The Reel Breakdown

Adams on Reel Women — Distressing Damsels: The Summer of Women Kicking Ass

Photo by Marvel/Columbia Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

We've come a very long way from Fay Wray being overpowered by King Kong and hanging limply (swoon! sigh!) from his giant hairy paw. If it were the summer of 2012, Wray would never have found herself dangling over the Manhattan skyline; she would have impaled that big bad ape on the Empire State Building. Female characters from "The Avengers" to "Brave" to "Total Recall" still manage to look good when lashing out, but the theme is no longer "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." It's "Don't hate me because I'm going to level the playing field and kick your ass."

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in "The Avengers"

This is where the summer started: The opening interrogation scene of "The Avengers." Villains have tied Johansson's Black Widow to a chair in an empty warehouse. She's wearing black lingerie, her red hair tousled with a just-got-out-of-bed wave. There's a whiff of S&M as the question seems to be "Will the bound woman submit to the insistent questioners?" But, no, she's the one doing the interrogating, though her captors didn't realize, and when she gets a call to stop playing around, she uses the chair as a weapon and levels three grown men. It turns out that all along, she was only playing the victim -- and now the real action starts as the spider plays with her prey.

'The Avengers' Clip: 'Interrogation'

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Noomi Rapace as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in "Prometheus"

It's a common trope that sooner or later the hero has to fight injured -- think Bruce Willis walking barefoot across broken glass in "Die Hard," or Christian Bale's already-crippled Batman surviving a broken back and crawling out of his prison pit to put down Tom Hardy's brawny Bain. I can't think of any of those famed heroes who could have given themselves a C-section like the petite Dr. Shaw (Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") to remove an unwanted alien infant. And then Dr. Shaw got up off the operating pod, bandaged herself, fought a host of duplicitous humans and ancient intelligent beings, and rescued a decapitated android with a mind of his own. I hurt just watching Dr. Shaw every time she had to use her abdominal muscles. Now that's a new-age heroine!

Kelly Macdonald as Princess Merida in "Brave"

The first Pixar animated heroine to have her own movie, Macdonald's Scottish princess shoots arrows, rides horses, and messes up the balance of power with dire consequences that only she can unravel. Sure, this spunky ginger with overactive tresses rides forth to undo a curse that she set in motion, her bow strapped to her back and her corset unlaced. Marriage, a prince, and happily ever after -- that's for sissies. She's a chip off that old "Toy Story 2" favorite, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, without pesky Woody and Buzz Lightyear to hog the plot.

[Related: Adams on Reel Women: Sight & Sound proves blind and deaf to women directors]

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rises"

Consider this: Hathaway's Catwoman exploiting the chivalry of Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman to get physically close. You wouldn't hurt a woman would you? Then she kicks out the good man's cane. This cat burglar has no scruples. And then she backflips out the window, carrying Wayne's late mother's pearls. What a character introduction! She embodies her comic book feline with the grace of Cary Grant's romantic robber in Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief." This cat has claws because despite her good looks and cool surface, she has the soul of a wounded animal. In a hard-luck life -- she's no millionaire philanthropist, thank you very much, Bruce Wayne -- a kitty has to feed herself first and purr later.

Kate Beckinsale as Lori in "Total Recall"

Ever since porcelain-skinned beauty Beckinsale put on a catsuit for "Underworld" in 2003 -- and ended up leaping romantically from co-star Michael Sheen to director Len Wiseman — the Oxford University dropout has been assembling an action career one Lycan, one vampire, one werewolf at a time. Playing Selene hasn't been prestigious, but it's a lucrative franchise. Now with hubby Wiseman directing "Total Recall," Beckinsale was primed to play the good wife/bad cop Lori opposite Colin Ferrell's memory-challenged renegade Quaid. Lori redefines domestic violence when she goes hand-to-hand with Quaid in their dingy apartment, unafraid to use her muscular thighs to pin him beneath her and give him a very unromantic python squeeze. And like every good bad guy, Lori seems to have superior strength and focus to the duped hero, but the relentless villainess just can't seem to make that kill shot no matter how many times she tries and how big the target. But how she tries!

And there's more! Shout-outs go to Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron in "Snow White and the Huntsman," Salma Hayek in "Savages," and Jessica Biel in "Total Recall."

Take This, Sucka!

So, is it change when women become more like their male counterparts, taking arms (and toned legs) against their rivals? At the very least, it can be said that it's empowering for film females to carry the action, rather than just sitting in the ape's giant paw, swooning and hoping for rescue like Fay Wray.