We’re only about two months into 2018, but a remarkable trend seems to be developing and it could constitute the beginning of an amazing year for women in Hollywood.
On Feb. 16, Marvel released its latest comic book adaptation, “Black Panther.” The movie is groundbreaking in terms of black representation, but also achieved something close to gender equality in a historically male-dominated genre.
While Marvel movies are generally huge blockbusters and considered superior to other, similar offerings (cough, DC, cough), the studio has struggled when it comes to figuring out what to do with its female characters.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, for instance, is a compelling figure, but she’s also been highly sexualized, overshadowed by her male counterparts, and sidelined in subplots that don’t do her justice (she deserves more than a romance with the Hulk).
But along comes “Black Panther,” which features four strong, complex, memorable female characters with voice and agency equal to, if not greater than, the male characters as they render considerable support to King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman.
“Black Panther” gives us Angela Bassett’s dignified and regal Queen Mother, Ramonda; Lupita Nyong’o’s superspy, Nakia, who is basically James Bond with a passion for social justice; and Danai Gurira’s spear-wielding Okoye, who is the freakin’ general in charge of T’Challa’s elite, highly-skilled, fiercely loyal, all-female bodyguard, the Dora Milaje.
Then, we’ve got Letitia Wright, who steals the movie with her portrayal of T’Challa’s little sister, Shuri, a 16-year-old genius in charge of developing all of Wakanda’s formidable technology. Shuri rivals Tony Stark himself with her brains, innovation, ingenuity, and super-cool wisecracks. She’s also, refreshingly, way less arrogant and destructive than Mr. Stark.
While we’re still processing all of this, director Ava DuVernay is about to unleash her take on Madeleine L’Engle’s childhood classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” which showcases a star-studded, wildly diverse cast that includes Oprah, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Gugu MBatha-Raw, and young star Storm Reid.
“A Wrinkle in Time” will be followed by a reboot of the video game-inspired “Tomb Raider” franchise, starring Alicia Vikander. The jury is still out on whether this is a good idea or not, but judging by the trailers, the film will at least present a much less objectified version of the iconic Lara Croft character.
Things on the female representation front got even more intriguing this weekend as an underrated, but critically acclaimed science-fiction movie called “Annihilation” made its debut, quietly sandwiched between “Black Panther” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Whether due to a lack of marketing or the fact that it’s more challenging than crowd-pleasing, “Annihilation” bombed at the box office with a meager $11 million opening haul. The film’s international rights have been sold off to Netflix, which indicates the studio didn’t have big expectations for this one.
“Annihilation” is worthy of attention for two reasons: It’s actually good. And it also happens to be something virtually unprecedented – a sci-fi film with an all-female cast, and a diverse one at that.
There are literally only three dudes in this movie. One of them is Oscar Isaac, who appears occasionally in flashbacks or as a largely catatonic figure. The other two guys show up even more briefly in minor supporting roles.
So while science-fiction cinema has had a decent track record of women playing lead roles, ever since Sigourney Weaver was Ripley and Linda Hamilton was Sarah Connor, this is the first time I can remember that the entire ensemble is made up of women. And these are some smart, self-sufficient, complicated, body-positive women, not an assortment of tank-top-wearing eye candy.
“Annihilation” centers on a team of scientists and academics who venture into Area X, a coastal swampland swallowed up by a mysterious phenomenon known as “The Shimmer.” Natalie Portman stars as an emotionally detached biologist who signs on for the mission after her husband returns, dramatically changed, from a previous expedition into the area.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the team leader, a psychologist who may know more about the mission than she’s letting on. The other members of the group are played by Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”); Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin); and Swedish actor Tuva Novotny (check her out in the Netflix series “Nobel”).
As the women enter The Shimmer, heavily armed and determined to approach things objectively, they encounter grotesquely beautiful genetic mutations in the local plant and animal life, as well as strange lapses in memory and maybe even sanity.
To say any more about the plot would spoil pretty much the entire film, but I will say this is a tense, unsettling, truly terrifying psychological trip of a movie, punctuated by spine-crawling WTF moments that are more horror than sci-fi.
The film obviously takes cues from the “Alien” movies and sometimes plays like a much creepier version of “Arrival,” but it remains boldly original nonetheless. It’s also quite stunning on a visual level and the questions it raises and ultimately leaves unanswered will haunt you.
None of this is at all surprising when you consider that “Annihilation” was written and directed by Alex Garland. Garland’s debut film, “Ex Machina,” is a mind-blowingly brilliant thriller, starring Vikander as an AI who uses her stereotypically feminine programming to turn the tables on her narcissistic creator (played by Isaac).
Garland based his script for “Annihilation” on the first volume in the “Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. The filmmaker’s take is very different from the book, which is much more internal and layered.
Despite its dismal performance this weekend, I hope “Annihilation” will enjoy a second life when it’s released for home-viewing. While it didn’t make the waves that “Black Panther” did and “A Wrinkle in Time” ultimately will, when it comes to female representation, it’s revolutionary.