Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels both feels like a product of the growing trend of all-female reboots, a la Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, as well as existing parallel to that movement. Because whereas those recent releases gender-swapped the paranormal and heist-movie boys’ clubs, Charlie’s Angels has always been (obviously) female. What makes writer-director Banks’ take so winningly subversive though is that it reorients the male gaze of the original versions to present an entertaining, if still occasionally fluffy, action film that doesn’t just pay lip service to female empowerment but actually empowers its women.
Not quite a reboot, this reimagining/sequel acknowledges the larger franchise from the 1970s TV series to the 2000s movies, while simultaneously expanding it. Instead of being the Angels, Sabina (Kristen Stewart), Jane (Ella Balinska), and newbie Elena (Naomi Scott) are just one particular trio of Angels, part of the massive Townsend Agency and its worldwide satellite offices. It recontextualizes the Angels’ work—undercover espionage, in-your-face beatdowns—as a global sisterhood, seamlessly blending into the background while always watching out for its members.
Brilliant systems engineer Elena is sorely in need of that support system after blowing the whistle on the harmful potential of Callisto, the clean energy godsend she helped design for Zuckerberg-esque tech genius Alexander Brock (Sam Claflin). Revealing that the device can be weaponized to commit targeted murders brings all manner of assassins and black-market dealers down on her head—but it also summons Angels Jane and Sabina, who haven’t quite worked out their prickly dynamic but have the means to make sure Elena doesn’t become a casualty in this tech-bro arms war.
Taking these bright young woman under wing is not Patrick Stewart’s Bosley, despite his genial and quasi-paternal nature as one of the mysterious Charlie’s middlemen who is easing into retirement. Instead it only makes sense that a female-led reimagining should have a female Bosley, in the form of a stylish, wry Elizabeth Banks stepping in front of the camera as well. But this isn’t a simple case of gender-swapping; the movie likewise establishes a global network of Bosleys (including, bafflingly, a certain morning host in New York City) shepherding their respective Angels. What’s more, Banks’ mentor is the first Angel to be promoted to this support role—a fascinating bit of mythology that deserved more screen time than its one offhand mention.
Between Bosley’s experience and their personal chef/psychotherapist/Q embodied in The Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), the Angels have all the physical and emotional resources they should need to bring down the baddies. But because this is an origin story, the team’s biggest hurdle is learning to gel while they’re chasing Callisto from Hamburg to Istanbul via office infiltrations and glitterati dance parties.
This is especially difficult to achieve, and engaging to watch, when they don’t start out as a matched set. Take, for instance, their various costumes. While the 1970s series got the derisive moniker of “Jiggle TV” for its propensity to put its leads in provocative disguises, and the 2000 Angels rocked coordinating getups that evoked Destiny’s Child’s themed ensembles, this new trio is not mix-and-match. Each member has a distinctive style, like in the horse race set-piece that sees Jane going tactical prep, Elena living out all of our fascinator dreams, and Sabina being delightfully androgynous as a hot-pink jockey.
These Angels complement one another, but each is also used to having to be the whole package—or at least enough to survive on her own, while still aware of her respective flaws. Sabina is A Lot, by her own admission, yet no one else possesses her panache or ability to improvise. (Stewart herself is the movie’s scene-stealer, playing Sabina with such effortless queer coolness that at times you wonder if that’s just what the actress is like in real life.) Steely in contrast to Sabina’s sunniness, former MI6 agent Jane is elegantly efficient, to the point where she would not have been out of place in Terminator: Dark Fate. But her single-minded focus blocks out most opportunities for collaboration, making her often struggle to keep up with her new work friends.
But when they succeed? Well, here’s the interesting thing about how the movie handles the issue of the male gaze better than its predecessors. There are no flimsy excuses to put these Angels in bikinis or their underwear, but they’re still undeniably hot. Jane’s rage as she confronts an assassin who made things personal? Sabina’s glee at their mission’s latest twist? Elena hacking with one hand and whipping an attacker with a computer cable with the other? All hot. These women are not being objectified; they’re actively impressing each other and themselves.
Like Ocean’s 8 with its department-store cons and Met Gala jewel heist, Charlie’s Angels is speaking women’s languages; a side plot involves paying a contact with smuggled birth control and foot spas. Watching it feels less like being ushered into a secret club and more like having the veil lifted, and then delighting in the company of the familiar faces revealed. A whimsical opening montage celebrating girls around the world, and a carousel of celebrity cameos during the end credits, seem to simultaneously assert that every girl can be powerful—and that every powerful woman can be (or probably is) an Angel.
Yet despite this keenly valuable message on a macro level, the movie could have dug deeper into these three Angels’ individual arcs. Standalone moments slyly highlight society’s patriarchal biases about which kinds of women are and are not noticed, but the Angels don’t seem emotionally invested enough to actually change the system, just to exploit it. The same goes for their bosses; while the Townsend Agency has expanded its international borders, its paternalistic structure could use some broadening.
But hopefully that’s fodder for a potential sequel. And in the meantime, we have a clever romp that presents four very different women learning to accept their own shortcomings and place their trust in the hands of their teammates. What’s more, it invites its young audiences not to try to fill the mold of the blonde, the brunette, the redhead, the black girl, the queer girl, the smart girl, et cetera—but to see themselves in any or all of those characteristics, and build a new persona that’s all their own and just as deserving of being called an Angel.
Because even 40 years after we met the Angels, and 20 years after our second outing with them, there is still something radical about girl power for girl power’s sake.
Natalie Zutter wants in on both of those spy closets. Talk all-female reimaginings with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!