‘The Mummy’ Brings A Complex Female Villain To A Summer Blockbuster Thanks To A Female Writer

This summer has been a breakout year for female-driven blockbusters. The biggest of course being ‘Wonder Woman‘. directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot, which hit number 1 in its opening weekend pulling in just over $100 million at the domestic box office. It officially made it the best opening weekend ever for a female-directed film (which no doubt helped it clinch the top spot in its second week also).

Disney/Pixar’s ‘Cars 3’ has also been a surprise female empowerment film, with the story of female car Cruz Ramirez battling it out against the boys in a male-driven sport (as well as male-driven film franchise). The unexpected feminist themes have been a hit among parents especially, as reported by The Huffington Post.

But there is also another film which should not be overlooked for its emphasis on female lead characters – ‘The Mummy’, starring Tom Cruise as the predictable hero, and Sofia Boutella as the newest villain in this film franchise. Unlike previous installments of the ‘Mummy’ films, this is the first time audiences get to see a female villain as the title role, and this is very significant given Hollywood is an industry where character tropes and stereotypes are still very present in a lot of ways, especially for women.

The reason for the change in the villain is down to the writing-directing team deciding to do something different for this reboot. But as Indiewire’s Graham Winfrey points out, Sofia Boutella’s princess Ahmanet was originally written as a male character in early drafts. It wasn’t until director Alex Kurtzman teamed up with screenwriter Jenny Lumet (‘Rachel Getting Married’) that the decision to make this Mummy female was born.

They did this without even telling the studio, Universal, which would normally be a bold move considering major Hollywood studios are generally known to be risk-averse when it comes to a multi-million-dollar summer action blockbuster film. Yet Universal seemed to like the idea and stuck by it through a number of revisions, proving more writer-director teams perhaps need to take the same tactic when it comes to forging new pathways for diverse representation on-screen.

Because of Jenny Lumet’s influence on the script, princess Ahmanet was given some depth beyond just evil for evil’s sake. The female gaze in this villain ensured she had a complex backstory and an emotional journey that viewers could connect with.

“As the daughter of a pharaoh, you pretty much get married off to some guy nations away, so for me she was very much fighting for her life and coming from this intense betrayal by family. She wasn’t doing it for a guy,” said the screenwriter.

The film tells the story of an ancient princess who’s awakened from her crypt beneath the desert after being betrayed by her father, imprisoned and murdered 5,000 years earlier. Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson star as treasure hunters who stumble upon the ancient prison-tomb.

Jenny was also the only female writer on the film yet her fingerprint has clearly made this version of ‘The Mummy’ something very different and a reason to get back into the franchise after the Brendon Frasier-driven versions were getting a little tired. She gives kudos to Universal for liking and retaining the idea to make this Mummy female, and is thankful that the rest of the male writing team who worked on the revisions kept her original concepts in place.

“It’s really brave and supportive of them that they were willing to go there. It opened up the story in a completely different way…I was thrilled beyond measure that Ahmanet remained female, that her backstory that we designed for her remained in tact, and that she was not pining away for some lost love,” she said.

If you want to see an example of the huge differences between a male-written female character, and a female-written one, just look at the viral responses to the leaked version of Joss Whedon’s original ‘Wonder Woman’ script which had the Twitter-verse hammer his emphasis on sexuality, physical appearance and stereotypical tropes often thrust upon women even in a superhero universe. And this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about, a self-proclaimed feminist who is also responsible for directing some pretty badass female characters on screen. It shows there are still many loopholes even in the most progressive aspects of Hollywood filmmaking, proving the need for more female writers, directors and producers.

For Jenny, ‘The Mummy’ is only her second major project, something which she counts as a blessing.

“Kind of tragically, for a woman screenwriter, you get produced every 10 years. That’s pretty much the average. I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve been employed since 2007, just not getting produced,” she said.

In 2016 alone, women only accounted for 13% of writers in the film business, according to a study from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Having women in key decision-making roles on major films was also a factor in whether the percentage of women behind the scenes was higher or lower.

“Its analysis of the top 500 films revealed women directors were often a key to progress because features with at least one woman director employed higher percentages of women writers, editors, cinematographers and composers than did films with exclusively male directors. For example, on films with female directors, women comprised 64 percent of writers. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for just 9 percent of writers,” reported THR’s Gregg Kilday.

It also makes a difference when a male director understands the importance of diverse voices driving a project. Alex Kurtzman, who has previously worked with Tom Cruise on ‘Mission: Impossible III’ clearly has been paying attention to the culture shift in Hollywood where there is more demand for female voices & stories, which usually end up paying off big time at the box office.

“Even though her story is 5000 years old, it’s still really topical now. The idea of her being a woman who had been raised to believe she was going to inherit Egypt, to believe she was going to become a living god and then have all that taken away because her father had a boy, gave her a rooting interest that I connected to and made it so that she could be a strong character who is also deeply unapologetic about taking what she felt she deserved…and obviously you can draw a lot of corollary to that story today,” he said in an interview.

Algerian Actress Sofia Boutella, a former street dancer who was said to be the first pick to play this role, also weighed in on the decision to make a villain a complex female character.

“It’s great that he made the first monster a female. It’s unusual. It should be more common. Why make them mainly men?”

While the film may not have done as well as expected in the US, elsewhere it was hitting the right targets. In markets like China, Brazil, Russia and South Korea, ‘The Mummy’ set records for the biggest opening weekend for any Tom Cruise-lead film. Those are no small markets, either, especially China. This film was the first in Univeral’s“Dark Universe” monster movies, and if its worldwide opening of $174 million is any indication of its strength, we have no doubt princess Ahmanet will be back.



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