Charlie’s Angels Soars With Elizabeth Banks

With its first female writer-director at the helm, the 43-year-old franchise gets a nuanced update that was long overdue.

When Elizabeth Banks pitched the idea to update Charlie’s Angels for 2019, she knew it came with the pressures of being the first woman to direct an installment. (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Sony / The Atlantic)

The words Charlie’s Angels conjure an iconic image: that of three women facing different directions, looking ready for a fight. It’s a pose that conveys girl power, glamour, and gumption—even if it’s done using finger guns.

Yet that pose had always been captured by men. Charlie’s Angels the TV show was created in the late ’70s by the writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, with the producer Aaron Spelling guiding it for five seasons and 110 episodes. The fizzy procedural followed a trio of private investigators working for a secret detective agency based in Los Angeles. The films—2000’s Charlie’s Angels and 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle—were directed by the music-video director McG. He made the story a blend of high camp and poptastic fun that saw the Angels, played by Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu, defy the laws of physics. The 2011 TV reboot, which moved the group to Miami and adopted a darker tone—its pilot involved a child-slavery ring—was developed by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who’d made the Superman prequel Smallville a decade earlier.

Elizabeth Banks, the writer and director, also stars in the film. (Chiabella James / Sony)

So when Elizabeth Banks pitched the idea of updating Charlie’s Angels for 2019, she knew it came with the pressures of modernizing the franchise and being the first woman to direct an installment. Her version—in which she’s one of its stars, its writer, and its director—would be the first time the Angels were seen through the “female gaze.” Bridging the Angels’ past with the current era of heroines meant finding a balance between the franchise’s cheesy trademarks and today’s more nuanced representations of women on-screen. “How do we take the expectations that people have for what Charlie’s Angels is and serve them and also play with them?” Banks told me over the phone in early November. The answer, as it turns out, involved recalibrating the trio’s looks, skills, and tone. But don’t worry: The pose remains intact.

On-screen, the Angels easily dispatch their foes with a well-placed kick or well-aimed shot. Offscreen, not so much. Every iteration of the franchise has spawned judgment about the project’s message: Is it truly empowering when the women at the center of Charlie’s acted on the whims of a wealthy male recluse? Are they merely eye candy masquerading as feminist icons?

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.

Banks learned early on not to view the Angels through too critical a lens, she told me, given how few female-led action franchises there were in the first place. Growing up, she caught reruns of the series with her sisters and her mother, who encouraged an open mind about pop culture. Once, she took Banks and her siblings as children to see the R-rated Flashdance, reframing the film as a story about “a ballerina with a dream,” rather than stressing over the exotic dancing. That upbringing gave her a sense of clarity and understanding about female characters, Banks explained. “Charlie’s Angels is about teamwork among women,” she said. “It’s about collaboration, it’s about sisterhood, it’s about the bigger ideas that women require to get by in the world today, and it’s about how we do things in reaction to how men do things.”

Evoking that message meant setting a more grounded tone. Banks pitched the film with headlines about the first female Navy SEAL candidates in mind; in fact, women in the military inspired the way Banks framed the Angels’ set pieces. In the original series and previous films, being an Angel required keeping the job a secret, implying that the women’s abilities would ostracize them further. (In the ’70s show, the Angels were discriminated against in the LAPD and found better use of their skills as employees of the Townsend Agency.) Banks’s film recasts the Townsend Agency as more of an elite, merit-based club of women invited to join rather than a secret they’re forced to keep. “As women in the world have gotten more and more into these actual jobs,” she said, “there was just a sense that we needed to honor the actual women who do this kind of work and not make them into cartoons.” Some of the role models she featured in the film? The Olympians Chloe Kim and Aly Raisman, as well as the actresses Lili Reinhart and Hailee Steinfeld, according to a behind-the-scenes tweet from Banks.

The way the new film begins may be Banks’s best argument for using the franchise as a way to honor crime-fighting women in real life. The previous versions all started with explanations of how each of the Angels came to be recruited by Charlie—a move Banks said she knew she wanted to leave behind. Why do the Angels still have to list every item on their résumés, she reasoned, when other action heroes don’t? Mission: Impossible doesn’t have Ethan Hunt recap his accomplishments. James Bond doesn’t recite his CV at the start of his films; he just shoots at the camera to cue the start of a sexy song and credits sequence. “I really found that [the Charlie’s introduction] was, like, apologizing for the fact that these women had skills,” Banks said. “It was like you had to convince people from the jump that these women were capable, and this is why you can trust that they can do this job while you’re watching this story, and I really felt like we were beyond that in 2019 … We believe women can do police work and wield guns and fight bad guys. I don’t have to explain how that happens anymore.”

So instead Banks abandoned the montages in favor of doling out bits and pieces of each of the women’s backstory throughout the script. In some cases, they even served the franchise’s signature goofy comedy.

“There was a gunfight at my wedding,” Sabina recalls in one scene.

“You’re married?” Jane responds, incredulous.

“Nah,” Sabina says. “I was the better shot.”

The new Angels earn their wings through rigorous training at the Townsend Agency, which Banks’s film recasts as more of an elite club of women invited to join rather than a secret they’re forced to keep. (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Sony)

Charlie’s Angels, the series, arrived at a turning point in cultural history and gender politics in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that affirmed access to abortion as a constitutional right, and well into the era of second-wave feminism. Onscreen female representation then meant simply having a show starring women; Charlie’s took it a few steps further, with characters who embraced and harnessed their sexuality.

Charlie’s Angels, the first film, came at the turn of the century, just before a wave of kitschy female superhero adaptations (think: Catwoman, Elektra) and, later, gritty antiheroines tasked with saving the world (The Hunger Games, Sucker Punch). Onscreen female representation evolved in the 2000s to become more about having female leads whose trauma enhanced their badassery. Charlie’s stood out for tossing much of those politics aside in favor of giddily irreverent fun and somewhat nonsensical plots, which confused some critics about whether the films were at all progressive.

My colleague Spencer Kornhaber reflected on the first film on its 15th anniversary. In the piece, he contemplated Banks’s reboot, which had then just been announced. “It’s easy to imagine all the ways she might try to improve upon the 2000 version: more body-type diversity, smarter jokes, filmmaking that doesn’t resemble a string of beer and car commercials,” he wrote. “But it’d be heartening if, amid the changes, there was still room for Angels who get to be, for the most part, angelic.”

That’s a lot of balancing and bridging between a sexist past and a more inclusive present to ask of one film, of course. And while Banks’s take does sometimes struggle to shift gears between adopting themes of earnest girl power and being a gritty spy thriller, such a tightrope does make room for the film to be revolutionary in small ways. A mission in Istanbul involves the Angels bringing an asset tampons, pads, and a foot spa. Elena, taught for so long to underestimate her talents, delivers a heartfelt speech about wanting to belong on the team, only for the other women to tell her she already did. The scene is both stirring and playful because of the Angels’ bemused reactions.

The Angels’ newest adventure may be a continuation of a decades-long franchise, but Banks’s iteration isn’t about keeping Charlie’s relevant—it’s about putting more heroines on-screen. “I don’t want the movie to be politicized, and I don’t want the movie to feel like I had some grand statement,” Banks said. “The movie is not a grand statement, and I specifically made sure it wasn’t a grand statement.” At the world premiere of the film in Los Angeles on Monday, Banks stood in front of the audience and pointed up at her three leads—“your new Angels,” she said—towering over her on the screen inside the Regency Village Theater. “It’s all about them,” she declared proudly. As it should be.