Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

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I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I’d put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions.

Why, if I’m such a fan of the series, wasn’t I there opening night? Mainly because of the history of genre threequels.

The litany of sucky third films in SF/Fantasy franchises is legendary: Superman III, Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Men in Black 3, The Dark Knight Rises. Each of them built on the artistic and commercial success of the previous two films by coming up with shallow, convoluted and ultimately awful continuations. It doesn’t seem to matter if new creative blood came in, or if the same hands continued the series. Something about third films just spells disaster.

Underworld: Awakening isn’t a classic, but it’s a lot better than the mainstream reviewers (who also hated the others) would have you believe. It’s short (89 minutes according to the blu-ray box), and the absence of Scott Speedman’s Michael as a major character throws the story askew. Director Len Wiseman has been replaced by  Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein , two Swedes who apparently directed on alternate days (hey, whatever works).

But it preserves the most crucial thing about the first two films: Selene is the template for the total gender reversal of the male action hero. All those Hollywood nabobs who can’t seem to get a handle on how to approach Wonder Woman need look no farther than here.

I first wrote about this in an earlier blog post, but in Underworld: Awakening the ideas are developed in surprisingly new ways. Selene discovers that she’s a mother: Eve (India Eisley), her twelve-year-old daughter, was born while the humans had Selene in suspended animation. For Selene to suddenly be confronted with motherhood is a fairly brilliant step, and it’s handled very well. It allows her to be even more vicious than before, because now it’s not just her own life she’s fighting to preserve.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

And it doesn’t come at the expense of her character. Selene still occupies the role in the narrative that has traditionally belonged to male characters. She has agency, self-determination and the defining decisions in the plot. She saves and rescues both female and male characters, the latter filling the traditional “girl” role. Nowhere is that more clear than in a brief scene where Selene tells the handsome, studly young vampire David (Theo James) that she’s leaving with Eve to continue the fight elsewhere. He begs, “Take me with you,” a line that’s so traditionally a woman’s that it should jar us out of the moment. But because Selene has been established so well, and is handled so consistently, it passes seamlessly, and only later do you realize how extraordinary it really is.

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In the Underworld universe, the damsels in distress have five o’clock shadow.

As long as this continues–as long as Underworld continues its trend of total gender reversal without making that the whole point of the story, and thus going from entertainment to didacticism–I’ll continue being a fan. And I’ll continue pointing to it as the least likely, but most accomplished, feminist action series around.

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