On the scale of science fiction– and fantasy-inflected YA movie franchises, the Divergent series hangs somewhere in the middle, a few rungs above The Maze Runner and The Mortal Instruments and an extension ladder below its closest relative, The Hunger Games.
The latest entry, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, opened to dismal reviews and weak box office numbers relative to its predecessors. That's no surprise, given that it suffers from many of the same problems as the previous films in the series: a tedious episodic structure, a haphazardly imagined science fiction world that is simultaneously overly complex and underdeveloped, trendy costume and production design that look as if they were copied from glossy mail order catalogs, flat acting, and boring characters who are rarely as interesting as their haircuts. The series never shakes the impression that it is just a mediocre knockoff of The Hunger Games, because, of course, it is.
The movie’s biggest failure in this regard is the way it wastes its lead, actress Shailene Woodley, a promising young performer who has given over years of her career to a second-rate endeavor. Woodley is talented and magnetic, but the series can never quite decide what to do with her character, Tris Prior, a genetically "divergent" individual whose existence threatens the social structure of the series’ sci-fi world, which is strictly organized by genetically determined caste.
The movie doesn’t know whether to cast Tris as a dour outsider or a unifying leader, a mature young adult who outshines her peers or a rebellious youngster who's upsetting the adult authority figures.
Mostly, though, the Divergent films fail, despite Woodley’s best efforts, to turn her into a convincing action lead. She’s physical but rarely commanding, a fighter but not really a warrior, a rebel who fronts a social cause but is often unwilling to lead. It’s not just that she appears conflicted about her role, it’s that the movie doesn’t seem to understand what it is either, and never seems to define it, except to hint that it’s sort of like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, but also different somehow.
But in that failure, the series raises a larger question about just what it is we want from female action heroes — what makes them successful and memorable, and why there is so often confusion about how and what they should be.
Alien's Ellen Ripley is the mother of the modern female action hero
In some sense, every modern female action hero is a descendant of Lt. Ellen Ripley, the protagonist of the Alien films played by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley, for all practical purposes, created the modern female action hero. And in doing so, she made a clear statement about what a female action hero could be.
The first film in that series, Alien, is more of a horror film — a kind of science fiction riff on the same late-'70s slasher-movie formula found in films like Halloween. But it nonetheless establishes Ripley as a force to be reckoned with, capable and intelligent, a competent professional, wary of dangers that others refuse to acknowledge, and more than capable of handling herself when a situation becomes dire. Weaver imbues her with a sense of intelligence and responsibility: Ripley is rational and reasonable, skeptical and careful, a counterweight to the men on her ship who are ultimately doomed by their own agendas and insecurities.
Part of what makes Ripley so interesting is that she achieves her hero status unexpectedly — while the audience follows right behind. For much of the movie, an unsuspecting viewer wouldn’t necessarily know that she’s going to be its protagonist, its final survivor. She’s a hero born out of necessity, whose main act of heroism is to ensure her own survival, not a gunslinger who charges into the action.
The 1986 sequel, Aliens, is more of a traditional action movie — a squad-on-a-mission, post-Vietnam war film set in space. And it casts Ripley in a more aggressive mold, putting a gun (sorry, pulse rifle) in her hand for the first time and cementing her status as an iconic big-screen action hero.
But the Ripley of Aliens is also an intensely feminine character, a mother figure whose action heroics are driven by her desire to save Newt, a young girl and the only survivor of an alien attack. By the end of the film, Newt essentially becomes Ripley’s adopted daughter. The movie’s chief antagonist, meanwhile, is an alien queen, another powerful mother figure who ultimately represents the biggest threat to Ripley. The final battle between the two — easily one of the most satisfying finales in action movie history — is staged as a motherly throwdown, kicked off with Ripley’s now-famous taunt, "Get away from her, you bitch!"
