About 10 minutes into Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, Johnny, a young gambler with a chip on his shoulder, tells the audience, "A city's like a woman, or a casino. Somebody's gonna win."
And with that, any hope that this sequel to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's highly stylized 2005 comic book adaptation would treat its female characters like anything resembling actual human women is dashed. What we're left with instead is a 102-minute exercise in unrepentant misogyny that remains defiantly boring in spite of its endless offering of boobs, guns and bloody, bloody violence.
The film is a noir-style crime thriller made up of four tales, loosely structured around the theme of revenge and featuring some of Sin City's "most hard-boiled inhabitants." These include fan-favorite street thug Marv (Mickey Rourke with a prosthetic jaw), private eye Dwight (Josh Brolin), exotic dancer Nancy (Jessica Alba) and the aforementioned Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, doing his very best Dark Knight-era Christian Bale impression).
At a time when so many comic fans are pleading for female-driven franchises, A Dame To Kill For is yet another reminder that the world of comics (and, far too often, the world of film generally) has not given up on catering to male eyes only.
Barring a waitress played by Lady Gaga, every woman with a speaking role is a prostitute, stripper or sociopathic gold-digger. The issue, however, isn't with these professions themselves (well, not with the first two anyway), nor with the characters' relative morality. Well-crafted female characters can, and sometimes should, be "bad," and we need strong female villains on screen just as much as we need strong female heroes.
The problem is that every woman in this film is a male fantasy object.
Take Ava Lord. The titular dame, played by Eva Green, spends a huge chunk of her screen time naked, occasionally donning a blue coat or silky bathrobe that she inexplicably pairs with stilettos (in Sin City, even pajamas must be sexy).
Whether it's a shot of her doing laps in her pool or lounging in Dwight's bed, Ava's body is on unapologetic display for no reason other than, as one character remarks, to "show off the goods." (Dwight briefly gets naked too, but his privates are conveniently cloaked in shadow.)
There's also a neighborhood in Sin City called "Old Town," which is run entirely by prostitutes and serves largely as an excuse to dress supposedly empowered female characters in some variant of bondage gear.
According to the Independent, Miller once said, "When you have a brush in your hand, inking a beautiful woman is a lot like running your hands over her. It turns me on, OK?" As such, it's not unfair to conclude that the abundance of skin-tight leather outfits and naked female bodies are less vital aspects of character development than they are brazen attempts to cater to male audiences. There's nothing wrong with sex or nudity on screen, but this is pure objectification.
Of course, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez are allowed to make the movies they want to make. We're also allowed to point out when that movie looks like a walking, talking MRA fantasy.
During one exemplary scene, Ava spews false rape accusations as a corrupt detective passionately, well, humps her. In another, she tells an ex-lover, "You were right, I'm just some dumb slut who threw away the best man she ever had." She's lying, but they make out anyway. Women in this world heartlessly use sex to beguile men into giving them what they want all the time.
This is unsurprising, if disappointing, given this film's noir aspirations. "The noir genre is built out of misogyny," Noah Berlatsky wrote in the Atlantic last year, "[T]he elements that give noir its air of brooding, anxious despair all cluster around, and creep out of, the femme fatale, whose sexuality and malice poison not only the men she targets for destruction, but the entire world."
One would hope that in 2014, noir-inspired films would comment on the genre's misogyny, but A Dame To Kill For revels in it.
There is a seemingly endless stream of objectified women that make up its female characters. Like Ava, an Old Town girl named Gail (Rosario Dawson), whose behind gets many a lingering camera shot, seduces men for her own illicit ends.
Then there's the only Old Town prostitute of Asian descent, named Miho. (Mi. Ho.) She doesn't have a single line and carries a katana.
Less explicitly femme fatale-esque characters aren't treated with more respect. Marcy (Julia Garner) is a flaxen-haired young stripper who instantly becomes besotted with Johnny (and his money), is deemed his "good luck charm" and later de-handed and decapitated.
And, of course, there's Nancy, the exotic-dancer-with-a-heart-of-gold we met back in 2005. But now she's dark Nancy, as is evidenced by her holding a bottle of booze as she gyrates on stage and caresses her head with a gun. Feeling she's been unfairly pigeonholed as weak due to her looks, she slices up her face with a broken mirror and cuts her hair.
Upon seeing Nancy's tough new look, Marv says, "You look hot!" Then they shoot a bunch of people.
To be fair, A Dame To Kill For is arguably a step up from its predecessor in terms of the relative amount of agency that it grants some of its women. Characters like Ava and Nancy certainly are more than victims (Alba said in a press conference that Nancy becomes a "warrior" in this film). The movie's marketing reflects this too, as Forbes' Scott Mendelson points out, by emphasizing "the action-packed exploits of the film's female characters, which may end up being an uncanny move in a summer where female-centric genre entries have broken out in stronger numbers than usual."
But make no mistake: No matter how many gun-toting prostitutes patrol the streets of Old Town, Sin City is a man's world. Women's lives revolve around male whims and pleasure, and their power is primarily derived from their male-approved sexuality. This makes their strength come across as a fetish rather than empowerment.
The film's release feels particularly ill-timed given the unveiling of Marvel's Spider-Woman #1 cover on Monday, which features the super-heroine clad in an impossibly tight costume and crouching with her butt thrust uncomfortably high in the air.
That cover quickly spurred backlash for its gratuitous objectification of a strong female role model, and A Dame To Kill For is even worse. Just as we're asked to needlessly ogle Spider-Woman's butt, this movie constantly reminds us that its female leads are eye candy, and little else.
As a friendly reminder, women exist, and in fact make up a huge chunk of both comic fans and movie-goers. If nothing else, perhaps A Dame To Kill For will make it clearer than ever how desperately we need not only female-driven comic franchises, but more women behind the scenes creating female characters that exist outside of men's imaginations.
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For hits theaters Friday, Aug. 22.