The Pessimism of 'Atomic Blonde'

It's a battle of sincerity vs. cynicism between summer's two female-driven action movies.
Left, courtesy of Universal Pictures, right, courtesy of Warner Bros.
Charlize Theron in 'Atomic Blonde' (left) and Gal Gadot in 'Wonder Woman'

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Atomic Blonde]

“Women are always getting in the way of progress,” a male agent dryly says to one of his superiors roughly two-thirds of the way through the new action thriller Atomic Blonde. If nothing else, it’s a deliberately cruel way to mock the lead of the film, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). On the eve of the conclusion of the Cold War, Lorraine has been tasked with heading to Berlin to retrieve a hidden list of all double agents involved in the war; otherwise, the battle could go on for countless decades. Though Lorraine is matched with a fellow MI6 agent (James McAvoy), her quest is largely a solo one, because she’s vastly better equipped in brains and brawn than anyone around her. In this way, Atomic Blonde winds up being the second action movie of the summer to be both female-driven and set at the end of a massive world conflict; however, it’s largely the inverse of that other film, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.

Lorraine doesn’t have literal superpowers like Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), but her capability and willingness to dive into a seemingly impossible fight are fairly close. Diana is portrayed as open and sincere even in the midst of a gruesome, bloody conflict. She presumes that things will be easier when she arrives at the front lines of World War I, that she can just identify Ares, the god of war, take him down, and that will be that. Lorraine, at the end of the decades-long Cold War, is vastly more cynical; when she’s given her mission, one of her superiors tells her to trust no one, but Theron’s performance suggests that Lorraine doesn’t trust anyone to begin with.

The true contrast between Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde is in their differing tones, represented so clearly by their leading ladies: sincerity vs. cynicism. In the literally and metaphorically dark final act of Wonder Woman, even as the fate of humanity hangs in the balance via the possible continuation of World War I, Diana is given reason to believe in the decency of men and women, in part due to the heroism embodied by Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). There’s really no point in Atomic Blonde, in contrast, where we’re given any reason to assume the best of men or women, that there’s a moral goodness buried underneath the surface of the people fighting on any side of the Cold War. The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, may have a straightforward objective — Lorraine must acquire the list of double agents, and fast — but its presentation of the men and women she has to work with, or fight and kill, doesn’t suggest anything less than a grimy, grim picture of her fellow man.

Atomic Blonde has a script structure that makes it so the first time viewers meet Lorraine is near the end of her story, before we rewind to see what’s happened to her over a very eventful 10-day period. Lorraine is still getting over a series of intense-looking bruises all over her face and body. (The single-take sequence where we see how she gets all those bruises is, without question, the best, most visceral, and most exciting action set piece in any movie released this year.) Here, too, is another big difference between the two films: no matter how many times Ares or someone else lays a hand on Diana Prince, the bruises don’t show nearly as much. Lorraine has to take her blows, living with the scars far more brutally than Diana does. Even the personal losses Diana may suffer pale to those of Lorraine; Theron, of course, can slip into badass mode easily, but that in medias res opening displays another of her talents: being haunted and wounded.

Both Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde have moments of grim intensity, as well as moments of genuine awe. (That big action sequence in the latter film is really something to behold, as gruesome and gory as it is. Cinephiles are going to be talking about it for a long time.) They both have their flaws, as well: Wonder Woman’s third act, as it goes with many comic-book movies, stumbles where the first two soar, and Atomic Blonde is way more convoluted and unnecessarily twisty than it needs to be. However, both are among the more satisfying action films of the summer, sharing a few surface-level similarities while contrasting at their respective cores. Each film can celebrate the conclusion of a massive war — Diana is able to stop the furtherance of World War I, while the climax of Atomic Blonde is juxtaposed with the Berlin Wall falling — but the latter suggests that the amorality at the core of the Cold War hasn’t been eradicated. Wonder Woman, to its credit, tries to embody a sense of wonder even in troubling times. Atomic Blonde is at the other extreme, seeing only the dark side of humanity. 

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