs. Her performance as mutant X-23, aka Laura, is the stuff of a parent’s nightmares, but it’s truly amazing in its total avoidance of child actor clichés.
There’s never anything cutesy or cloying about Keen or her relationship with Jackman’s aging, disillusioned Logan and Patrick Stewart’s decaying Professor X, who become her protectors in a world where mutants are hunted and all but extinct.
Clawed and feral, Keen is a furious, beastly ball of rage and survival instincts. At one point, she casually emerges from a melee, clutching a severed head. Mute for the first portion of the movie, when she finally speaks and cracks an unsettling smile, we get a glimpse of her uncommon talent. She may be young, but she’s already a badass lady.
Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman”: It’s magnificent, really, the way Gadot so naturally embodies the iconic role of the Amazon warrior princess of comic book legend. There’s no swagger in this performance, just humility, grace, and unabashed joy, which makes it a pleasure to watch.
Director Jenkins deserves credit for working closely with Gadot to develop the role of Diana, a goddess who leaves her sheltered life on the all-female island of Themyscira to become the benevolent champion of a self-destructive human race.
It’s not that Gadot’s Diana isn’t feminine or beautiful. It’s that her femininity and beauty never define her. As she intervenes in World War I, believing that meddling god of war Ares is behind the conflict, she fights with courage, honesty, intelligence, and humor, supported by a posse of male sidekicks.
She is the ultimate superhero for the Trump era, compassionate, unstintingly righteous, thoroughly unconflicted about her divinity. She’s better than us, but she understands our plight.
Gadot is featured in action scenes, elegantly staged by Jenkins, that are the empowering stuff of little girl’s dreams. In a scene showcasing the fierce battle skills of Themyscira’s Amazon warriors, including Robin Wright’s gob-smackingly awesome Antiope, Jenkins quietly renders moot the male gaze we’re so accustomed to seeing in action movies. To recognize it is to realize it is possible to do away with this tired cinematic convention, and that’s historic.
Charlize Theron in “Atomic Blonde”: It didn’t attract the attention that “Wonder Woman” did, but “Atomic Blonde” deserves just as much praise for its bold subversion of action movie stereotypes.
Set in 1980s Berlin, it features Theron as a spy navigating Cold War intrigue and blatant sexism to retrieve a stolen list of agents for the British government. Mysterious, passionate, and solitary, Theron’s Lorraine is as hard-boiled and badass as they come. Her sex appeal and flair for ‘80s fashion are the least interesting things about her.
Theron did a majority of the stunts in the film, which are brutal, intense, and authentic. It’s refreshing to see a woman fighting realistically, even if, like the men in most action flicks, she can endure more of a beating than is humanly possible.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if Theron’s steamy lesbian sex scene is an exploitative male fantasy or a daring depiction of female pleasure.
At any rate, “Atomic Blonde” confirms Theron’s rightful place in the Badass Ladies hall of fame.
Photos: amctheatres.com, lanacion.com.ar, youtube.com.