Action heroines, by contrast, are not freighted with gender expectations. Since they don't have to measure up to the hyper-masculine cinematic precedent set by actors like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone, they're free to reinvent the role. Many employ femininity and its accoutrements to their advantage. Jolie's Evelyn Salt, who wears a skirt early in the movie, pulls off her panties and uses them to obscure the view of a security camera; later, she dresses a wound with a maxi-pad. Mirren's Red character conceals a can of poison gas in her evening bag and secures a door by wrapping her chunky necklace around its handle. In Hanna, Ronan's adolescent killer begins crying to lure a female interrogator into a maternal embrace, then clings to her like a child before snapping her neck.

But there's one place this new breed of action hero pointedly won't go. "I was interested in creating a character who doesn't use sex to get what she wants," Joe Wright says. "I wanted to create a role model for young women, a character who relies on her wits and strength and honesty." And although Wright is quick to emphasize that Hanna is "pure entertainment"—not a manifesto masquerading as a movie—the new prevalence of fearsome female protagonists could have interesting side effects. "If you accept a strong woman who is conquering onscreen," Snyder says, "that's got to creep into other aspects of your life." Who could have foreseen it? A movie genre notorious for its chauvinism has become an unlikely advertisement for feminism.

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