On September 12, 2020, the Toronto International Film Festival saw the premiere of what is, in my opinion, a highly underappreciated movie. It was released on New Year’s Day 2021 in the USA, and I saw it maybe a few days later. Right then and there I knew I had to write about it.
Because Shadow in the Cloud, a movie I picked simply because the poster promised that “IT’S AN ABSOLUTE BLAST!” and had Chloë Grace Moretz (a.k.a. Hit Girl) on it in a cool outfit, turned out to be something I had almost stopped believing in: An enjoyable female empowerment movie.
Now, female empowerment, feminism, etc. have become very vague and touchy terms, and that certainly factors into why you’re only reading this now. No article on here have I drafted and abandoned as many times as this one. Which is its own kind of scary because ultimately, its goal is merely to tell you that Shadow in the Cloud is worth a watch. And even though it’s not red-hot news anymore, it’s still a message I want to spread. So here we go. I refuse to be ruled by fear.
What is a “female empowerment movie”?
First of all, let me establish my terminology; what I call a female empowerment movie is one that covers female empowerment as a major part of its plot, using the following formula:
One or more women oppressed by a patriarchical society overcome that oppression via an emancipative heroines’ journey, optionally not only changing their position in said society but also triggering some kind of positive change in the system or at least the views of their peers. Besides patriarchy itself, there’s almost always some other, external threat or problem its members fail to address or even recognize, thus revealing the flaws in their worldview.
That’s my definition of the genre. My problem with it is that while I think the formula could yield a decent mix of education and entertainment, all I’ve seen it produce is stacks of feces.
What are some examples?
To be fair, this might be an issue of ignorance in part; I’ve never actively sought out movies that utilize this formula. I merely stumble upon them with some frequency, hoping that they will be good, and ending up utterly disappointed each time.* The most striking examples of this are Charlie’s Angels (2019), Birds of Prey (2020), and Enola Holmes (2020).
When I came across Shadow in the Cloud, I had seen Charlie’s Angels and Birds of Prey only once. Enola Holmes I had retreated from after the first 20 minutes or so. Now, if you’ve read some of my prior articles, you’ve hopefully come to expect better of me than to build an opinion on such a brittle basis. So as part of one of my attempts at this article, I took a weekend to rewatch them. Back to back, notepad next to my laptop. An exhausting but educational exercise, resulting in… well, lots of notes.
I’ll spare you most of them, but I will show you how each of these movies fulfils the formula detailed above. And I’ll rant a bit about the first two and a lot about Enola Holmes and then we can move on to the enjoyable part, i.e. how Shadow in the Cloud does it better.** Feel free to skip ahead if that’s all you want to know.
!! SPOILERS FOR CHARLIE’S ANGELS, BIRDS OF PREY, AND ENOLA HOLMES AHEAD !!
The female empowerment formula
Partriarchical oppression: Elena, the prospective angel, is placatively oppressed by her boss. The other two angels, like Elena, are constantly subject to the male gaze, though they have learned to use it to their advantage, as the opening scene makes abundantly clear.
Ignorance to external threat: Elena’s coworkers show varying levels of ignorance to the danger posed by their own invention. All of them ignore her warnings. Moreover, her boss is harboring evil plans without noticing that he himself is a pawn in an even more evil plan.
Emancipative journey: The other angels help Elena stand up to the evil men around her by teaching her the ways of… wigs and electrolyte-enhanced water. That counts.
Change in the system: This last, optional component is lacking in this one. The angels manage to avert danger and remove the bad guys from their positions, but since all is done in secret and the good guys are still good and the bad guys are bad, there is no larger-scale change.
The film as such
… is bland. Lame punchlines, poorly edited action scenes, plans with as much merit as a James Bond movie (but way less spectacular).
It has some good twists, but the major mislead falls flat because it wants you to believe that the traitor is a woman, which obviously can’t be. Almost all men are bad, there’s some leeway there, but all women are good. No exceptions. Kinda takes the tension out of a spy movie.***
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
The female empowerment formula
Partriarchical oppression: Gotham City underworld politics see Harley only as an extension of the Joker. Roman Sionis regards Black Canary, and later Harley, as his property. Renee Montoya’s fellow policemen, especially her boss, don’t take her seriously.
Ignorance to external threat: Birds of Prey doesn’t exactly check this box. The movie’s central threat is that Roman Sionis, who is established as super rich and influential, could get even richer. That’s kind of a weak and abstract threat, so there isn’t much for the police or the population, let alone Sionis, to be ignorant about here. A substantial threat that all these factions do ignore are the protagonists. Underestimating them is proven to be a mistake.
Emancipative journey: Well, it’s in the title. Harley Quinn shows Gotham she’s a threat even without the Joker. She, Cassandra, and the three “birds” unite over time, finally finding ways (money) for each of them to free themselves from their oppressive ties and start over.
Change in the system: Again, the change pertains mostly to the main characters.
