Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – The fall of Rhona Mitra

I will forgive a movie a good many things if it moves me. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans did not. I was bored.

So I’m not inclined to be magnanimous about how far this trilogy has fallen in terms of gender representation. If I was, I would say that in an ideal film world, the total output of action films in a given year might well mirror the Underworld Trilogy. About a third would have a woman as the dominant ass-kicker, cool as sin and twice as competent, as in Underworld. About a third would be an even mix, where women and men share the spotlight, as in Underworld: Evolution. And about a third would have a man as the take charge and take no prisoners leading man, as in this film. We’re not looking to eliminate films where a man is the hero, contrary to what enemies of feminism constantly assume. We just want some variety.

Since I am not in a generous mood, though, and we are not in an ideal world either, I will say this. If you’re looking for Rhona Mitra to reprise her awesomeness from Doomsday, stay home. Her Sonja’s status as a Death Dealer is a pale shadow of Selene’s might, resourcefulness, and tactical edge. You could remove Sonja’s action from the plot with nary a ripple. Would the audience have believed it if someone had stopped Selene by locking her in her room? I don’t think so. Yet with Sonja, I didn’t even blink. There is a poster of Sonja with a sword, and it’s not like they faked the image, but trust me when I say it’s more of a fashion statement than a way of life for her character.

I will also say that in a world where true heroines don’t appear in two thirds of the action movies produced every year, it’s such a disappointment when a franchise that succeeded based on its heroine turns around and throws that away. It’s a disappointment when a female star who has proven she can rock the action role is turned into Chain Mail Barbie. She looks like a tough broad, but when you pull her string she says “Protecting myself is hard! Will you save me again?”

In all of the films, of course, the vampires in lingerie far outnumber the ones in armor, so removing the strong one doesn’t really leave much. Couldn’t we at least have seen Amelia in action before she went to sleep?

I was quite interested to see how Rise of the Lycans would handle race. I had some issues with how they handled it in the first movie, despite its narrative of destroying oppression based on race and class differences:

Why was there only one black vampire? Why was there only one black werewolf? The werewolves, analogized to African-Americans, are often shown in their animal form, which is dark, violent, and non-human.[…] The most “civilized” werewolf, Lucian, is white. The film portrays him as the leader of the werewolves, but in many ways he’s shown as “more evolved” than they are. He does not change into his animal form very often, if at all, and he chastises several of the other werewolves for acting like animals.

Going back closer to the origin story, I thought it would be interesting to see how this group of characters would be portrayed.

There is no doubt that the filmmakers are trying to make a parallel between the werewolves and African-Americans. Big Bad vampire Viktor actually tells Lucian, our werewolf hero, that he is “a credit to [his] race.” One way you can tell the story is that the vampires kidnapped these men out of their homes, turned them into slaves, beat and killed them when they got out of line, and finally pushed them far enough that they rebelled. A charismatic leader came along at the right time to harness that rebellion, and most of them then chose to follow him in destroying their oppressors. So far, so good.

What to make, then, of Underworld itself, and Lucian’s exhortations to his followers in that film to be men, not animals? Kevin Grevioux, who was the black werewolf in the first Underworld film, is shown in Rise of the Lycans as a human who is captured by the vampires and transformed into a werewolf to be their slave. In the first film he never looks fully human, he is obviously a werewolf, and pretty damn scary to boot. He and his compatriots are not people you would want around the dinner table, which is why it takes so long for the viewers’ emotions to shift to their cause as more and more history is revealed. The vampires’ story seems pretty damn plausible up front. These are savages, they are beasts.

Except Lucian.

Lucian the first werewolf who could shift back and forth between beast and human form. Lucian the leader of the rebellion, who hundreds of years later is still well spoken, rational, and would look perfectly normal if he would get a haircut, some jeans, and a comfy sweater. Lucian hasn’t “devolved” during the war. No one has to scold him to keep control. So if we’re supposed to understand finally that werewolves were the oppressed race/class, then what are the filmmakers saying about African-Americans by turning the werewolves into quasi-animals unless the former “credit to [your] race” is there to keep them lifted up?

