Emily Blunt is a five-foot-seven English actress best known, perhaps, for her expert comic turn as the harried assistant to a barely veiled and tyrannical version of Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is a six-foot-five former professional wrestler who boasts the unlikely combination of matinee-idol looks, a handy way with one-liners, and the physique of a contender for Mr. Universe. One of these people is poised to become America’s next big action star, but it’s not the one you might think.
Blame Charlize Theron. Or Scarlett Johansson. Or maybe Carrie-Anne Moss, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Summer Glau in Serenity, or Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, or, what the hell, let’s kick it all the way back to the original queen mother of ass-kicking, Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. There have long been female leads in action films — some exhilarating, some embarrassing — but what we’re witnessing now is the birth of a new ideal of the action hero. Whether your preference runs toward Mad Max: Fury Road, or Lucy, or Edge of Tomorrow, or Hanna, or Haywire, all the most interesting, satisfying action heroes right now are played by women. (Well, them, and John Wick.) They are tough, taciturn, and adept — you know, classic action-hero types — but they escape overt sexualization and even nod toward androgyny (often with shaved heads). They are kin to the characters that Manohla Dargis recently identified as “the new heroines” in her review for Ex Machina: “totally hot, bracingly cold, powerfully sovereign — and posthuman.”
None of which is great news for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson — and I don’t want to pick on him; we’ll sing his praises in a minute — given that he conforms so completely to a classic conception of the action hero that now seems outdated and possibly obsolete. He’s got Schwarzenegger’s muscles, Willis’s gift for zingers, and Stallone’s (well, early Stallone’s) not-inconsiderable acting chops. He’s one of the few humans alive who can look convincing firing one of these. The Rock’s problem is that this kind of action hero no longer seems very interesting. The first sign of this shift was probably the fact that action heroes either aged into middle-aged dads or started reassembling like some hair-metal supergroup embarking on the state-fair circuit. Action fans, spoiled by the bounty of the 1980s and enduring the great Action Hero drought ever since, have been busy measuring every Nicolas Cage, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Matt Damon, Chris Pine, and so on to see who might inherit the soiled muscle-shirts left behind by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Mel Gibson. No one quite fit the bill. The Rock completely seems like he should — except that in the meantime, some half-mad, 70-year-old Australian was busy concocting an entirely new type of action hero. He shaved her head, cut off her arm, and named her Furiosa. She has little to do with the type of action hero we’ve been watching for the last 20 years — and everything to do with the type we’re going to want to watch for the next 20.
Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s character in, and the real star of, Mad Max: Fury Road, is the most iconic new action hero we’ve seen in at least a decade. For proof, check out the bursting galleries of fan art; the already flourishing cosplay; or read the moving testimonials posted by smitten fans. While Tom Hardy does a very good job playing Mad Max, he hasn’t inspired a fraction of this kind of reaction, maybe because he spends half the movie with a muzzle over his face. But it’s impossible to come out of Mad Max: Fury Road not believing that you’ve not only just witnessed the birth of an iconic character but the birth of an iconic type of character. No argument I can make here about Furiosa’s subversive appeal would be more convincing than a recent post by Laura Vaughn on her Tumblr. Vaughn, who was born missing an arm, writes: “I am turning 30 years old next week. I’ve been a fan of action films my entire life. And I have NEVER seen a physically disabled, kickass, female lead character in a Hollywood movie EVER — not once, until yesterday.”
Yes, Furiosa exists in a lineage (see above), and, yes, plenty of other action films have featured female leads. But what’s notable here is how Furiosa being a woman both is and isn’t integral to her character. (In the same way that her missing arm both is and isn’t integral to her character.) In Alien, the character of Ripley was written as a man, then cast as a woman, which was a breakthrough at the time — but also a kind of cinematic drag act. Why can’t a woman play a man’s role? Well, sure — but the better question, only now being asked, is, Why can’t a woman’s role take the place of the man’s role? Furiosa could never be played by a man — the character would make no sense — and not, as with many other female action heroes, because of the kind of costume she wears. She is not simply Indiana Jones in hot pants or Lolita with armor-piercing rounds. Furiosa is a woman, and she is a hero, and she’s cool as hell, and she’s simultaneously recognizable and revelatory as all three. If you’re an action fan and you can’t admit that you’d eagerly watch ten more Furiosa films in the next ten years, then I’d have to ask again if you’re an action fan.