The film as such
… wants to be a feminist superhero ensemble movie, but it doesn’t feature superpowers or the ensemble working together as such until the very end. And its feminist motifs feel disparate from the plot. Sure, all the bad guys happen to be misogynists, but that just comes on top. It’s not really related to their motivations, it’s not why they’re bad.
The scene I’ve seen the most praise for is one where Sionis forces a woman to strip on a table. And it’s a tense scene that could work great in terms of establishing him as the villain if it weren’t a) entirely unrelated to the rest of the plot and b) preceded by a scene that does factor into the plot (and foreshadows the mask thing) where he has his hostages’ faces cut off.**** That’s kinda worse in my moral framework.
Talking about moral frameworks, Harley is portrayed as a violent egomaniac with no concern for others who keeps an exotic pet in a small apartment and uses taxidermied animals for jokes. But she’s not a misogynist so the movie rewards her for it. Oh, and snorting cocaine gives her superpowers. Valuable lessons being taught.
Aside from all that, I just couldn’t stand the narration. But that’s personal preference.
The female empowerment formula
Patriarchical oppression: Enola is heavily oppressed by Mycroft as her legal guardian, and later by the personnel of the finishing school.
Ignorance to external threat: Enola’s brothers fail to see their mother’s plotting for what it is. Mycroft in particular dismisses her disappearance as an act of senile madness and hysteria.
Emancipative journey: Enola escapes her brothers and – with the help of Tewkesbury – the finishing school, trying to follow her mother’s path. In that, she rejects the role society has reserved for her and finds her own. She even declares as much directly to the viewer in the final scene.
Change in the system: On a personal level, she seems to have managed to make her brothers accept her choices. But Enola triggers far more change; by saving Tewkesbury and solving the case of the attempts at his life, Enola enables him to cast the tipping vote on the reform bill that would in the long run pave the way for British women’s right to vote.
The film as such
…is worse than I had feared. Worst thing first: It starts with a fourth wall break by Enola herself as she delivers the exposition. And it never stops. Everything is narrated, and Enola turns to face the camera not only at an annoying pace that doesn’t allow the fourth wall to ever be fully rebuilt, she does it for insufferable lenghts and bad reasons at completely inappropriate times.***** During fights. Mid-conversation while other characters are waiting for her response. It’s the horror that Deadpool could have been if his comments weren’t short and reasonably punchy and if the action froze whenever he opened his mouth.
Which leads me to the second problem: Redundance. Hardly any of the breaks and narrations, the flashbacks, illustrations and fade-overs the movie is full of add anything new. They merely explain things. Really simple things. And they don’t explain them well. The most striking example is probably the moment Enola turns away from her enemy mid-alley-fight to face the camera and calmly list her daily routine growing up over a flashback montage of the mentioned activities, which she emphasizes included – and I quote – “fight combat”. This is by far not the first time she’s talked about her mother’s unconventional teachings, not even the first time we are shown them fighting in the garden. Yet the film somehow thinks it needs to justify itself here, losing all its hard-earned momentum.
The simplicity pertinent in this example is in itself a problem for a detective film. The great Sherlock Holmes makes his deductions based on convenient newspaper articles that explain pretty much exactly what is happening to other characters, with headlines like “Disturbance on London Express: Two Boys Leap From Train”. Who writes a half-page piece about that, complete with a photo of the train driving around the bend where it happened, when none of said boys were injured or ever seen again? If Enola’s mother is careful enough to speak in code at a secret meeting in her own basement, why does she use codewords that are just permutations of the actual words? Why not use ones that cannot be reverse-engineered?
This touches on another area of weakness; the characters’ motivations, actions and skills just don’t make any sense at points, and there is no explanation in these cases at all. E.g. Enola recalls everything that was said in the aforementioned secret meeting – along with minute visual details – from having stuck her head in the door for a few seconds months ago. She does however not recognize her childhood martial arts instructor when standing right in front of her. When she thinks she knows who wants Tewkesbury dead and why, she takes him straight to the suspect without backup and almost gets them both killed instead of hiding out with him and 16-blocksing it to congress the day of the vote. The mystery of what the heck Enola’s mom was up to and why she needed tons of dynamite for it remains largely unsolved and is cast aside as unimportant. That’s one thing I would have liked an explicit explanation for.
!! MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SHADOW IN THE CLOUD AHEAD !!
What does Shadow in the Cloud do better?
Alright. So how does Shadow in the Cloud make this formula work? Well, first of all, let’s make sure that it does indeed check the necessary boxes.
The female empowerment formula
Patriarchical oppression: Immediately after her boarding the Fool’s Errand, the crewmembers make tons of sexist remarks, question Maude’s mission, and stow her away in the ball turret.
Ignorance to external threat: The crew isn’t aware that there is a gremlin on board, and doesn’t believe Maude when she spots and reports it. Same with the Japanese airplanes.
Emancipative journey: Maude takes initiative against both the enemy planes and the gremlin, saving the crew’s asses and proving her place while also protecting her child.
Change in the system: Maude seems to succeed in changing the attitudes of the few survivors, but that’s it. We don’t learn about the further impact of their adventure.