Aliens is a first-rate, ass-kicking action film, one of the best of its era. But it’s also a pointed satire of the sort of muscular, male-dominated action movies that dominated the box office during the 1980s. Like Alien, it establishes Ripley as a protector — of her own life as well as Newt’s — and a voice of calm and reason against the din of male ego and aggression. She maintains a quiet confidence in herself and her abilities, but without the self-defeating swagger.
Even the movie’s poster, which featured a battle-ready Ripley cradling a grenade-launching machine gun in one arm and a scared little girl in the other, was essentially a retort to the Schwarzenegger school of ultra-macho action films, a declaration that a blistering, badass action movie can ultimately be about a woman trying to save her daughter. The radical-for-its-time idea embedded in that image, and in the film as a whole, was that not only could women be action stars, but they could do it without sacrificing their womanhood. Indeed, the fact that Ripley was a woman made her even more powerful.
But many of the female heroes who came after Ripley lacked a key element of her appeal
Weaver’s Ripley opened the door for dozens of female action heroes, from Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider films to Kate Beckinsdale’s sleek, gun-toting vampire Selene in the Underworld series to Milla Jovovich’s cool, violent Alice in Resident Evil and its successors. All were positioned as genre-film icons of some sort, yet while many of these movies were fun, none of these franchise anchors had the kind of impact or staying power as Ripley.
Partly this is because the films themselves were less sophisticated, with less sophisticated characters, but partly it’s because they offered no theory of what a female action hero could be. Their respective actresses — Jolie in particular — all elevated their roles, but in most cases they had very little to work with. The movies tended to treat their female leads as real-life action figures, on screen to pose and punch and look the part but not do much else.
There’s a kind of power in that approach, which suggests that women can be disposable action stars, just like men. But there’s also a kind of uncertainty involved, about whether female action heroes should be any different from their male counterparts, as well as a creative missed opportunity to take advantage of the ways in which female characters might be unique.
Contrast this with the way male action heroes tend to be cast: Whether they’re heroic or aggressive or suave, they almost always tend to play up masculine virtues. Just look at James Bond, Hollywood’s longest-lived action hero standard-bearer: Although he’s changed throughout the years, he’s always embodied the (or at least a) contemporary male ideal, from the breezy stylishness of Sean Connery to the swinging suave of Roger Moore to the brooding aggression of Daniel Craig. The Bond films always worked from both a clear idea of what a male action hero should be and a clear sense that the action hero was, in some sense, the male ideal.
In part, then, what many of these female-fronted action franchises end up suggesting is that the action hero is inherently male in nature, and that for women to play action heroes they must embody male virtues and qualities. It’s the opposite of what Ripley embodied.
The best female action heroes are both badass and uniquely feminine
But in recent years, there’s been a move to take advantage of the wider range of possibilities that female action heroes offer. Two of the most prominent examples are Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games films and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Both are action heroes whose power is drawn from being women. Like Ripley, Katniss is a reluctant protector, thrust into danger in order to save a family member she loves. She’s plenty capable when the time comes to fight, yet also hesitant when it comes to violence, and all too aware of its cost, even when she believes it’s necessary.
Furiosa, the road warrior who escapes with five war brides in hopes of finding freedom, is, fittingly, a more hard-bitten character. And as Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post recently pointed out, for as capable and independent as Furiosa is, she also maintains an intensely collaborative relationship with the women around her, leading through consensus rather than through violent domination, like the leaders of the male factions she’s trying to escape.
In a subtler fashion, this month’s 10 Cloverfield Lane fits the bill too: Until the final act, it’s more of a thriller than a straightforward action movie, but it’s ultimately a story about female agency, about a woman who takes charge of herself and her life rather than submit to her male captor’s idea of what she should be.
That clarity of purpose is a big part of what makes these movies, and their heroes, great and memorable — and, similarly, it’s a big part of what makes the Divergent films so disappointing.
Shailene Woodley might have given us another worthy heir to Ripley. Instead, she’s stuck playing a second-tier Katniss Everdeen. But maybe even that represents progress of a sort: Yes, she’s a poor copy of a far richer character. But at least there are enough female action heroes now that they’ve started to copy each other.