If you’re wondering now where Emily Blunt fits in to all of this, then you probably haven’t seen Looper, and you definitely haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow, in which Blunt plays a soldier nicknamed “the Full-Metal Bitch” and unmistakably establishes her action bona-fides. Edge of Tomorrow is very much like Mad Max: Fury Road in that (a) the movie is way more fun than you expect it to be and (b) the female sidekick and ostensible love interest is, in fact, the real action star, saving the befuddled male star’s bacon again and again — and again. (Another movie this is true of: The Matrix.) Blunt’s next film, Sicario, about a police hunt for a ruthless hit man, just screened to excellent reviews in Cannes, with the only slightly disappointing news being that Blunt herself is not playing the hit man. (She plays one of the cops tracking him down.) Still, given how good and refreshing she was in Edge of Tomorrow and Looper, I’m much more excited to see her in this than to see, say, Statham in the next Statham film, which is called Wild Card, in which he plays Las Vegas bodyguard Nick Wild. (Admittedly, that does sound intriguing.) It’s also funny — and refreshing — to think that the onetime caustic British foil to Anne Hathaway’s plucky dreamer has a burgeoning and exciting action-film career.
Which brings us back to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, who now seems like he was born maybe 30 years too late — or possibly 100 years too late, since he sometimes seems like an old-school song-and-dance man trapped in the body of a nightclub bouncer. I am on record as saying the Rock is a great performer that no one has quite yet figured out what to do with; he’s done action, he’s done comedy, he’s done hybrid action-comedy, he’s done kid’s films; and now he’s starring in San Andreas, a movie that in actuality stars an enormous earthquake. This means the Rock has little chance to act, be funny, or, most tragically, kick ass, and honestly, as everyman firefighter Ray Gains, his Herculean physical presence borders on implausible. (In his defense, this is the least of many, many things in the film that border on implausible.) If you need convincing that the Rock is funny, go watch any of the four SNLs he’s hosted or, to save time, just watch this. The Rock is tireless on social media, has no qualms about riding shotgun in your already-established action franchise, and even gamely surprised a couple recently as their wedding adjudicate. It says a lot about the Rock’s persistent square-peg-in-a-round-hole-ness that Kyle Buchanan’s argument that the Rock should host the Oscars is both the most improbable and the most sensible piece of career advice he’ll ever get. Trust me: As surprising as it is to realize that I’d rather watch an action film starring Emily Blunt than one starring the Rock, it’s equally surprising to realize I’d rather watch a variety show starring the Rock than one starring Neil Patrick Harris.
The good news is that Johnson is up next in Ballers, a new HBO series in which he plays an ex-pro football player (he is that!) turned financial adviser dealing with a crew of overpaid athlete-rascals, miscreant hangers-on, and fame-hungry goofballs; it looks, not unpromisingly, like it could be titled NFLtourage. Like almost everything the Rock is in, the project becomes immediately more appealing once you find out that he’s in it, even as you wonder if this will be the project that finally figures out how to put his talents to maximal use. If Ballers doesn’t work, I’d suggest casting him as the harried assistant to a tyrannical fashion editor — seriously, that’s high-concept gold right there, it would be awesome, and he would be awesome in it. And next time we’re going to send San Francisco crashing into the ocean via earthquake, let’s enlist Emily Blunt to look grim, kick ass, and search for survivors. She can be the one who stands by the faultline, staring down into the abyss — that same abyss into which we might now toss all those old, soiled, overstretched muscle-shirts, archaic souvenirs from a bygone era.