It's hard to decide when the James Bond franchise hit bottom (before being resuscitated by Daniel Craig in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale). But a good contender would be 1999, when Denise Richards sashayed on screen as Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough, which had the chutzpah to present her as the universe’s least plausible nuclear physicist (and to argue that short-shorts and a tank top were the perfect gear for dismantling warheads in the Former Soviet Republic). It was a particularly dumb, sexist moment for the franchise—more than her profession, Richards’ character really existed for Bond to make the Carrie Bradshaw-level pun "I thought Christmas only comes once a year"—and a particularly egregious use of a trope even more vexing than the Sexy Librarian: the Dumb Hot Scientist who sparks chemical reactions in the hero rather than in the lab.
But while heroines like The Hunger Games' Katniss and Brave's Merida have revitalized Diana the Huntress as a viable action movie role model, 2012's also been a terrific year for fictional girls in STEM fields, and for pushback against the image of the gal who wears a lab coat just to showcase her push-up bra. From Dejah Thoris, the Martian scientist and warrior princess who was the best thing about flop John Carter, to Prometheus' questing Elizabeth Shaw, to Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's girlfriend in The Amazing Spider-Man (out today), the movies are suddenly full of female scientists who can unlock the mysteries of the universe in the lab and defend themselves on the street.
In the Spider-Man comics, Gwen Stacy always had an interest in science, whether majoring in it or interning at the fictional OsCorp Industries. In The Amazing-Spider-Man, when Peter Parker sneaks into OsCorp hoping to meet a scientist who worked with his long-dead father, Gwen (played by Emma Stone) turns out to be the top intern, an assistant to Dr. Curt Connors himself. Peter's an intuitively brilliant scientist, too, but Gwen's doing the work he's longed to do for years. And after Connors turns himself into a human-lizard hybrid and starts terrorizing New York, Peter relies on Gwen to cook up an antidote for him and the New Yorkers at risk. Showing both smarts and personal courage, she mixes up the formula and leads an evacuation of OsCorp headquarters as Connors ravages the building.
If Peter and Gwen are intellectual equals the duo at the center of John Carter, released earlier this year, are not. In fact, Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins) has Carter, the former Confederate soldier who finds himself on her home planet, beat pretty much anyway you look at it. We're introduced to her as the leading scientist of her family's kingdom, Helium, one of two civilizations that fights over the future of Mars, a brilliant woman whose father sees only her potential in forging an alliance by marriage. When she and Carter meet, Dejah saves his life, rather than the other way around. As they road trip back to her capital city, it's Dejah who deciphers a mysterious set of symbols and discovers the key to an immensely powerful new energy source.
The movie's comfortable letting her be more educated than Carter without requiring some sort of plotline where she takes off the Martian equivalent of Sexy Librarian Glasses, shakes out her hair, and reveals that she was a babe all along. Dejah does rock a Princess Leia-like bronzed bikini, but in John Carter, the men are as much sex objects as the women, conducting state business in loincloths.
By contrast, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the scientist whose discoveries and hypotheses are the reason a crew makes for a distant planet in Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus, favors utilitarian jumpsuits. She's less of a pure scientist than either Gwen or Dejah—Shaw hopes that her scientific pursuits will validate her strong religious beliefs, leading her crew to the aliens she believes created humanity—and Prometheus has plot holes galore. But even if Shaw and her colleagues’ behavior is not exactly lab-appropriate (they have a weird and seemingly plot-driven disdain for decontamination procedures and for wearing protective gear during dangerous and totally unprecedented experiments), Shaw's the movie's purest example of scientific curiosity. Even when her hypothesis is disastrously disproved, she formulates new ones and continues her exploration of the solar system. Her will to know more fuels her will to live.
I wish Prometheus had been a better movie, a smarter reconciliation of faith and science, but I love seeing action heroines like Elizabeth Shaw on screen, even if they're only in rough drafts of better movies we'll one day get to see. And I love that female scientists like Gwen Stacy and Dejah Thoris are stealing the movies they're in from the edge of the screen, reminding us that women scientists are good for something other than helping James Bond, sexual scientist, uncover the mysteries of the female orgasm.
These smart, capable women aren't just good for girls in the audience who might see them as role models. They shake up the dynamics of action movies, too, reminding audiences that there are ways to solve problems other than obliterating them with impressive quantities of explosives. Even The Avengers recognized this in its final moments. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) may divert a nuclear weapon away from New York and toward an alien base. But it's secret agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), teaming up with a scientist to solve a seemingly impossible problem, who figures out how to cut off the attack that's ravaging the city. Sometimes, it takes a girl and some equations to save the world, rather than a guy with a gun.