The 2018 reboot of the early aughts Tomb Raider series opens with actress Alicia Vikander, who plays protagonist Lara Croft, getting pummeled by an opponent in a boxing ring. One can’t help but stare at Vikander’s six-pack abs and toned biceps, a result of rigorous training for the film, as she taps out of the match.
Vikander’s Croft is, compared with Angelina Jolie’s sexed-up 2001 and 2003 depictions, the relatable version — working as a bike courier and rejecting a family inheritance and a ritzy life inside Croft Manor. Jolie’s Croft, meanwhile, appeared to be unemployed and ever-bored, with limitless means to entertain her mischievous streak, fit for an era of Paris Hiltons and the fabulous lives of intangible celebrities.
But what made the early Tomb Raider films unrealistic wasn’t just a narrative of time travel and unlikely assassins but Jolie’s impossibly bountiful bosom, amplified by a push-up bra that was talked about in nearly every review after the film’s premiere. (Imagine that happening today.)
It all makes way for a striking comparison between the Lara Croft of years past and Vikander’s Croft. Jolie, in an interview given in 2001, said of her “stunt bra as star” and hot shorts that “we weren’t even going to put the shorts on. But I felt we had to for the game. There are certain things that are specific to [Croft.]”
Fast-forward nearly two decades, and Vikander’s Croft is a tomboy who eschews makeup and other traditionally feminine qualifiers, subverting patriarchal standards of sexiness (save a suspiciously well-maintained ponytail through the film’s duration and armpit hair that doesn’t seem to grow despite multiple days spent on an island without grooming products). Some are quick to point out Vikander’s physical differences vis-a-vis Jolie; others celebrate it.
as someone’s that struggled with body image issues since 6th grade when everyone started growing boobs and i didn’t, it’s SO ENCOURAGING (even at 26) to see amazing ladies like alicia vikander and gal gadot rock the fuck out of hollywood with flat chests
— kels (@kelsbola) March 12, 2018
The men who think Alicia Vikander and Gal Gadot are awful picks for Lara Croft and Wonder Woman just because their "boobs aren't big enough" are everything that's wrong with this world.
— Cheryl (@mllecherelle) March 16, 2018
you know what I like about alicia vikander playing lara croft? that they didn't sexualize her, didn't put excessive boobs or a sexy outfit
— ً (@domschalkley) September 20, 2017
It’s what makes today’s Tomb Raider part of a growing list of cinematic women warriors who don’t have to be as buxom as they are badass: Daisy Ridley in Star Wars, Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira in Black Panther.
The origins of the Tomb Raider franchise began in 1996, with a video game release that became as unlikely a blockbuster success as its main character Lara Croft’s proportions. The first iterations of the video game cashed in on Croft’s sex appeal, which prompted her chief designer, lead graphic artist of Eidos subsidiary Core Design Toby Gard, to leave the company.
“What I objected to was the marketing, which represented Lara in a way that was nothing like the character. At the time I didn’t like that, and it prompted me to want to retain control of characters I created in the future, so that’s why I left,” Garb told the Guardian in 2006.
It’s that marketing that ultimately led to the Tomb Raider movie franchise starring Jolie — one that the Atlantic would end up identifying as one of the most “insipid” and “undeniably brainless, sexist, female-led action movies.” It also led to the omnipresent sexy Tomb Raider/adventurer Halloween costume, characterized by those hot shorts, skimpy tops, and garters-as-gun holsters, alongside a legion of cosplayers (costume players, people who dress up at times other than Halloween as characters in pop culture). Compare that with any given covered-up Indiana Jones ensemble, usually encompassing a leather jacket, beige cotton button-up, fedora, beige slacks, and waist-tied bags.
It’s a complicated matter, sorting through whether Lara Croft is an iconic representation of the empowered woman or whether her character is shrouded in sexism. Like the sex wars that characterize early feminist waves and continue onward, women can be both sexy in the scantily clad sense and empowered (see: Emily Ratajkowski and Adriana Lima).
To be sure, the new Tomb Raider movie is chock-full of cinematic shortcomings: Cheesy writing, worse flashback sequences, plot holes, and character deficiencies abound. But for all that it lacks by critical measure, it does give us Vikander as a true fighter. She just might be enough to win people over, without the push-up bra.
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