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The Charlize Theron Scale of Toughness

On the occasion of her new action epic, ‘Atomic Blonde,’ Jason Concepcion and Shea Serrano rank the actress’s roles by grit, from prissy girlfriend to one-armed patriarchy toppler

(Arturo Torres)
(Arturo Torres)

Shea: If you take all of the different characters that Charlize Theron has played and arrange them by ascending toughness, that’s how you get The Charlize Theron Scale of Toughness. It has a wider range and is tougher to order than I’d initially anticipated. The person at the top is easy to figure out (it’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, given that she needed only one and a half arms to topple tyranny), as is the person at the bottom (it’s Tina in That Thing You Do!, given that she was there just to wear a dress for a few moments). But the whole section in between those two is tricky.

Jason: Explain.

Shea: Well, where does Mary Ann from The Devil’s Advocate go? Or how about Stella Bridger in The Italian Job? Does Aileen from Monster (who was a serial killer) fit higher into The Charlize Theron Scale of Toughness than Aeon Flux from Aeon Flux (because, I mean, technically Aeon Flux was a serial killer, too, she just had a way better haircut)? How do we handle the Mary-from-Hancock situation (she was a superhero whenever she was far away from Hancock but became a normal person whenever he was nearby)? Or what about Ravenna from Snow White and the Huntsman (she was flame retardant and also a wizard, which is incredible, but she was able to be killed by just stabbing her in the stomach, which is less incredible and actually pretty normal)? How do we sort all of that?

Jason: Let’s sort it by sorting it.

Shea: Fair enough. Let’s do that then. And let’s make it a scale like it’s a pyramid.

Jason: Why?

Shea: Because pyramids are the toughest of all the shapes.

Jason: Damn, you’re right.

Shea: It not only has the strongest base and is the hardest to move, but also it’s one of the few shapes you can kill someone with. It’s the Charlize Theron of shapes.

Jason: I’m not sure any of that makes sense. Although, I guess the pyramids in Egypt have been standing a long-ass time.

Shea: For our pyramid, let’s make it so that the bottom level is the least-tough group of her characters and the top level is the toughest group. And let’s go with eight levels in the pyramid since the last movie I saw Charlize in was Fate of the Furious (a.k.a. Fast 8), during which she shot a mother in the head in front of her baby and also the child’s father, which, I mean, does it get any Bad Guy Tougher than that? She was like, "Y’all have fun doing burnouts or whatever in your little cars. I’ll just be over here shooting mothers in the head in front of their babies to prove a point."

Jason: Are we going to do every single movie character she’s played?

Shea: Definitely.

Jason: If we do that, we’re talking about something like 40 different ones.

Shea: OK, actually then definitely not. That’s too many. Instead, let’s just set it so that we pick one character per level, and then maybe just toss in some names of other characters who could fit in on that same level. Does that make sense? So, for example, I mentioned earlier about Furiosa being the no. 1 toughest Charlize Theron character. She’d be on the top level of the pyramid. She’d be Level 8. She wouldn’t be there alone, though. She’d be there with other characters who were on approximately the same level of toughness. (In this case, it’d just be Furiosa and Lorraine Broughton from Atomic Blonde.) We’ll go from the bottom and work our way up.

Jason: Got it.

‘That Thing You Do!’ (20th Century Fox)
‘That Thing You Do!’ (20th Century Fox)

Level 1 Character: Tina in That Thing You Do!

A Character of Comparable Toughness: Gwen Sunday in Men of Honor

Shea: That Thing You Do! was Charlize’s second official movie (third if you count her uncredited cameo in 1995’s Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest). In it, she plays Tina, the very prissy and very stodgy girlfriend of Guy Patterson, the movie’s central figure. She has only a few moments of screen time, and during them she does exactly zero tough things (mostly she just sits in a chair in the audience during a talent show and looks frustrated). Had she played this role later in her career, I’d have had no problem assuming some sort of Atomic Blonde–like mysterious backstory, and thus assigning her a higher level of toughness. But we hadn’t seen Charlize yet and didn’t know that she would, in all seriousness and with no hyperbole, end up being an elite action movie star. Tina is the second-easiest character to place in our pyramid.

Level 2 Character: Helga in 2 Days in the Valley

A Few Characters of Comparable Toughness: Wren Petersen in The Last Face, Anna in A Million Ways to Die in the West, Adele Invergordon in The Legend of Bagger Vance

Jason: You should see 2 Days in the Valley, Shea. It’s interesting for two reasons: (1) As one of the notable Pulp Fiction rip-offs from the ’90s, it’s a fascinating comment on the era. And (2) it’s Charlize’s feature film debut! (Not counting Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest!)

