I walked into Assassin’s Creed expecting to, at some point, watch a lady in a hooded cloak kick some ass. Other than that my expectations were pretty low. The warnings by all the early reviews delivered in full: an ambitious but lackluster plot drags down the action and Fassbender’s (weirdly) serious acting. This is a script that is trying to do at least three different things at once and unfortunately failing at all of them. But I didn’t go there to be stunned by the screenwriting. I went there to enjoy action-style violence and maybe have some fun to boot.
And, surprisingly, I did.
There are many different ways a story can approach the tone of its violence. Violence can be anything from cartoonish to horrifying, sexy to squeamish, stylized to brutal. For a film based on a video game, one might expect the violence to fall somewhere in the sexy and stylized camp–enjoyable and exciting, with a sense of danger but no real ethical quandaries to explore.
What happens, though, when women are included in that type of violence?
As we become more conscious of gender in our media, this question has become more and more of a head-scratcher for creators, critics, and fans alike. Last year’s Deadpool (2016) phrased it for us all: “This is so confusing. Is it sexist to hit you? Is it more sexist to not hit you? I mean the line gets really blurry.” And perhaps nowhere does this line get more blurry than in titles like Deadpool or Assassin’s Creed, films where violence is not meant to be taken seriously, where it would usually be off-tone to explore the realistic impact of on-screen abuse, assault, and trauma.
In many ways, these films are meant to be safe spaces for adults to enjoy violence. But how are we meant to include women, both as characters and as viewers, as equal participants in violence that is overall meant to be fun, sexy, stylized, and, ultimately, safe?
The keywords is safe.
The link between sex and violence, especially in film and video games, has already been well documented and discussed. And this conversation is perhaps most challenging in depictions of violence between men and women. One of the strongest reactions to M/F violence in media is its frequent similarity to depictions of assault, both physical and sexual —a link that can be disturbing for anyone to watch unfold on screen, especially when the tone or time constraints of a film are not designed to handle the implications of that type of content.
It’s the same uncomfortable feeling one might get when watching a smiling Joker lean over a brainwashed Harley Quinn with torture implements in Suicide Squad (2016). Aren’t we all supposed to be having fun with the violence this type of movie? Is watching Harley Quinn get tortured by her abusive boyfriend or by a bulky prison guard fun? And if it’s not, does Suicide Squad really handle the implications of M/F violence with the nuance and empathy it deserves?
Assassin’s Creed handles this problem with surprising simplicity, and the linchpin of its success lies in consent. Without fail, almost all the women in the film give clear consent to the violence they are participating in—consent that helps relieve the blurred line between including female characters in action-movie style violence, and subjecting them to outright assault.
The first scene that comes to mind is one where Cal grabs Sophia by the throat and pushes her against a wall. It’s a classic move that immediately suggests both assault and sexualization of the female character. However, as soon as Cal begins his attack, Sophia announces calmly and confidently to her personal guards that she is handling the situation and does not need assistance. Cal also doesn’t escalate the attack beyond what Sophia announces she can handle, nor does he appear to actually be hurting her. With a retinue of beefy armed men waiting at Sophia’s command, the two continue to talk until the situation de-escalates. It’s a moment that is tense, but surprisingly sexy. And consensual.
And I felt myself let out a breath of relief.
The key to this scene lies not only in Sophia’s agreement, but in her clear sense of control over the encounter. She is an equal to Cal, yet the scene still does what it’s meant to do: amp up the sexuality and tension in their relationship through power dynamics and violence. But it does so without sacrificing Sophie’s agency.
Maria, Cal’s assassin ancestor’s partner-in-crime, also gets involved in violence, though the much more standard action-film variety. She is scaling walls, drop-kicking inquisitors, and slicing bad guys with knives. A female character actively participating in matched combat is how consent and violence is usually understood in this type of film, and usually that works just fine. However, Maria is not always an active agent in the violence she encounters, steering the film into blurry territory once again.
But the filmmakers manage to maintain the drama when Maria is set to be burned at the stake, or held with a knife to her throat (you’ll notice the excess of ladies’ throats being the a center-point of the violence, and the sexuality of that should not be lost on you). However, Maria repeatedly, verbally, and without prompting affirms that she will willingly give her life in the name of the creed–and whatever confusing, amorphous subplot that creed seems to apply to. Before Maria is finally killed in a hostage standoff, she reminds Cal of her commitment to the creed once again, and even after she is presumed dead, she pokes to life one more time to command her partner-in-assassinating to get the hell out.
This throws the distressed damsel trope into, well, distress. The filmmakers have still given us a Dramatic Moment that gives the stoic hero Someone to Lose and Something to Feel, but Maria’s repeated consent preserves her agency in a way that prevents her from becoming a complete victim in the classic senses of the role.
A parallel can be seen in Cal’s mother, whose dead body in the prologue leaves her as little more than a refrigerated woman plot-point for most of the film– or a woman whose death provides the hero motivation or character development. But the eventual reveal that Cal’s mother ended her own life in the name of the Creed, twists the narrative of victim-hood a second time–much in the way that Maria’s characterization does.
So Assassin’s Creed, of all things, a movie that makes a painful series of narrative blunders, surprisingly finds a way to include women in violence without removing their agency. Subjecting women to violence is never going to be absent from action films whose main target audience continues to be men, despite the near equal proliferation of female action-movie viewers—the connection between violence and sex is too strong, and and the trope of women as the hero’s emotional core is too ingrained. Damsels in distress aren’t going anywhere soon.
What films can do is find ways to include female characters in ways that don’t sacrifice their agency and matches the tone of the rest of the violence in the film. By finding simple ways to incorporate consent, creators can take steps toward action films that cater to a broader range of fantasies for both male and female viewers. Assassin’s Creed certainly found a way to make it work for me.