It may not be fair to the films to read them out of the order in which they were made like this, and I almost wonder if there is something deliberate going on in the third film to take a different tack. Grevioux is a thoughtful, deliberate man in this film, and the other werewolf guys are quick to pull together after Lucian gives them some hope. It’s exactly what would have happened if the filmmakers on the third film sat down and realized that some elements of the big, scary, fun werewolf chaos didn’t exactly mesh with the story they were trying to tell. Oops, time to revise a little. Who knows what goes on in those script meetings, anyway?

Casting diversity in this film is nil aside from Grevioux; this time we don’t even get a black vampire. Strangely, though, the historical accuracy defense works better for me here than it does for Van Helsing. Rise of the Lycans is supposed to be set in a specific time and place where there also happen to be some non-humans and it hews pretty closely to that setting. Van Helsing was too fantastical for that, it’s a big freak show and there’s no reason why you couldn’t have some people of color in the mix. In this movie, though, when Grevioux’s Raze shows up, I did kind of get a feeling of “Umm, how did you get to Central Europe in the Dark Ages? That can’t be common. Backstory please?” It might not have been as notable if I weren’t so bored and looking for something interesting to think about. And if random black werewolf is what it takes to get another person of color on my screen during a film, then I’m good.

Nothing in this film was any different from the tired parade of Man Saves Woman A Lot films before it, even with the storyline of Man Liberates Himself and Other Slaves, Proves Racist Oppressors are Eeeeevillll. Thanks for throwing away one this franchise as one of our best hopes for proving that female-led action films can succeed at the box office, folks. Hopefully the rest of our 2009 slate won’t be such a waste.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

3 thoughts on “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – The fall of Rhona Mitra

  1. Mana G

    Underworld 3 irritated the crap out of me because of all that, as well. I’m also highly tempted to call Sonja “fridged”, because her death makes the viewer feel nothing for her, only for Lucian and Viktor. I could not believe the filmmakers actually wanted me to feel sorry for Viktor at that moment!

  2. Patricia

    From someone who really liked the first two films and completely loved the heroine (and actress), I think you are both entirely missing the point. Sonja is NOT a heroine, but simply the female lead character; and one whom I found much more compelling and sympathetic than her predecessor. I thought Viktor was meant to be nothing but a cold-heart villain; and he WAS the very picture of evil. This third film, I thought, reached epic pro portions—and was easily the best of the series.

  3. Anonymous

    Your introductory paragraph, where you talk about the distribution of male and female stars in an ideal film world, raises an interesting point. If we see a movie, and it has a male star, that doesn’t make it sexist – it could still exist in your ideal world. However, if we see ten movies, and every one of them has a male star, then that does indicate that we’re not in your ideal world. (See footnote[1] for the maths.) So it’s possible for a set of movies to be individually fine, but collectively biased.

    In your quote from the review of the original Underworld movie, which mentions that there were ‘only’ one black vampire and one black werewolf, you’d need to do a similar sort of analysis to determine if they were actually racially biased. How many vampires and werewolves were there, and hence what fraction of each were black? What fraction of them should be black in an ideal world? (The same fraction as across the US? The entire world? Among Hollywood actors? Or in eastern Europe, where the movie is set?) And then, what is the probability that the representation would be this low if the actors were randomly drawn from an ideal sample?

    [1] You suggest that one third of all movies should have a male star. If this is the case, then the probability that a random sample of ten movies would all have male stars is (1 – 1/3)^10 = 1.7%. Of course, it would be equally sexist for all the movies to have female stars, so we’re really testing the probability that all ten movies have a star of the same sex, which is twice this, or 3.4%. So the p-value or confidence with which we could say that we’re not in an ideal world is 100 – 3.4 = 96.6%.

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