Over the past few years, with the success of film franchises such as ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Divergent’, there has been a concerted effort to recognize the power of female-driven blockbuster action films at the box office. With ‘The Hunger Games’ becoming the highest grossing film in 2014, it should be a no-brainer that films featuring female leads are most likely going to be a huge win at the box office. Sadly, it is not a given in the film industry, and there is still reluctance to finance them, over male-drive action films which certainly do not always perform well at the box office (‘John Carter’ and ‘Batman v Superman’ anyone?).
With audiences incessantly demanding we see more gender equality and representation in the action film genre, studios recognize that in the current age of female empowerment and the acknowledgement of the lack of diversity in Hollywood both in front of and behind the scenes, they cannot afford to NOT cater to half the population.
This year we will see the very first ‘Wonder Woman’ film on the big screen, and given that Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ series is going strong, we hope to see a Black Widow film in the future. But although it may seem like this is a new direction for the action genre, there is a strong history of women playing powerful characters without the need to added sexualization, or to be portrayed as “second fiddle” to a male character. The most prominent franchise that comes to mind is ‘Alien’, starring Sigourney Weaver. And fun fact, her character Ripley was originally written for a man.
There are two other major franchises featuring female leads. The first is ‘Underworld’, starring Kate Beckinsale, directed by her husband Len Wiseman, which has seen 5 films in total hit the bit screen since 2003, the most recent being released in 2016. The other is ‘Resident Evil’, based on the popular video game, which first hit screens in 2002, starring Mila Jovovich. The paid have a young daughter, Ever, who makes her film debut in this installment, making it quite the family affair.
The most recent installment, ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’, and its 6th, has cemented this as the ultimate, modern female empowerment franchise for a number of reason, and it’s not always about box office numbers. Although if the opening weekend is anything to go by, where it took the number 1 drawing $21 million in domestic ticket sales, the numbers should not be ignored.
“The first five entries have earned, in North America, $244 million total, meaning it has made 17.5% of all domestic dollars earned by any video game movie. And the first five films have earned a whopping $915m thus far on a combined $248m budget, making it also the biggest horror franchise of all time,” writes Scott Mendelson at Forbes.com.
Three of the films, including the most recent, were directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, who also happens to be married to Mila. While the main cast and director were traveling around the country doing promo for the final installment, they made sure to emphasize how their films’ female empowerment was key to its success.
“At the time when we made the first movie, I mean I heard it over and over again that female-led action films don’t work, and I always disagreed with that. We forced it through, and it was something that ended up being really positive for us because it was different. I definitely feel like [Jovovich] opened doors with this franchise,” said the director at a premiere event in Los Angeles.
Actress Ali Larter explained how this film was more than just a nod to women in a lead role, but a vehicle to show female strength on screen in a way which is sadly not more common.
“What I loved about it was that it was female led. You don’t see women pitted against each other. You see women building each other up over three movies, and that’s something rare that you don’t always see,” she said.
In another interview with Hollywood Outbreak, she repeated an expanded on this point a little.
“As Claire Redfield, one of the things I was excited about was I was coming into this female led franchise. Over the years, they’ve continued that. They didn’t bring in another guy. They kept me in this role and not only that, they didn’t pit us against each other. Where so often you’d see women try to break each other down. [With the ‘Resident Evil’ franchise], we lift each other up . . . this is definitely a female empowerment franchise,” she said.
One of the film’s newcomers and rising star in Hollywood, Ruby Rose who some may be familiar with as the infamous Stella Carlin from ‘Orange Is The New Black’ says it was an honor being part of a film which she grew up watching and admiring.
“I love the fact that Resident was sort of existing in a world that wasn’t really current. We had a female protagonist, a strong woman, that was going around kicking butt and didn’t have a guy,” she said.
The LA Times’ Hero Complex section pointed out in 2012 that the films are unique in its diverse cast, but also in that the female characters can more than hold their own, fighting bullet for bullet, alongside the male characters.
The article dove into Mila Jovovich’s acting background, where she moved to Hollywood after emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1981 with her family. Her initial start in the film industry was playing typical two-dimensional female characters who are chosen for their looks and their body due to her experience as a model. It wasn’t until she was cast as the quirky Leeloo in ‘The Fifth Element’ that she realized what kind of characters she wanted to play.
“I’m not interested in being just a side character to the lead who’s a guy, and he gets to do all the major stuff that moves the script, and I just stand around on the sidelines…I think when I got ‘Fifth Element,’ I really got a taste of a unique character, an iconic character. And something different, something that is different for women, and strong and vulnerable. It was hard, definitely, to think about going and just playing girlfriend parts,” she said at the time.
The impact of her portrayal of Alice in ‘Resident Evil’, alongside the other female characters has set it apart from other action films. While there are men in featured roles, the success of the female protagonist does not depend on them solely, and that is an important message to send in order to dismantle the harmful “Disney Princess” notion of women constantly needing to be saved by a man to be happy and successful.
This message has become so well-known in the franchise that it has extended to fans who play the video game also.
“These women are so strong that literally men would rather play Jill Valentine in the game than a lot of men,” Mila said.
Considering it is the most successful video game to movie franchise of all time, we’re pretty sure the core themes driven by female heroes has something to do with this.
“To general moviegoers, it was unique because it was a large-scale action horror franchise, a zombie franchise no less, that not only starred a woman but usually had at least two primary female protagonists driving the action. Be it Michelle Rodriguez in the first film, Sienna Guillory in the second, Ali Larter in the third, or some combination of “Jovovich+guests” in the last three, it was always a team effort. ‘Resident Evil’ was a female-driven action franchise way before such things were a progressive talking point,” writes Forbes’ Scott Mendelson.
Watch below as Mila Jovovich and Ali Larter talk to Michael Strahan of ‘Good Morning America’ about the reception they have been getting from female fans as they continue on the promo trail, especially from girls who live in countries where women’s rights are scarce. That is the power of film.