Warrior Nun, The Old Guard and the (much-needed) evolution of the 'strong woman' trope in Hollywood
Warrior Nun represents a new direction for Hollywood’s female superheroes, alongside Gina Price-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, Captain Marvel and Salim Akil’s CW show Black Lightning.
A great many things about Warrior Nun, Simon Barry’s new Netflix superhero drama (based on the Ben Dunn comicbook series Warrior Nun Areala), seem to be designed as inter-textual commentary on the genre itself. The show follows Ava (Alba Baptista), a quadriplegic orphan who seemingly kills herself, only to be ‘reborn’ with superpowers (super-strength, rapid healing) after a nun presses an angel’s halo into her back. Ava soon learns that the bearer of the halo becomes the de facto Warrior Nun, member of an ancient, demon-battling Christian group called Order of the Cruciform Sword (OCS).
The thing is, for well over half of the show’s first season, Ava wants to have nothing to do with the superhero gig, no matter what the OCS nuns or their leader, Father Vincent (Tristan Ulloa), tell her. More importantly, her attitude towards the entire history and the mythology of the OCS is one of bored impatience. At one point, as Father Vincent presents her with a comically oversized tome about the OCS’s past and urges her to read — soon, she says, “Can we skip to the part where any of this has to do with me?” This sentiment is reinforced time and again throughout Warrior Nun; at every given opportunity, Ava reiterates, “I’m definitely not a nun”. Even the show’s tagline uses a bit of punning action to hammer it home: “Fucks given? Nun”
Warrior Nun, then, is a hyper-aware, sharp-tongued ‘anti-superhero’ drama, a far more effective example of the same than Amazon’s asinine The Boys, or the equally sophomoric Kick-Ass franchise, both of whom end up reinforcing the same tropes they set out to parody.
It also has genuinely memorable characters like Shotgun Mary (Toya Turner, the show-stealer), the only member of the OCS not beholden to a nun’s vows, and Sister Lilith (Lorena Andrea), the tightly wound up descendant of several earlier Halo Bearers/Warrior Nuns (can you name the villain in either of the Kick-Ass films? How about Jim Carrey or Nicholas Cage’s characters? I didn’t think so). And when it comes to delivering the action, Warrior Nun gets its fight choreography exactly right, a compelling mixture of kickass, close quarters hand-to-hand and superhero-style VFX.
The outspoken Ava represents a new direction for Hollywood’s female superheroes, alongside Gina Price-Bythewood’s film The Old Guard, Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel and Salim Akil’s CW show Black Lightning. To understand this evolution, one has to pedal back to the character that started it all for the (now-cliché) ‘strong woman’ in Hollywood, someone who wasn’t technically a superhero at all — Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
From male fantasy to the ‘monstrous feminine’
Few Hollywood characters have been deconstructed to the extent Ellen Ripley has — in the 40-odd years since she was first seen onscreen, there have been hundreds of academic treatises written on Ripley’s appearance, her motivations and, inevitably, her feminism. Ripley is, essentially, a male fantasy about ‘strong women’.
Director Ridley Scott admitted that the character was initially supposed to be male but was changed into a woman fairly late into the pre-production process. Ellen Ripley was, at least in her origins, a response to the second-wave feminism in the 60s and 70s (“Feminists! Equal pay is fine but put on some lipstick for God’s sake,” says Kitty Forman, the Betty Crocker-esque matriarch from That 70s Show).
Think about it: while Ripley’s world, of course, is a boys’ club with the usual amounts of sexism, we never see Ripley engaging with any of it. She just gets on with the job at hand and by the end of the film, she’s the one left standing, not the sniggering guys who thought it was a mistake to send a woman into space ‘to do a man’s job’ as it were. This is along the lines of the patronising responses women receive when they complain about workplace sexism/harassment — suck it up and keep working, women are told.
