The Fate of the Furious crashed into cinemas last weekend, with all the testosterone-fuelled chaos of the previous seven installments. This time around, however, there is something (or someone) a little bit different running the show. That someone is cyber-terrorist Cipher, played by Charlize Theron. The Oscar-winner’s steely-eyed villain is in charge, forcing Vin Diesel’s Dominic to work for her and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. It’s a first for the franchise, which has never had a main female antagonist before, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have been following Theron’s career. Having dazzled in Mad Max: Fury Road and built a considerable amount of hype for the forthcoming Atomic Blonde, she is quickly evolving into a feminist action hero that can play her male co-stars at their own game.
Incredibly, it’s over 20 years since Theron made her big-screen debut but her career continues to go from strength to strength, despite Hollywood’s aversion to female stars over the age of 40. This is largely due to a philosophy that sees her change the type of role she pursues every few years — in the late '90s she was the stunning romantic interest of a number of leading men in films such as The Devil’s Advocate, The Cider House Rules and Reindeer Games. In the early 2000s, however, she altered her own image dramatically to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster, one of the most startling performances of the decade, earning her a Best Actress Oscar and cementing her position as a performer capable of far more than she was being offered. Theron would go on to mix hard-hitting drama (In the Valley of Elah, The Road) with more commercial fare (Hancock, Snow White and The Huntsman) and even find a knack for dark comedy in the critically lauded Young Adult.
Then came Mad Max: Fury Road. Surely one of the best films of that or any other year, Tom Hardy’s title character was surprisingly not the standout performer. Furiosa, played by a shaven-headed, grease-covered Theron, was a revelation. A former Imperator of bad guy Immortan Joe, she turns on her leader to save his five "wives" from a life of enslavement. While there’s no doubt Max is pivotal to the plot, he is a part of Furiosa’s journey, not the other way around. The concept of a Hollywood blockbuster with legitimate themes of equality and female empowerment made everyone take notice. Indeed, the only downside of the whole experience was that among the film’s many Academy Award nominations, Theron’s turn was not acknowledged.
The reception for that role almost certainly led to her casting as Cipher — not as complex or polished a character but with key similarities nonetheless. There are no catsuits, no lingering bum shots; Cipher trades on her intelligence, not her sexuality. Even the kiss shared between her and Diesel midway through the film is a power play rather than a submission to his charms. She is also a character unmotivated by male influence, acting for her own interests and not out of spurned love or a need for paternal approval. It may not be Shakespeare, but it’s as progressive as it gets in the maelstrom of cliché that is the Fast and Furious franchise.
So where next? Is this a rare exception to Hollywood rule, like Katniss Everdeen or Ellen Ripley, or the sign of a new kind of action superstar? The trailer for August’s Atomic Blonde has been promising the latter. Those who have pined for a female Bond equivalent may have got their wish in Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent with a particular set of skills. Staying one step ahead of both her pursuers and her superiors, she tears through 1989 Berlin searching for an organization that is killing agents. The trailers show her dispatching bad guys with hand-to-hand combat skills that would make Jason Bourne jealous, and using sex as weapon in the same way 007 has been doing since the '60s.
While she is not the only one flying the flag for female-led action this year (Gal Gadot takes centre stage as Wonder Woman in May), Charlize Theron has aggressively demonstrated the possibilities that are available when a talented female star is given the opportunity to break out of Hollywood’s limiting boxes. In an industry desperate for a fresh perspective, having women blaze a trail in the most male-dominated of genres can open all kinds of stories, and bring in 50% of an audience who may have felt left behind. Regardless of Atomic Blonde’s success, that is hopefully a goal both Theron and future stars will view as worth chasing.