'Charlie's Angels' Soars With Elizabeth Banks

Critics lambasted the premise of the original show, calling it “jiggle TV” or “T&A TV,” as in all cleavage-baring style over substance. The Angels—played in the first season by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith—were dismissed as sex objects, the show’s enormous ratings attributed to how often the Angels’ undercover identities required them to wear bikinis. (The 2011 reboot had barely any time to draw such discourse; ABC axed it four episodes in.)

The Angels—played in the first TV season by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith—were dismissed as sex objects when the show first aired. (Photoshot / Getty Images)

The films, meanwhile, were positioned as bubbly, bombastic, modern riffs on the iconography of Charlie’s. “We wanted to capture the magic of the original,” McG told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “So we’ll have scenes with Angels walking out of the water in wet suits and stuff like that … Smart, sexy, athletic. Sort of like the U.S. women’s soccer team.”

In a half-star review of McG’s first outing, the celebrated critic Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s a movie without a brain … I, try as I might, cannot see them as anything other than action without mind, purpose, humor, excitement or entertainment.” But three years later, Ebert had a change of heart. After seeing the sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, he awarded it two and a half stars. “Leaving Full Throttle, I realized I did not hate or despise the movie,” he wrote. “During a long and thoughtful walk along the Chicago River … I decided that I sort of liked it because of the high spirits of the women involved.”

Banks laughed when I told her of Ebert’s heel turn; she’d never thought of the franchise as anything more than good-natured fun in the first place. In fact, while researching her film, Banks spoke to the former Angels actors Smith, Jackson, and Barrymore, who served as a producer on McG’s films as well as on Banks’s interpretation—and all three told her they felt the same way. “In general, none of us are making Charlie’s Angels because we have some incredible plot we want to tell the story of,” Banks said. “Okay? That is not the point of Charlie’s Angels.”

The point, instead, is to explore the inherent conflict within Charlie’s Angels: a franchise built on selling girl power while owing its existence to, well, sexism. The trio in Banks’s film—Sabina (Kristen Stewart), Jane (Ella Balinska), and Elena (Naomi Scott)—demonstrates how women today face a subtler form of sexism, especially in the workplace. Scott’s Elena is the lead programmer of a device designed to control electric currents, and she raises concerns about its potential to be weaponized. In response, her boss gaslights her, telling her she’s “too smart” to pursue the matter—a move that makes her feel trapped, powerless, and useless. Halfway through the film, the women commiserate about being underestimated in their previous lines of work—Jane had been an MI6 agent, Sabina an heiress whose talents were stifled—a frustration that brought them to the Townsend Agency.

The films starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu were a blend of high camp and poptastic fun. (Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s risky adding such realistic elements to a franchise that thrives on escapism, but for the most part, Banks threads that needle. The fantastical trademarks of Charlie’s are still there in the form of the Angels’ colorful, wiggy disguises, but Banks’s film doesn’t gawk at them. Her story keeps the women in control. Sure, they take a dance break before rescuing a colleague, and one of them flirts with Noah Centineo’s character while on the job, but these moments help drive the film’s thesis—that women can do anything—without being too on the nose. If the McG installments depended on fun via male gaze–y butt shots and slow-mo hair flips, Banks’s take lets the stars in on the joke. Their actions serve their characterization and the spectacle.

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