There has been some talk recently about the lack of viable male action stars in Hollywood today. While there are plenty of superheroes about, there seems to be no heir apparent to the crown Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis will be sure to leave behind in their golden years. Well, male heir that is. With Marvel confirming Zoe Saldana for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s clear her star is on the rise. She just may be the next big action hero, poised to overturn gender expectations and audience perceptions everywhere.
The portrayal of women in action fare has a long and not so glorious history. There has been a smattering of hope here and there — your Ellen Ripleys and Lara Crofts — but the majority of films seem content with relegating women to damsels in distress or femme fatales. There has been no true female action star to give the men a run for their money.
What I mean when I talk about action stars are those actors whose bread and butter are the shoot em' up flicks we love them for. They may have dalliances into more serious fare, i.e. Bruce Willis with The Sixth Sense, but their careers are defined by their action hero status. Angelina Jolie may be the closest thing we have to this in female form. She took on Lara Croft and even had an entire film rewritten for her when Tom Cruise dropped out. But she is better known for her dramatic fare than anything else – except maybe Brangelina. Action films are merely a paycheck for Jolie, especially now that she is directing.
This is where Saldana may find her niche. While she has a diverse background, the action genre is where audiences know her best.
Ok, so her breakout role came in Centre Stage — a film about ballerinas, not badass heroes — but it was a decent breakthrough, giving her the opportunity to show off the physicality which has made her a hot commodity these days. It was a few tumultuous years after that; a Britney Spears film, a Tom Hanks bomb, and let's not forget her appearance on Law & Order: SVU. But then came James Cameron and a little film called Avatar.
Since being cast in this gem, Saldana has done what many actors, male or female, have failed to do ... star in a string of successful action films. Saldana pulled off The Losers, Star Trek, Avatar and most recently the Marvel Universe with Guardians of the Galaxy. Saldana is building up her credibility as a force to be reckoned with. She's even had a solo effort, and while Colombiana wasn't a massive box office success, it gave us a glimpse into the kind of action hero Saldana could be. She's charismatic enough to carry a film, a physical force, and has acting ability to boot.
Oh, and more importantly, she's a woman.
Because there's a shift going on in Hollywood. It may be slow, but it's happening. Women are taking on more central roles in traditionally male genres, and Saldana is not the only one. Recent superhero films have given women some strong roles, albeit supporting ones. But it's actors like Milla Jovovich and Gina Carrano who are giving Saldana a run for her money. Jovovich has carried an entire series to four successful sequels, though the Resident Evil remain more of a cult favourite than mainstream blockbusters. Carano's Haywire was a solid film, both critically and commercially. And the announcement she will be leading the cast of the female version of The Expendables gives me reason to hope.
Scarlett Johansson is another big name who seems to be pushing the action genre in the female direction. She was an integral part of The Avengers and more recently was announced as the star of a Luc Besson film that sounds suspiciously like Crank. Johansson the next Jason Statham? Probably not. She, much like Jolie, remains defined by her bombshell status and dramatic roles. But she and others like her represent a shift away from the stereotypes women have been relegated to in action films past. They are building upon what actors like Jolie have been laying the groundwork for, though without the successes Hollywood expects of their male action stars.
Saldana seems to provide the greatest hope for the true female action star; the one who can carry a big budget film to box office success. Having starred in the biggest film of all time, she's building up a solid resume, diverse as it is impressive. While she may have a slate of dramas coming up, her defining roles will likely come from Marvel and JJ Abrams. If she succeeds, if Saldana transitions into a box office hero, it would be a game changer for female actors. No longer will the strong female be a coveted yet rare commodity; it will be as common as Tom Cruise playing a grizzled anti-hero.
So let's hope that Guardians of the Galaxy is the film to launch Zoe Saldana into stratosphere of the action film, finally opening the floodgates female actors have been coming up against for years.