Oh, and then there’s Ripley’s infamous stripping scene, of course — remember, these were the 70s, the era of Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, when ‘strong women’ also had to be unrealistically attractive (That 70s Show had parody scenes for both the Angels and Wonder Woman, wherein these impossible standards are lampooned). Director James Cameron, who would go on to direct Weaver in the movie’s sequel Aliens (1986), later said that he disagreed with the stripping scene and it was one of the things that made him push back against the objectification of Ellen Ripley. Cameron’s version of Ripley is notably more foul-mouthed than Scott’s (speaks volumes that the one line you’ll remember is “Get away from her, you bitch!”). She’s assertive, world-weary and completely in charge of the situation even as the violence and the carnage around her keeps escalating.
And yet, Cameron himself is hardly the nuanced thinker he mistakes himself for (remember his hare-brained attack on Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman?). In Terminator II, therefore, his ‘strong woman’ had to be worse at parenting than an actual robot (who’s already leagues ahead in the film’s second-most-important skill ie murdering evil machines). Strong women are strong because of that bad mother juice, don’t you know?
If Sigourney Weaver was the most important figure for 70s and 80s women-led films, the 21st century belongs to Charlize Theron.
From Æon Flux (2005) and Hancock (2008) to Atomic Blonde (2016), Mad Max: Fury Road (2017) and now The Old Guard (2020), there’s no doubt that Theron is the pre-eminent action hero of the ongoing era. In fact, her filmography itself is a pretty good indicator of how the female superhero (as well as superhero-adjacent figures like her characters in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max) has evolved over the past two decades — while Æon Flux was still stuck at the altar of controlling male producers (director Karyn Kusama washed her hands off the final cut of the film, which included an abrupt and gratuitous scene of Theron in her undies, not unlike Ellen Ripley’s underwear shots), Imperator Furiosa is a prime example of the ‘monstrous feminine’, a character who fights and kills like the men, but eventually leads the women of the film to “the green place”, a kind of eco-feminist utopia (notably, Æon Flux also ends with the discovery of a verdant Eden).
“Fucks given? Nun”
Warrior Nun engages with and upgrades the tropes of the female superhero in three major ways.
First, Ava enters a covert institution (the OCS), cleans it up from the inside (by fighting its ‘corrupt’ elements), turns her back on her male ‘mentor’ (Father Vincent, who turns out to be a traitor to the cause) and rearranges the playing field on her own terms. This basic storyline, ie women ‘cleaning up’ an institution or a hierarchical structure, is followed closely by Captain Marvel, too, for example — Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) becomes a part of the Kree forces, but soon turns against them when she realises they’re the imperialist villains of the story. She fights and rather easily defeats her male mentor (Jude Law) to do so, telling him, “I have nothing to prove to you”. In Ava’s case, this particular confrontation will have to wait for the second season, but it promises to be kickass.
Second, Ava’s big reveal, ie her realisation that the OCS is based on a lie or at the very least an exaggerated, manipulative version of the events (the angel’s not an angel, the halo’s not really a halo), is rooted in historiography (the study of how histories are written). And historiography is all-important in the female superhero film: it’s how writers and directors tell us about women being written out of history. In the last half-hour of The Old Guard, we see how Charlize Theron’s immortal character Andromache of Scythia has influenced history down the ages, behind the scenes — saving the lives of future doctors and soldiers and Presidents and Nobel Laureates, snowballing into a whole lot of good. In Thor: Ragnarok, we see the super-villain/goddess Hela (Cate Blanchett) lamenting how her own father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wrote her out of the history of Asgard.
Third, Ava’s sexuality and how she negotiates it have been written superbly, so much so that there’s no real analogue or comparison within the superhero genre for how good this aspect is. The trick is to not over-think it: far too many superhero films have their super-powered women treating sexuality as either a cumbersome necessity or in borderline fetishistic territory. Not so for Ava: she’s a young woman who’s ‘definitely not a nun’, and for much of the first half of the season, she’s running around, crashing one summer house after another with a cute boy (you know, as one does). And as a final fuck-you to the Vatican, the cute boy has the initials JC (I’m not saying it, you are!) and he believes that ultra-rich people ‘donating’ their homes to him, even if temporarily, is a good thing.
Which is why personally, I’ll be very disappointed if after all this, Ava takes up a nun’s vows in the second season. But something tells me that the writers of Warrior Nun are too smart for that.
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