In the lead-up to the premiere of the new Charlie’s Angels, some theater chains held an advance screening under the banner of “Girls’ Night Out.” The idea was to invite female viewers to bring their friends and get a chance to win a copy of the film’s soundtrack. The description did not specify if the screening was a “Girls Only” affair (as one theater chain had done with some Wonder Woman screenings a couple of years earlier), and since I had the night free, I decided to take the risk.
As it turned out, there were a lot of other men at the theater (plus plenty of women, of course), and I settled in for the view. My mom joined me – as a fan of the original Charlie’s Angels series, she was interested in seeing how the characters would be adapted for 2019. Two hours and change later, we exited the theater, both with a similar mentality about the film: Competent but forgettable.
When weekend results came in a few days later, it seemed the audience was even less impressed – the film was trounced at the by Ford v Ferrari, finishing an underwhelming 3rd at the box office. (It barely beat out Playing with Fire, John Cena’s critically panned Nickeloden kid pic.) Reviews were mixed, and the film is expected to fade into oblivion as Anna and Elsa take over the theater.
In retrospect, this isn’t too surprising: Charlie’s Angels was never a brilliant concept, either in TV or cinematic form. But the latest iteration is a depressing sign of a series in desperate need of retirement.
It wasn’t always this way. The original Charlie’s Angels, debuting on TV in 1976, was a fun (if shlocky) show about three young women who worked for a detective agency, taking orders from an unseen man in a speakerbox. The show helped launch the rise of “Jiggle TV” (a mini-genre of television where ratings were counter-proportional to the amount of clothing the female stars wore), as the Angels frequently went undercover as dancers, beauty queens, and swimsuit models. As with many shows of the era, the content is tame by today’s standards, but it was considered quite daring for its time. The controversy pivoted around the show’s central conceit: Did it empower girls by showing three women in action? Or was it sexist and exploitative for the way it emphasized their attractiveness? Despite (or because of) the polarizing response, Charlie’s Angels ran for five seasons, only plummeting in ratings near the end.
The show found new life in the early 2000s in two feature films, directed by McG and starring Drew Barrymore (who produced), Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu. The films were loud, frenetic, and endlessly action-packed, emphasizing the camp of the original series (and occasionally poking fun at it). Less successful was a short-lived 2011 TV remake on the CW – a dreadfully dull reinterpretation that took the characters and storylines far too seriously.
There’s a lesson to be learned from the contrast between the movies and the TV series – a premise where three beautiful women travel the world and beat up evil, gun-toting men needs to be taken with a dose of humor. It’s a fun idea, but it only works if the writers are in on the joke. (For a related example, look at She Spies, a syndicated TV series that debuted in 2002 with a very similar premise. The first season is great fun, with constant in-jokes and fourth-wall breaks to underscore the tongue-in-cheekiness. But the second season drained out all the jokes and played as a straight drama, and the results were a snooze.)
Which brings us to this latest iteration.
It’s not to say that Charlie’s Angels by way of Elizabeth Banks (she wrote, directed, produced, and co-stars as a female Bosley) lacks humor. It’s just that the humor is misplaced. The film has a couple of funny moments (such as a left-field riff about Birdman of Alcatraz), but the jokes are largely incidental to the premise. That’s because mocking the premise would undercut the film’s primary message of – you guessed it – girl power.
The opening credits feature a montage of young women engaged in a variety of athletic sports. The first scene features one of the Angels (Kristen Stewart, giving the film’s best performance) beating up a sexist money launderer. The climax features at least one twist that emphasizes the film’s future-is-female bona fides. The soundtrack is a Who’s Who of exclusively female R&B singers. Remember how Captain Marvel politely applauded its feminist themes? Charlie’s Angels throws them a ticker-tape parade.
Its message, in fact, is so relentlessly on-the-nose that it can’t help but come off as manufactured. Presumably in response to the flak Hollywood gets about its lack of female heroes (particularly the justified criticism that it leans less on original characters than all-female reboots), this film is dead-set on proving that it “gets” women, even as it condescendingly talks down to its female audience at every turn. Apart from the infamous “She has help” scene in Avengers: Endgame, there is perhaps no film scene this year as cringey in its attempt at you-go-girl-ism as the response Elizabeth Banks’ character gives to the line “You’re outmanned.”
Banks, for her part, has tried to paint the film is a litmus test for America’s stance on woman. Before the film even premiered, she stated in an interview that “if this movie doesn’t make money, it reinforces a stereotype in Hollywood that men don’t go see women do action movies.” She dismissed smashes like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman as part of a “male genre,” stating that they only made money because of their franchise ties.
No one doubts that superhero films are dominating genres and guaranteed box-office gold. But this is true with films and franchises across the board, be they led by men or women. It’s less true with films trying to revive IP brands from the 1970s, particularly ones that don’t put a sharp spin on the original. Banks is more accomplished as an actress than director (this is her second film, after the middling Pitch Perfect 2); perhaps more time behind the camera will yield her more success.
In the meantime, there are several other female-led action films playing in theaters. The best of these is Harriet, a tense and engaging biopic about one of America’s most underappreciated heroes. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has a choppy story, but it’s boosted by great effects and a commanding performance from Angelina Jolie. And I haven’t seen Frozen 2 yet, but all signs point to a crowd-pleaser for young and old, male and female alike.
As for Charlie’s Angels? It’s competent but forgettable. The kind of film you catch on cable during a slow afternoon, while you hope for Hollywood to make female-oriented action films with more respect for their target audience.