'Atomic Blonde' anti-heroine Lorraine Broughton doesn't want to be your role model
Agent Lorraine Broughton is not exactly role model material. The Brit spy drinks vodka like it's water, slumbers in ice baths and trusts no one. There is no "girl next door" quality drawing audiences to the "Atomic Blonde" lead character. Instead, the fact she kicks everyone's butt without apprehension persuades viewers to root for her.
Played by Charlize Theron, Broughton spends most of "Atomic Blonde," which hits theaters on Friday, shooting people or kicking them down the stairs. Yes, she takes her share of shots, but to be quite honest, the score is not even close. She is clearly better than the men she is up against and beats them (literally) at their own game.
Broughton as an action film heroine, however, is not built to be inspiring -- nor will her stylish garb and white-blond hair become the hottest costume for the elementary school set come Halloween. The character is far too dark to swim in those often glitter-filled waters.
If "Atomic Blonde" does well at the box office, it will prove that women-led action films can be successful outside of a "role model" archetype.
Action movies that boast women leads are typically tasked with inspiring and empowering women and girls in the audience. For example, according to Box Office Mojo, the top five grossing "action heroine" films (not adjusted for inflation) are: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015), "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016), "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013), "The Hunger Games" (2012), and "Wonder Woman" (2017).
This film decidedly does not fit in with that crowd. It is gritty, sexy and not kid-friendly in the slightest. As a motion picture, and from a character perspective, it is more akin to "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (2003), "Kill Bill Vol. 2" (2004), and "Lucy" (2014). All of them are rated R, and are films that challenge conventional wisdom about what kinds of women can carry a blockbuster motion picture.
"Atomic Blonde" is built on the groundwork laid by these films, coupled with the fact that Broughton is just (technically) doing her job. She is not on a quest for revenge, nor is she searching for answers -- storylines where women have more latitude (see "Kill Bill" and "Lucy"). Rather, she is sent to Berlin to retrieve a top-secret dossier simply because she is an excellent spy. It is a subtle difference, but no less subversive.
Additionally, the film doesn't feature a traditional love interest. While it is clear that Broughton has a connection to a deceased man in the film, the person she develops feelings for (and sleeps with) is a woman. Personally, I have feelings about this kind of groundbreaking representation for queer women -- especially bisexual women -- being wrapped up in a character who lies for a living, but Broughton's bisexuality is a big deal. What's interesting, and perhaps the best thing about this development is that her sexuality is not treated as monumental. There is no exposition about what it means, nor is there any kind of acknowledgment that her attraction to a woman is anything but an everyday occurrence. It just is.
Broughton is a complicated character with many layers beyond her ability to inspire women to cosplay. This is not throwing shade at the traditional action heroine, but women can be more than role models.
Action heroines do not have to carry the burden of every doe-eyed five-year-old who wants to change the world. We do need those characters; I will never say that "Wonder Woman" is not one of the most important films of the 21st century.
But we also need Lorraine Broughton, if for no other reason than to prove that sometimes, women don't need to carry the world on their shoulders. Sometimes they kiss other women, kick men downstairs, and drink vodka like it's water.