Theron plays Helga, a femme fatale in white spandex, whose boyfriend, Lee (James Spader), is a scheming hit man. Other characters in veteran TV director John Herzfeld’s dime-store Tarantino tale include pizza-obsessed assassin Dosmo Pizzo (Danny Aiello), suicidal television producer Teddy Peppers (Paul Mazursky), and Olympic athlete Becky Foxx (Teri Hatcher).

How tough is Charlize in this movie? Well, let’s see: She brawls with Becky the Olympian in a tawdry motel room over a chuggingly bad blues music score, gets a crystal vase broken over her head, then gets shot in the gut. IT’S AMONG THE MOST ’90S SCENES EVER FILMED! See, people accuse this movie of being a Tarantino rip-off. And it clearly is. BUT! 2 Days in the Valley did bracingly violent lady-on-lady fights way before QT would get to Kill Bill. Anyway, Helga survives the wound long enough to leap out of a moving vehicle. Then she dies. Pretty tough.

Shea: I like that it took until only the second level of the pyramid until we got to a spot where you have to at least be tougher than someone who got into a fistfight in a motel room to advance any higher than this. Have you ever gotten into a fistfight in a motel room? I never have. I had sex in a motel room in high school once. It was this tiny place right off the freeway in San Antonio that let you pay by the hour, which is an easy way to know that it was terrible and awful. It was maybe as dangerous as getting into a fistfight in a motel room, though, depending on how you feel about that sort of thing.

‘The Italian Job’ (Paramount Pictures)
‘The Italian Job’ (Paramount Pictures)

Level 3 Character: Stella Bridger in The Italian Job

A Few Characters of Comparable Toughness: Meredith Vickers in Prometheus, Jill Young in Mighty Joe Young, Mavis Gary in Young Adult

Jason: I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I’ve lusted for revenge. Who hasn’t? Here’s the thing: I’m lazy. Revenge is a dish best served cold and I can’t cook and if I ever do cook I just eat that thing right away. I don’t have the patience or the energy to go planning anything elaborate. Which is probably why I love — LOVE — heist movies and SUPER LOVE revenge heist movies. Revenge heist movies are the best.

In The Italian Job, Charlize and her crew are out to take revenge on Steve Frazelli (Ed Norton) for killing her dad and stealing the gang’s gold, which they had, in turn, stolen from someone else.

How tough is Charlize in this? Well, she runs a heist on Steve, drives a Mini Cooper (this movie is basically a two-hour commercial for Mini Coopers), then gets to punch Steve in the face, and when Ukrainian mobsters tell her they’re going to torture him to death, she’s like "Great!"

Shea: I just realized that Charlize’s character in Prometheus (Meredith Vickers) is the Steve Frazelli of that movie.

‘The Devil’s Advocate’ (Warner Bros.)
‘The Devil’s Advocate’ (Warner Bros.)

Level 4 Character: Mary Ann Lomax in The Devil’s Advocate

A Couple of Characters of Comparable Toughness: Jillian Armacost in The Astronaut’s Wife, Erica Soltz in The Yards

Shea: This may seem like a mistake or bad placement for this character because by the end of The Devil’s Advocate, Mary Ann has become completely unraveled and dies by suicide in a mental institute and so how could she possibly be tougher than Stella Bridger or Helga? But, really, it’s just a matter of looking at things in the right context.

In all of the movies cited before this one, Charlize’s character was battling someone or something that was, by most accounts, defeatable. In The Devil’s Advocate, though, the main bad guy is literally Satan. The real Satan. Lucifer. The Fallen Angel. The Prince of Darkness. Beelzebub. That’s who she’s fighting (or, more accurately, that’s whose influence she’s fighting). And she fights so, so, so hard to save herself and also Kevin, her idiot husband. She does everything she can.

And were she not so devoted to Kevin, she’d have absolutely pulled it off. But it was her husband who held her back. Each time she got right up to the edge of escaping New York and getting away from the devil, Kevin talked her back in, and he was able to do so because it was him whom she was really trying to rescue (we find out in the movie’s big finish that he’s the son of Satan). So I don’t think you can take toughness points away from her for how things ended up for her. If anything, that kind of devotion makes her even tougher.

