When Sin City opened in 2005, it was a wake up call for comic book movies. Robert Rodriguez brought Miller’s searingly visceral, incessantly violent, extreme noir tales featuring dubiously amoral characters to dizzying life in a visually stunning adaptation that transcended the term “comic-book movie.” It was a comic book movie that audiences had never seen before. A gutsy, violent comic book movie for adults, with sex, booze, OTT violence and bucket loads of severed limbs and blood splattering the screen, with not a single spandex clad superhero in sight. Featuring a glittering all star cast, the film was a commercial and critical success, grossing over $150 million dollars worldwide.
Now, nine years later, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For finally opened in theatres this past weekend. Unlike its predecessor however, the film has bombed big time, opening in eighth place and grossing less than $10 million, putting it on course to be one of the biggest flops of the 2014 summer season.
There could be many reasons for this. The nine year wait, the fact that the first Sin City movie didn’t really warrant a sequel, Marvel’s dominance of the comic book movie scene in those proceeding nine years, poor marketing, poor reviews (the film’s scored less than fifty percent on Rotten Tomatoes) or maybe the fact that just nobody really cares anymore about this world filled with OTT pulpy dialogue, amoral characters and schlock fantastical violence.
But, in my opinion, there is a far greater problem that hangs not so delicately over the head of A Dame To Kill For. And that is of course, the problem of MISOGYNY.
Misogyny of course, is nothing new to the Sin City Universe. Many of the first film’s detractors highlighted the film’s blatant misogyny and use of violence, particularly of that inflicted upon women. It didn’t help that all female characters were nothing but whores and strippers and devious manipulators, subjected to grotesque bouts of violence, whilst packing big guns, and wearing the most improbable and impractical outfits this side of an S and M convention. But this was Sin City. Nobody was innocent. It was a bleak world where men and women alike were morally corrupt figures living in hyper real noir world. They were Chandler-esque archetypes taken to the very extreme of the spectrum and then some. It was comic book noir. It was fantasy. And to be fair, grotesque violence was adequately dispatched upon the more psychotic male characters of the world as well as the female.
So why now, do I have such an issue with Sin City: A Dame To Kill For? Is it because the film isn’t as good as its predecessor? Is it because I’ve grown up in those nine years since the first movie? All I know is that, I believe the film’s misogyny and treatment of women is hugely problematic.
Like the first movie, the female characters depicted in the movie are all either whores or strippers or manipulative sexual deviants who manipulate and corrupt the man’s will to their own ends. However in the first movie, the female characters had agency. Rosario Dawson’s head prostitute Gail, was a sort of mother figure, protecting her girls from psychotic gangsters, with Clive Owen’s Dwight McCarthy being swept along within their story. They didn’t corrupt men with their overt sexuality, acting as sirens, luring men into their bosom to slaughter and destroy. The men were already morally corrupted psychotic fiends and deviants as exemplified by Nick Stahl’s Yellow Bastard. Women, like men within the world of Sin City, were products of their environment. A corrupt city with even more corrupted values.
Women in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For are the devil in disguise, devils that need to be controlled and maintained. Manipulators who use their bodies to manipulate men to exact their bidding and attain the glory and riches they crave. The most problematic of course is Eva Green’s Ava Lord, the titular Dame To Kill For. A femme fatale from the classic old school noir of the forties. She is Barbara Stanwyck from Double Indemnity taken to grotesque extremes. Like Stanwyck’s character, Ava Lord uses her body and sexuality to manipulate every male character she comes into contact with. She is not human, but a demon. “A Goddess who makes slaves of me.” A femme fatale taken to such grotesque extremes, she is not human. At one point, her character even emerges naked from a fountain in an almost supernatural way. A siren or Greek legend, emitting her song of sexuality, luring any poor hapless soul. Granted, we are visiting a truly fantastical world where the dialogue is as hard boiled as the eggs, so of course Miller and Rodriguez may be making a comment on these female archetypes but I doubt it. Now, in the first film, women did not corrupt men. Men were already corrupted. Here, good men are corrupted by Ava, driven mad by her body and siren like superhuman abilities. Ava is a devil in disguise, a succubus, using men to attain nothing more but wealth and riches. She is a woman in control of men and this cannot be condoned. Like all good film noirs of the forties, she must be punished for her transgressions.
Brolin’s character (taking over from Clive Owen) describes Ava as having a hold over him, corrupting him completely. She is a woman whose sole crime in the movie is her manipulation of men. Like the classic femme fatale, her goal is financial gain, and her tools are her sexuality and men. Ava, a woman, is in control of the male and in Miller’s world, that poses a problem. The status quo must therefore be righted. Thus, Dwight recruits Rosario Dawson’s prostitute Gail to assist him in righting the wrong. Unlike the first film, in which Dwight was helping Gail protect her girls from psychotic gangsters, here Gail is nothing more than a servant, an assistant in aiding Dwight in exacting vengeance on the woman that wronged him. She may not be having sex with Dwight, but Gail is providing a service all her own, with no agency for herself other than to service the male in her life. By the story’s end, Dwight has righted the wronged and in the final shot of the storyline, Dwight is framed between Gail and Jamie Chung’s Miho, a shot that highlights Dwight’s return to power over the female figure.
The problem here is simple… Ava Lord is an outdated archetype. As discussed last week, we live in a world where the heroes of the big screen are people like Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior and Black Widow. I’m not against having a female villain, in fact I think we need more of them, but I think as an audience, we are beyond a female villain who wants nothing more than riches and gold and has all the complexity of a dollar note.
Watching this storyline play out of course, I found myself amazed and strangely bored by this age old archetype playing out on screen before me in 2014. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve read the source material on which this is based. It’s a fascinating read, and works beautifully in comic book form… but in film form… Not so much. I just couldn’t believe how outdated an archetype such as that of Ava Lord, was playing out before me.
There was hope of course in the form of Jessica Alba’s Nancy Callahan. Following on from the first film, Nancy is now a drunk, still stripping, but haunted by the visage of Bruce Willis’ John Hartigan, her one and only true love. She is out for vengeance. Her story isn’t actually too bad, but like Ava, she manipulates her body to corrupt the last smitten of moral goodness that hulking brute Marv has left inside of him. She is still defined by her sexuality. She manipulates her face, damages her own body, in order to exact vengeance. It’s almost as like the filmmakers are saying that Nancy cannot exact vengeance before dismantling the body and sexual creature of which she is. Instead of exacting revenge, she spends much of her story simply stripping and dancing erotically for the pleasure of sum bag losers that populate her place of work.
Other female characters, such as that of Maisie in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s storyline, merely exist so that sadistic violence may be exacted upon them. Perhaps only Miho is the only one left unscathed by the misogyny of Frank Miller’s world.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on the movie. Granted, the male characters don’t exactly come across as examples of pure innocence and purity, but my word they certainly do fare better than the female characters of this world. Perhaps that why audiences just didn’t turn out for Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Maybe because we’ve moved on from this age old outdated archetypes of yore. No matter what you read, audiences are smart. Perhaps its time that we put characters like Ava Lord to rest for good.