'Tomb Raider' proves Hollywood still has a female action hero problem

Tomb Raider is not the female-led action movie we should be getting in 2018 (Ilze Kitshoff/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Tomb Raider is not the female-led action movie we should be getting in 2018 (Ilze Kitshoff/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

This week marks the arrival of Tomb Raider in cinemas, as Hollywood breathes fresh life into the big screen version of Lara Croft, seventeen years after her debut.

Alicia Vikander has picked up the mantle held for two films by Angelina Jolie, but while there is a more progressive approach to the depiction of the video game heroine – she’s not overtly sexualised or having sex with rugged adventurers – she’s still a woman out on her own in a world dominated by men.

This origin story of Lara Croft sees her head off on a journey to find her missing father, but the minute she leaves British soil she says goodbye to every supporting female character, but this isn’t how it went down in the 2013 video game the movie is based on.

When Lara, an archaeology student, goes on an expedition funded by the wealthy Nishimura family she is joined by their representative Samantha Nishumura, her friend and documentary filmmaker, and Joslyn Reyes, a sceptical mechanic and single mother. Both women play a significant role in the narrative but the new film erases them completely from the story.

When director Roar Uthaug was asked why Samantha and Josyln were removed from his film he said it was all to do with plot. “This is an origin story of Lara Croft for the big screen and we really wanted to focus on Lara and also the father-daughter relationship which I feel is the emotional core of this movie,” the Norwegian filmmaker said. “We didn’t want other relationships to take away from that.”

That point might have had some legs if there weren’t other relationships established on her expedition. Lara teams up with male sea captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), and faces off against a male villain Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who is incidentally surrounded by an all-male security detail as well as several other male background actors in varying roles.

Even Alicia admitted that the lack of women in the bulk part of the film was pretty shameful. “It’s this whole company in the film that we meet up on this island and I’m like ‘why didn’t they hire any women to go on this expedition?’” she said. “That, I think, was a bit questionable.”

There is a questionable history of female-led action movies centring their female hero in a decidedly male-dominated environment. Ripley in Alien, Sarah Connor in Terminator and Terminator II: Judgement Day, Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight, Angelina Jolie in Salt (and the Tomb Raider films), Scarlet Johansson in Lucy and Ghost in the Shell, Gina Carano in Haywire, Zoe Saldana in Colombiana and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games are just a few female protagonists who interact more with men than they do women in their own movies, if at all.

Wonder Woman is surrounding by a team of men during the bulk of the main action of her movie (Warner Bros.)
Wonder Woman is surrounding by a team of men during the bulk of the main action of her movie (Warner Bros.)

There have been some action films that have bucked this trend – Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie’s Angels and Divergent – but even more recent movies like Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman are still thrusting their leads into the “world of men” with little room for women. The former film, based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, has fourteen actors in the main and supporting cast and just three of those are women. That number would have been smaller if they hadn’t decided to gender swap the character of Lasalle, a male French agent on the page, and cast Sofia Boutella in the role.

In Wonder Woman, the film starts off with all the Amazonian women training up and fighting alongside Diana, but once she leaves Themyscira and goes into action, our hero is surrounded by a rag tag team of men. The setting of World War I was obviously dominated by men at the time but the roles of Etta Candy and Doctor Poison could have been fleshed out as much as Steve Trevor’s was to allow him to be as much of a hero as Diana.

If Hollywood stopped treating female action heroes as though they were an anomaly, a random glitch in an otherwise male-dominated matrix, then we’d have better movies that provide the opportunity for female characters to have more agency on screen. Just look at the monumental success of Black Panther, which, despite it not being a female-led film, had several women in roles that historically would have been reserved for men.

The Dora Milaje are vital to Black Panther (Photo: Marvel/ Walt Disney Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection)
The Dora Milaje are vital to Black Panther (Photo: Marvel/ Walt Disney Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection)

Okoye and the Dora Milaje, Nakia, Shuri and Ramonda arguably shared as much screen time as their supporting male counterparts and the film has gone onto enjoy not just one of the highest critical ratings of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film but also made over a billion dollars at the box office. Clearly there is an appetite for this type of storytelling, which reflects not just the diversity of gender but race too. UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report proves that.

“Our findings reveal that, regardless of race, audiences want to see diversity on the screen,” Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement for UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences, and the report’s other lead author said. “Our reports have continually shown that diversity sells, but the TV and film product continues to fall short. So audiences are left wanting more representation on screen that reflects the world they see in their daily lives.”

The Tomb Raider reboot had the opportunity to remedy some of the sexist pitfalls of the original franchise and the game, and in some ways it did, but by erasing quintessential female characters and overloading the male it failed to truly represent the female-led action hero movies we’ve come to expect in 2018. Let’s hope that if the film does get a sequel, Alicia Vikander gets her wish to have Lara raid some tombs with more women in tow.

Tomb Raider is in cinemas on March 16

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