The legacy of the Charlie’s Angels franchise is marked by a glaring contradiction. The iconic pose of three women standing back to back and pointing finger guns oozes girl power and badassery. Other images the name typically conjures, however, are of the same women scantily clad and shaking their butts in tight underwear right in front of the camera. The sexual objectification is not so surprising when you think about how the original 1970s TV series and its reboots were all directed and predominantly written by men.
Until now. The latest iteration sees Elizabeth Banks shaking things up as the director, writer, producer, and one of the stars of the movie. Unlike most of the recent women-fronted reboots such as Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, the new Charlie’s Angels movie flips the gender roles behind the camera and shows us how the female gaze can retell a classic story about crime-fighting women for women.
The movie is self-aware of its feminist messaging, and that self-awareness creates mixed results. Its main argument that “women can do anything”—literally the movie’s opening line—is hardly a radical one, and is also presented with little nuance.
But Charlie’s Angels doesn’t pretend to be more profound than it is, and shamelessly revels in celebrating girl power. In lieu of an introductory rundown on each Angel, there’s a montage that shows young women around the world excelling in sports, science and more, which can feel like a quick sugar rush of female empowerment. Beneath the fluffy surface, Banks’ decision to broaden the definition of badass women for a popular action franchise, especially beyond the Western ideal, is a refreshing and timely one.
Instead of a total reboot, Charlie’s Angels (2019) is a continuation of the franchise, set in the same universe as the original series and the 2000s movies. In the 2019 instalment, the Townsend Agency has gone global, comprising an international network of women spies known as Angels working together. These updates expand the Angels into a community that could include almost any woman, beyond just the typically American trio. Even the eponymous and enduringly anonymous founder and owner of the agency, Charlie, is eventually revealed be a woman.
Yet, on the micro level, a sisterhood between the trio is not quite there. The movie makes a seemingly odd choice to do a team origin story, so the trio’s friendship isn’t already established from the start. Jane (Ella Balinska) and Sabina (Kristen Stewart) are veteran Angels, but they did not know each other before the mission that opens the movie, and come present time, are hesitant to team up again for another mission.
Elena (Naomi Scott) is a total outsider, a systems engineer who discovers that the revolutionary clean energy device she helped create could be weaponised. When she blows the whistle on its potential dangers, an assassin comes after her, and Jane and Sabina are tasked to protect her while they prevent the technology from falling into the wrong hands.
Their mission involves colourful disguises, which long-time fans of the franchise would appreciate, and a lot of action. The editing of the action scenes is choppy at times, but the framing and choreography is solid for Banks’ first effort at directing an action movie. Balinska, who’s trained in stage combat, proves to be an action star to watch.
Banks also succeeds in keeping the action thrilling and entertaining throughout, even giving us more than one twist, and does away with a romance plot. The script also packs a lot of comedic punches, though many of the one-liners seem to land awkwardly. But Stewart makes the most of them, showing the audience a rare side of her as a surprisingly capable comedic actor.
A major downside is that as the movie tries to squeeze in copious amounts of action and comic moments, character arcs and the relationship between the characters take a backseat. Except for a passing mention of Sabina’s “abandonment issues” and criminal past, and Jane’s rigid MI6 past, we don’t get the full backstories of the lead Angels. As a result, they feel like stock archetypes: Sabina as the goofy oddball; Jane, the no-nonsense “muscle” of the group; and Elena, the innocent, brainy one. The three actors have good chemistry with one another, but they can only do so much to make the trio’s emotional bond feel convincing if the script doesn’t make room for it.
More than the lively action and vibrant costumes, female friendship is at the heart of the Charlie’s Angels franchise and its enduring appeal. Without proper development of its characters and their sisterhood, the new Charlie’s Angels falls short in delivering emotional depth, landing itself in fun but forgettable territory.
Things look hopeful, however: the eventual recruitment of Elena as an Angel and her reunion with Jane and Sabina at the end sets things up nicely for a sequel.
If Sony was to move forward with a sequel for Charlie’s Angels (2019), here’s hoping Part 2 would finally be able to fully focus on the most important element of the franchise: the Angels themselves.