Over the past few years, the increase of franchise reboots (or attempted reboots) has given more than a few people pause, even more so when typically male films and franchises are attempted with female cast. While Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters had some measure of success (despite the fury of fanboys), films like The Hustle didn’t fare so well, prompting the (correct) criticism that merely substituting women in for men does not a good (or feminist) movie make. Charlie’s Angels is an interesting entry into the reboot era, not least because it’s a property that already centralizes women (though I would like to see a male reboot with, say, Chrises Hemsworth, Pine, and Evans?), but typically via a male gaze. The original TV show traded on camp aesthetic that somewhat undercut its sexism, and the two films from the 00s relied on the quality of the three actresses, all with an arch sense of humor, to evade some of the nastier accusations of sexism and objectification (though not entirely). The latest version of Charlie’s Angels, directed and written by Elizabeth Banks, attempts to morph the concept into a more feminist, certainly less objectifying version of the story, treating female spies with a combination of seriousness and irreverence that’s surprisingly refreshing.
Charlie’s Angels features Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska as Sabina and Jane, members of the spy organization run by the unseen Charlie and superintended by a group of “Bosleys,” including Elizabeth Banks and Patrick Stewart. The two Angels must protect Elena (Naomi Scott), a scientist responsible for the Calisto project, a new-fangled form of energy technology. Elena fears that Calisto has a glitch in it that enables it to be weaponized, but runs into resistance from her immediate superior, Fleming (Nat Faxon), who refuses to take her report to the head of the company. Of course, someone is indeed trying to weaponize Calisto, and the Angels must race to recapture the tech before the villains can complete their nefarious plan.
The simplicity of the plot is a major bonus in Charlie’s Angels, evading the need for extensive exposition and providing space for the real fun of the franchise, which is getting to see the women flexing their muscles and kicking some ass. Stewart has been rightly praised for her part as the funny, talky, queercoded Sabina, but she’s balanced admirably by Balinska’s no-nonsense Jane, and the naïve but likable Elena. That balance is needed – the film takes these women seriously, and while there’s certainly humor, it doesn’t rely on slapstick comedy and camp. One of the weaknesses of previous iterations is that the women, and their bodies, were often made the site of jokes, the humor reliant on objectification and the camera’s unwillingness to treat them as serious subjects. With a female director and writer at the helm, the humor shifts into something that the Angels themselves control, relying on clever quips, non-sequiturs, and their subjective weaponizing of their own bodies.
It’s a clever move and one that thrums with a throwback kind of “girl power” motif. If the original Charlie’s Angels and the remakes were aimed at the male demographic, this film is aimed at women, especially teenage girls. And that is not only needed, it’s goddamn refreshing. Banks gives her actresses, and herself, space to play, to enjoy the games of espionage without forcing the concept to become self-serious or overly campy. The Angels cease to be objects for consumption and become people in their own right, quirky, odd, at times even maudlin, and that’s fine. Their sexuality is weaponized not by an unseen male controller, or by the camera gaze, but by themselves – the opening sequence sees Sabina gleefully manipulating the male gaze to her liking, waxing eloquent on how women make the perfect spies while tying up, and beating the snot out of, annoying boys.
Whether or not Charlie’s Angels succeeds at the box office – and by now, it seems clear that it won’t – it deserves attention and more than a few kudos for what it tries to do and largely succeeds at. It shifts the paradigm of a male fantasy concept, placing the power squarely in the hands of young women, who delight in their humor, their badassness, and their manipulation of the images that would, under a male director and a male screenwriter, be rendered objectifying. While not a perfect film, even in its feminism, Charlie’s Angels is a fantastic example of women retaking the means of production and using iconic images, crafted by men, against patriarchal structures.
It’s also, by the way, a lot of fun.