Level 5 Character: Aileen in Monster

A Couple of Characters of Comparable Toughness: Ashley Mercer in Reindeer Games, Libby Day in Dark Places

Jason: OK, let’s get this out of the way. Aileen was a serial killer. No two ways about that. That’s a clear mark against her. The real-life version of the character Charlize plays, Aileen Wuornos, killed seven men. That said: She came from a broken home, was abused, and had a very difficult life. You can’t say she wasn’t tough, seven murders or no.

Shea: If we can step away from the toughness conversation for a second, I’d like to mention that was really just a devastating, incredible performance by Theron. It was easily the best of her career to that point (and remained that way all the way up until she became Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road). You know the thing that happens with big movie stars where you’ll see them in a movie and it’ll just be like, "Oh, OK, so this movie is Denzel Washington as an ex-military person," or, "Oh, OK, so this movie is Denzel Washington as a crooked cop"? The thing where they’ve got such a big presence that it becomes impossible to escape? Theron has had that since early on in her filmography. She just had an instant gravity to her. And even with the movies she’s making now it’s like, "Oh, OK, so this movie is Charlize Theron wearing dreads." Monster, however, wasn’t like that. She was able to go so far into the Aileen character that she could get away from that. And, sure, part of that was because how wildly different she looked (she gained a bunch of weight, messed her hair up, erased her eyebrows, wore fake teeth), but it was only a small part of it. All things considered, it was just really impressive back then, and is maybe more impressive rewatching the movie today.

‘Hancock’ (Columbia)
‘Hancock’ (Columbia)

Level 6 Character: Mary in Hancock

A Couple of Characters of Comparable Toughness: Ravenna in The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Josey Aimes in North Country

Shea: This is the reverse of the situation we were facing with Charlize’s character in The Devil’s Advocate. In Hancock, she plays a 3,000-year-old partner god of Hancock, except she’s disguised as a suburban housewife. (There used to be a lot of partner gods like her and Hancock on Earth. Partner gods are immortal and invincible when they’re apart, but whenever they’re near each other for long enough they turn into regular humans.) (I’m not sure how or why it works that way, but it’s a fun movie idea.) There’s a part in it where she picks up an 18-wheeler and smashes Hancock over the head with it, and so that’s an argument for how tough Mary is, but there’s also a part in it where she nearly dies because some bad things happen during one of the times when they’re close together, so that’s an argument for how not tough she is. So if you just take the good (she’s a fucking superhero) and average it out with the bad (she becomes extremely vulnerable if she’s close to Hancock for too long), then that’s how you end with a Level 6 rating of toughness. The good parts of Mary are enough to gobble up the bad parts and still get her up past everyone except for the Level 7 and Level 8 characters.

Jason: I feel like Hancock is unfairly overlooked. And, within that, Charlize’s performance as Mary is equally underrated. This is a great superhero movie. But because it’s not connected to an existing IP, we kind of forget about it. Here’s what’s tough about Mary: As you noted, she’s an incredibly powerful superhero who’s been alive for thousands of years. And she somehow managed to survive hiding that part of herself under the guise of a suburban homemaker! Boredom and domesticity are powerful foes!

‘Aeon Flux’ (Paramount)
‘Aeon Flux’ (Paramount)

Level 7 Character: Aeon Flux in Aeon Flux

A Few Characters of Comparable Toughness: Cipher in The Fate of the Furious, Candy Kendall in The Cider House Rules, Sara Deever in Sweet November

Jason: After struggling for several hours to find the words to describe this movie, I surrendered myself to Wikipedia, where the film is described thusly:

LOL what? OK, realest of talk, this movie is bad. It’s an adaption of the experimental cartoon series of the same name which aired on MTV in the ’90s. It’s bad. Did I say that? Yeah, it’s bad. It doesn’t help that the original animated series basically had no plot. Anyway, how tough is Charlize in this?

On Ringer jefe todo vida Bill Simmons’s pod this week, Charlize talked about the experience of making Aeon Flux:

Shea, if I attempted a back handspring, I would be dead. I would be in the ground, right now, worms burrowing through my decaying flesh. Deceased. Not injured, with material bulging from my spine. Laying in a fucking coffin under six feet of earth. Gone. Old flowers against my headstone under a blanket of dead leaves. Dead.

Shea: Here lies Jason Concepcion. He died as he lived: being less tough than Charlize Theron.

Jason: Way less tough. Way. She continued …

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (Warner Bros.)
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (Warner Bros.)

Level 8 Character: Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

A Character of Comparable Toughness: Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde