There’s a great opening for this piece involving asking you, the reader, to think of the biggest action stars right now. You would sit there and list off a few folks like Dwayne Johnson, Tom Cruise, Chris Evans, Hugh Jackman, and Keanu Reeves. Then the twist would land and you’d be asked why you hadn’t thought of Charlize Theron. Unfortunately, you’ve already read the headline to this piece, so that little experiment isn’t going to work, but the fact remains: The people who would mention her in that theoretical list are few and far between.
Theron is, by any measure of the term, an action star. Over the past five years, she starred or took part in some of the most critically acclaimed action movies released and a few of the biggest blockbusters as well. Without a doubt, her role in George Miller’s seminal Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015 kicked off this recent action movie surge in her career and led to her making the underrated spy thriller Atomic Blonde, (A sequel is reportedly coming.) becoming a recurring villain in the Fast and Furious franchise, and now leading a team of immortal warriors in the film adaptation of the comic book The Old Guard. Had F9 not been delayed, she would have played a role in three of the most successful action films of the past five years. So why don’t we talk about her with the rest of the action royalty?
A Career in Flux
One of the reasons is, admittedly, the short time frame of Charlize Theron’s action movie success. Five years isn’t exactly a large window to establish yourself as an elite action star, though it could easily be argued that she did far more than most male actors who are launched into action stardom. Keanu Reeves, for example, was an instant action star after Speed and took five years to make his next action hit, The Matrix, while also flopping hard in Johnny Mnemonic. Theron has more than doubled that output and at a higher level of quality, especially considering her strong performance in The Old Guard.
Still, Theron hasn’t built up the kind of action clout that most actors with more than 20 successful years in the industry would have. The actress began building up her action repertoire early in her career with turns in Reindeer Games and the remake of The Italian Job. In both films, she plays second fiddle to male leads (Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg respectively), but it was clear she had the action chops and wanted to push her career in that direction alongside her more critically acclaimed roles like in Monster.
Then she made Æon Flux and it all fell apart.
The anime adaptation bombed at the box office and critically, almost killed the actress, and was another example to point at for those in Hollywood who believed women couldn’t lead successful action movies. Theron wouldn’t be asked to lead another action film for 10 years and, aside from Hancock, a superhero riff starring Will Smith, wouldn’t land in another action film until then either. She didn’t let action get too far away, starring in major films like Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman while pursuing more dramatic turns as well, but she wasn’t treated as an action star at all.
Theron’s career choices may be part of why we don’t instantly think of her as an action star, but it was Hollywood that made a lot of those choices for her as it stubbornly held onto the belief that women weren’t action stars.
The Future Is Action
We won’t dive too deeply into action cinema’s long and fraught history of exclusion of women in leading roles, but it is probably the biggest factor as to why we don’t instantly consider Charlize Theron an action movie star. Yes, her career has helped define her as a dramatic (and sometimes comedic) actress, but let’s not pretend that there aren’t plenty of male action stars out there who straddle the line between multiple genres. The simple fact is we don’t think of females as action stars because historically they haven’t been.
Action cinema is dominated by men, more so in the past, but even today an action movie led by a woman is a relative rarity. In fact, a quick and generous audit of Wikipedia’s action films from the last 10 years features only 31 U.S. films led by women out of the 294 released. That’s including the likes of Sucker Punch, which might be female-led but isn’t very female-driven, and action comedies like Spy, where half the gag is a woman is doing action stuff. It took Marvel more than a decade to feature a female superhero in its franchise, and DC didn’t make a Wonder Woman movie for nearly 40 years after the successful release of Superman in 1978 (all respect to the great Linda Carter).
There was, of course, a scientifically debunked misconception that female-led films in general didn’t make money. A misconception reinforced by the fact that when female action films were made in recent times, they often didn’t make money. Of course, the fact that female-led action films were often low-budget, independent, or just plain bad didn’t seem to register. Halle Berry’s Catwoman probably set female action films back a decade in and of itself despite its flopping because it sucked, not because it was led by a woman.
The end result is that anyone watching movies since the dawn of action cinema has mostly seen men in leading roles, so when we’re asked to think of action stars, that’s who we think of. Theron gets left out because as a woman we’ve been trained to think of her, intentionally or not, as something else.
Backward and in Heels
There’s an old saying that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backward and in heels. It highlights the fact that while both were skilled dancers and actors, Rogers did more for less credit and less pay. Charlize Theron is much the same with her action roles. Watching her in Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, or The Old Guard, it is clear to see she’s trained to be able to pull off the fight sequences herself and performs many of her own stunts. It lends her action films authenticity and means her directors don’t have to cut the shit out of her fight sequences. Meanwhile, Liam Neeson needs 14 cuts to jump over a fence.
Her action performances easily trump those of the majority of male stars out there, delivering bone-crunching, brutal, realistic, and tense sequences that are on par with Keanu Reeves’ John Wick performances, and sometimes she’s tasked with doing it in heels. Her dedication to her action work is repeatedly greater than most other action actors’ out there (again, mostly men) and pushes her into the upper echelons of current action stars. We should be considering her as one of the best right now, but sadly the history of cinema means she’s just starting to scratch people’s recognition as an action star.
Charlize Theron has a long career ahead of her for sure, especially if she continues to effortlessly bounce from dramatic roles to comedy to action cinema. If the current trajectory of more female-led action films continues and she wants to continue in these roles, then she should be an action superstar within the next five years. The problem is she should already be one. She’s already done the work, made the films, and delivered the goods. She’s just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with her.