On Cinema

Charlie’s cardboard feminists fall flat

Bad jokes, no chemisty, lame action: the snoozathon that’s not woke enough

Charlie’s angels is the entertainment industry’s recurring joke on women. Every time the 1970s girl detectives come back, it’s with the promise that this time it’s feminist. This joke goes all the way back to producer Aaron Spelling’s attempt to revive it in the 1980s as Angels ’88, which Spelling claimed was more progressive because the Angels’ boss was a female nurse.

Every time, the Angels have continued the tradition of the original, as summarised by Susan Faludi in her book Backlash: “Three jiggle-prone private eyes took orders from invisible boss Charlie and bounced around in bikinis.”

But Charlie’s Angels is back again! And this time it’s feminist! The 2019 movie picks up from the 2000 feature Charlie’s Angels and its 2003 sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and like its two predecessors, comes with a Drew Barrymore production credit. But while the 2000 and 2003 films were directed by a man (McG), 2019 goes one stage feminister by handing writing and direction duties to Elizabeth Banks, who also takes a lead role as the Angels’ handler, Bosley. Apart from being a woman, Banks is two things that should help make the new Charlie’s Angels decent. One, she is very funny. And two, she’s already directed one peppy female ensemble piece — the glee-club comedy Pitch Perfect 2.

So this time, Charlie’s Angels is feminist, and we know it’s feminist because it opens with Kristen Stewart as one of the Angels announcing that women can do anything. It turns out she is telling this to a sceptical-looking date who does not seem convinced at all that women can do anything. And anyway, he points out, isn’t her paean to female choice undermined by the fact that it’s actually him who chose her to share in all the splendours of his private wealth at this dinner in his luxurious apartment?

Ah, she says, sensually entangling him in a handy curtain, but men underestimate women — and that’s true power, which she proves by locking him between her thighs and handing him to the authorities. (His crime? He stole money from an NGO that works with women and children.) Cut to a montage of girls doing empowering things like learning STEM subjects. No, really. This is a film that wears its politics as lightly as the original Angels wore their cleavage.

And Banks sees her movie’s feminist mission as going beyond its content, and to the heart of Hollywood inequality. “You’ve had 37 Spider-Man movies and you’re not complaining!” she said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I think women are allowed to have one or two action franchises every 17 years — I feel totally fine with that.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if her Charlie’s Angels is going to be that franchise. The film underperformed badly on release, with Banks herself calling it a “flop” and pinning some of the blame on the fact that while men will see a female-fronted superhero film because that counts as a “male genre”, they’re still resistant to a female action movie. Let’s not ride her too hard about her efforts to explain a personal disappointment. Maybe male audiences really are the reason female action movies don’t get a fair shout. (Maybe Alien never happened.)

But Charlie’s Angels is a terrible way to test that hypothesis, because Charlie’s Angels is — by any measure — a terrible film. Not a single joke lands. There is no chemistry whatsoever between the cast (at one point, Stewart’s character tearfully reconciles with her fellow Angel, played by Naomi Scott; I hadn’t even realised they were supposed to be at odds).

Charlie’s Angels doesn’t ask for anything beyond a smattering of go-girl applause

The scenarios the Angels land in (trapped with a chauvinist man on a date, a patronising man as a colleague, a credit-thieving man as a boss) have all the substance and complexity of a tweet on the #everydaysexism hashtag. And the action sequences, fatally, look like small women flailing at big men who then graciously pretend to fall over.

That’s obviously a problem for any film that is trying to sell fights where women beat men. But not an insurmountable problem. Monique Ganderton, the stunt artist trainer who worked with Charlize Theron on Atomic Blonde, has talked about how martial arts techniques made Theron a convincing adversary: “lots of tactical gun stuff, lots of Aikido and Jiu Jitsu, some straight-up boxing drills, some old-school Judo. We wanted her to use her body how it would make sense for a 5ft 10in woman — you’re not going to punch a guy because you’re going to break your wrist, you’re going to throw and elbow.”

In other words, don’t set your film in a fantasy world where male and female don’t exist: have your female characters do the things that would actually give them a chance of taking down a six-foot-something side of beefcake.

So what’s left? Well, Stewart, Scott and third Angel Ella Balinska are all gorgeous, as is Banks. No, they don’t jiggle – but then jiggle isn’t really in any longer. Overflowing cups belong to the tacky regions of reality TV. Stewart patrolling a racetrack in riding silks is a look for the ages. She just doesn’t seem to be having much fun doing it. And the 2000 and 2003 films might well be dumb and garish with a have-your-empowerment-and-eat-it attitude to objectification, but at least they were dumb and garish fun with a have-your-empowerment-and-eat-it attitude to objectification.

Inevitably, the reactionary bits of the internet have blamed Charlie’s Angels’ failure on its feminist pretensions and mounted earnest arguments about wokeness being the enemy of action. Which, like Banks’s claim that men won’t watch action films featuring women, is a theory that collapses on contact with reality. Black Panther is an urgently smart film about race in America, with massive and exciting fights; on TV, you can see Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen pull off a similar balance.

The difference is partly in the source material, or at least their relationship to it. Black Panther picks up on the comics’ Afrofuturist leanings and engagement with the civil rights movement; Lindelof’s Watchmen revisits the universe of Alan Moore’s comic with unflinching attention to the history of anti-black violence in America. Neither starts from whatever the race relations equivalent of jiggle TV would be.

But more importantly, both of them do drama. There’s ambiguity and torn sympathies. The Black Panther audience is pulled between the hero’s noble pacifism, and his rival Killmonger’s justified rage (Black Panther’s arc as a character requires him to both defeat Killmonger and become more like him). In Watchmen, brutality begets brutality, and it’s thrillingly horrible to watch a lynching victim become the lyncher of his oppressors in the reinvention of Hooded Justice.

Charlie’s Angels doesn’t ask for anything beyond a smattering of go-girl applause. Its heroines’ methods are always justified, their moral integrity always unquestioned (when they kill an innocent security guard, it’s brushed off as a comic episode), their eye makeup just right. Who expected anything else from a Charlie’s Angels film?

But this isn’t feminism. Feminism isn’t easy answers, uncomplicated questions, unambiguous bad guys (all the bad guys are guys). It’s power and personal relationships and even more personal betrayals; it’s the struggle to live in a world that treats your body as a multi-purpose pleasure and care dispenser for other people and smile about it.

To think any of that can be covered by a film starting with a sincere and braindead hymn to the secret privileges of being objectified is a fairly drastic category error on the part of Banks. So is her suggestion that her film’s success or failure can stand for the success or failure of feminism in the arts as a whole, although Charlie’s Angels has always walked hand-in-hand with feminism in a perverse way. It arrived in the Seventies to chip at the second wave. It came back in the Noughties, newly ironised and riding a wave of girl power for the generation that thought it could tame sexism by not taking it seriously. And now we get Charlie’s Angels for the era of #metoo and mansplaining.

If Charlie’s Angels stands for feminism, it’s the kind of feminism that deserves to flop. Maybe, finally, women have got wise to sexism dressed up as liberation. Maybe women just don’t want to see very bad films, no matter how earnestly they preach tin-eared messages about women being able to do anything. Charlie’s Angels has one final twist in its feminist armoury: at the end, we find out that Charlie himself (never seen, of course) is — gasp — a woman. But as with Banks’s helming of the film, it turns out that there’s more to a successful feminist project than just putting a woman at the top.

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