The film as such
… doesn’t try to be too grand****** or preachy except right at the end. For most of its runtime, it’s just a fun, pulpy, suspenseful action flick.
As a factor of this, there is a believability and a natural delivery to the misogyny the movie depicts. The soldiers aboard the Fool’s Errand make their worst remarks among themselves when they think Maude’s not listening. Some of them tell the others to tone it down, some just stay silent. Some are jerks because they’re scared and turn around later.
Compare that to Mycroft’s statements in Enola Holmes; they may be realistic in that setting, but will seem unrelatable to anyone the film’s message has the remotest chance of reaching. I find it to be far more reliably thought-provoking when a movie examines behavior that is questionable but not entirely outlandish. Because societal problems often sprout in the realm of the “it’s not that bad, is it?” – and that’s exactly where art might make a difference.
Believability and relatability also matter when it comes to the protagonist. (Surprise, surprise!) Maude Garrett, while being mostly badass, still struggles, both in terms of diplomacy and combat. One reason the fight scenes in Shadow in the Cloud are more exciting than those in Charlie’s Angels is that Maude might fail at any moment, while we already know that the angels won’t lose a fight to a man (and men are all they’re fighting).
In addition to pulling off the balance between struggle and badassery, Shadow in the Cloud doesn’t fall into the popular trap of presenting its protagonist’s feminine side as the source of her struggles, trying to weigh it up by giving her some classic male characteristics.******* While Maude does exhibit such, it is in part her motherly instinct that makes her persevere – yet that’s also not depicted as the only thing that makes her strong. To me, the breastfeeding scene at the end, although a little over the top, emphasizes this rather well; that badassery and motherliness can coexist.********
Finally, Shadow in the Cloud is just creative. From the introduction of the crew via radio (which beautifully underlines Maude’s isolation) to the reveal of what’s inside the box to the small subversions of expectation in the explosion and proposal scenes, this movie showed me scenes I hadn’t seen before, and it had me genuinely surprised at times.
Hell, the entire premise screams novelty. Say what you will about this film, but you can’t blame it for going back to the well of sociocritical WW2 dogfight creature feature movies. There is no such well.
So this is it?
As audacious as it is, Shadow in the Cloud is not perfect. First of all, and let’s just get that out of the way, the title sounds way too much like a certain Mike Oldfield song. Also, every time I try to think of an acronym for it, I end up with “Sh.i.t.Cloud”.
Other than that… I think there’s some wasted potential in the ending, especially the final fight with the gremlin. It’s over super quick and Maude kills the thing with her bare hands, which isn’t the most exciting approach and seems unrealistic even in this film’s universe. What I had hoped for instead of an instance of the protective motherly rage trope was that the remaining men would get in on the fight, providing the gremlin (which one could certainly see as a metaphor for the incompetence of the crew members not in the usual technical but rather in a social sense) with a collective cathartic ass-kicking.
Interestingly enough, Enola Holmes is spot-on when it comes to this; the whole voting thing makes it clear that men can take an active part in the systematic change and not just be passive bystanders (which Tewkesbury isn’t for the rest of the movie either).
And who knows; Enola Holmes 2 is already in production. I might give it a shot, now that I know that making a good female empowerment movie is indeed possible.
I guess the next question one might ask oneself is whether they’re actually needed. Critiques of female empowerment movies often point out that classics like The Terminator (1984) or Aliens (1986), which feature strong female protagonists whose being female is relevant to the plot and who do go through a heroine’s journey facing a threat that most others are ignorant to, pull it off without the explicit emancipation-from-patriarchical-oppression plotline, yielding a more subtle – and thus perhaps more impactful – result.
* If any good ones come to mind, do point them out to me. I’m game.
** If you hated Shadow in the Cloud, I have good news for you as well; you are not alone. As part of my research, I watched all of YouTube, and came upon a video by That Phat Samurai Guy and Lady Phatblood, wherein they essentially vomit sentences for 37 minutes straight after having seen the movie. A lot of the aspects I like about it seem to frustrate them; still, I can completely see where they’re coming from. Like, they’re not wrong. Had they criticized the same stuff about one of my counter-examples, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. It’s weird.
*** YouTube’s Filmento has a great video on this and other problems with Charlie’s Angels.
**** One thing the scene does very well is showcase Sionis’s insecurity, which this video by Filmento says was much more central to the plot the writers had originally planned.
***** After finding out that Enola Holmes has the same director as Fleabag, this all checks out. Fourth wall breaks seem to be kind of his thing. I haven’t seen much more than the pilot of Fleabag yet, so I can’t say whether it works there but in Enola Holmes, it’s film-breaking.
****** I just realized that all three of my counter-examples are meant to either reboot, expand or start a franchise (with the latter two having succeeded). Maybe not having to operate under this burden makes Shadow in the Cloud feel less forced in comparison.
******* Which, to be fair, none of the counter-examples I mentioned do either.
******** At least it doesn’t feel quite as weirdly glorifying as the depiction of motherhood in 2019’s Io, wherein giving birth ends up being the sole defining purpose of the female protagonist.
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Also relevant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPRCv-cI7zM