As a non-official end of hiatus and attempt at dusting off this long-forgotten Internet space, I’d like to ponder a little over the two films I have seen recently.
The two movies in question, if you have not guessed them already from my title, are diametrically different. One is a light and punchy satire hyper-focused on the stereotypes of its genre ; the other is an ambitious original story blending settings and tones in an explosive visual mixture.
My former is Kingsman: The Secret Service, and I will not dwell on how funny the film is and how well it caricatures all the spy movies (*cough* James Bond *cough*) that came before it in a blast of “oh so british” humour. I could praise its dynamic style in action sequences, its visual ingenuity – I’ve never enjoyed seeing heads explode so much -, and its surprisingly heartwarming underdog-coming-of-age story. But I am sure many others have already done so elsewhere.
The latter is Jupiter Ascending, and I will not detail how the film could have but fell just short of the grandeur it aspired to. This space opera aimed at being the next intergalactic saga but tried too hard, in too many directions, and ended up imploding under its own density. Some good points such as the main character or rich visuals do little to erase the feeling of wasted potential. Most viewers reviews will give you a better analysis than I could.
What strikes me when seeing those movies one after the other is a double-sided irony. On one hand, Kingsman is an excellent film that makes you care about its main protagonists but reduces its female characters to stereotyped plot devices. On the other hand Jupiter Ascending’s front man is a front woman, and an interesting one at that (if you can forget the nonsensical immigrant back story), but the film fails to give her a worthy stage and plot.
I understand Kingsman is a form of parody and, do not get me wrong, I immensely appreciate the representation of a disabled woman as a bad-ass assassin and the backside view of the sexually-liberated James-bond style trophy-girl Scandinavian Princess. What bugs me is that none of the 4 “main” female characters have any agency whatsoever in the plot.
This is obvious through Roxy, an under-developed character that seems to have been brought in to try and counter-balance the inherent sexism of the spy genre. But, the only thing we end up knowing about her is that she is afraid of heights and this serves merely as a platform for Eggsy to show his compassion and leadership. Throughout the film I wanted to see her fight at Eggsy’s side as a peer but left disappointed in that regard.
The other sore point for me is Michelle Unwin, Eggsy’s mother, who is the usual stereotype of the impoverished single mom widow who ended up in an abusive relationship. She is the selfless mother who will stand up for her son but not for herself and ends up being used in the plot as the pathos element bringing actual tension to the final scenes. There is no parody gold nor creative thinking in this, which contrasts with the rest of the movie.
A contrario, Jupiter is the one leading the crazy dance of the rightly-titled Jupiter Ascending. In the story she is pushed and pulled by the tentacles of interstellar intrigues in a world she does not understand. However, throughout her struggles she keeps her head high, makes her own choices -including bad ones, human ones-, shows her feelings (arguably justified) and fights for herself. Similar to Eggsy, she is an underdog rising to a position of power but the similarity stops here. Instead of focusing on her the films piles up the action scenes and planet visuals with short interludes of humour or sadness that appear shallow for lack of story development.
Whereas the lack of interestingly developped female character in Kingsman is but a missed opportunity that should stop no one from enjoying the film, the obvious failure that is Jupiter Ascending is unfortunately going to reinforce the idea (in the eye of producers) that a female-lead movie cannot succeed.
The key for a better gender distribution of main characters in cinema is to understand that there is no fundamental difference between men and women … but we should also keep our fingers crossed for the next action/sci-fi scenario with a female protagonist to get a better treatment than the Wachowskis gave to their Jupiter.
A gender-bent James Bond parody anyone ?