Warning: This post includes spoilers for Pacific Rim Uprising.
From her first scene in Pacific Rim Uprising, tech CEO Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) is clearly the villain. Dressed in an immaculate white outfit, she embodies a certain kind of corporate antagonist, arriving to crush the dreams of our scruffy underdog heroes. Her goal is to launch a fleet of drones (a recurring theme in recent blockbusters), replacing the human-operated Jaegers that saved the world in Pacific Rim.
To cement her image as a ruthless interloper, she drives a wedge between a pair of fan-favorite characters. Scientist Newt Geiszler now works for her company, while his partner Hermann sticks with government research.
Fortunately, there’s a twist. Liwen Shao is a ruthless CEO, and she did spearhead an ominous drone fleet. But when the drones malfunction, she steps in to help figure out what went wrong. (As it turns out, Newt sabotaged them while under alien mind-control. It’s that kind of movie.) Her story is a welcome subversion of expectations. Instead of giving us another example of a stuck-up businesswoman clashing with salt-of-the-earth heroes, she gets an engaging character arc. Miraculously, it doesn’t even involve falling in love or “softening” her character.
Costuming plays a key role here, in a way that could almost be a response to Jurassic World’s female lead. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), like Liwen Shao, starts off as the controlling boss of a doomed business venture. However, she follows a more familiar trajectory for this kind of character: a powerful woman with a Type A personality, who just needs a chill bro to loosen her up. Much of the resulting criticism focused on her costume, which looks a lot like Liwen Shao’s signature outfit, but ultimately sent a different message.
Wearing a white skirt suit, Claire presents a contrast with Chris Pratt’s outdoorsy appearance as a dinosaur trainer. This was fine until she stepped out into the rainforest wearing stiletto heels, immediately branding the character as an ill-prepared idiot. She runs a jungle theme park but doesn’t keep a pair of flats in her car?
This became a rather overblown internet controversy (sexist shoe choices were hardly the worst thing in Jurassic World), with the cast and director arguing we should actually be impressed by Claire’s ability to run in heels. They eventually admitted defeat, promising that the shoes would not return in the sequel. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom depicts Claire in comfy T-shirts, khaki outdoor gear, and a sensible ponytail. Which, in my view, shows they didn’t fully understand the initial criticism. She now looks like a completely different character, settling into the format for the female lead of any generic action movie. Conventionally attractive, without the implied vanity of displaying any interest in fashion.
Like the annoying guys who comment on women’s selfies to say they prefer less makeup, Hollywood wants its female leads to be effortlessly, “naturally” beautiful.
Liwen Shao is a satisfying outlier in this regard. She strides into her first scene in pristine makeup and an eye-catching outfit, setting herself apart from the Jaeger pilot uniforms and Amara Namari’s scruffy teen look. Delivering curt orders to her underlings, she’s not meant to be likable. Yet when the going gets tough, we see how her leadership extends beyond corporate ambition. She quickly takes ownership of the chaos within her own company, joining forces with the heroes. The last act sees her leap into a Jaeger and save the day, revealing herself to be more Tony Stark than Claire Dearing.
At this point you realize that while Pacific Rim Uprising is a silly blockbuster like Fast and Furious or Transformers, it’s miles ahead when it comes to roles for women. Sure, it’s far from perfect (I’m still bitter about Mako Mori), but the cast includes three female engineers! Usually, you’re lucky to see three women, period. In a rare feat for this kind of movie, the female characters receive equal treatment to men in similar roles. From Liwen Shao’s fashion sense to Vik and Amara’s angry teen feud, they get to be fun and idiosyncratic instead of having to fulfill a Strong Female Character archetype. This should really be our baseline expectation for popcorn movies, and I’ll be delighted if the next Fast and Furious lives up to that standard.