On paper, the Mummy franchise looks like a really, really D-class set of movies. The first movie only has a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the second one has a 47% rating. (And the third movie, you ask? Well, there was never a third movie, so I can’t answer that.) The dialogue is pretty hokey, the plot is pretty over-the-top, and the CGI effects are… regrettable. However, I’ve always loved the franchise, and when I found out that it was getting a reboot in 2017, I had to rewatch the first two movies. For a movie that was released in 1999, The Mummy (and the 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns) did a much better job with its female character than many movies do today. Despite the fact that it’s set in the 1920s, the franchise both allows Evy to be the protagonist and engages with her gender without turning her into a stereotype.
Unfortunately, the first Mummy movie does not pass the Bechdel test, but it does introduce us to our wonderful protagonist, Evelyn Carnahan. Evy is a nerdy, clumsy Egyptologist working in Cairo who’s been turned down for a position with the Bembridge Scholars, a (fake) organization which insisted that she needed more field experience to join them. So when her brother, Jonathan, brings her a map he’d stolen off an American soldier, she leaps at the chance to go out into the field. She hires the aforementioned American soldier, Rick O’Connell, and takes the whole gang on the road to find Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead. Even though Rick gets top billing, it’s Evy who drives the movie forward. When you consider their motivations, Rick’s just along for the ride: he’s hired to take Evy and Jonathan to Hamunaptra, but he knows how dangerous it is and doesn’t want to go himself. Later, after Imhotep, the titular mummy, has risen, Rick’s all for running away; it’s Evy who wants to stop the mummy and save the world.
When you think of a cool action protagonist, you likely think of someone who can physically kick ass, right? All of Marvel’s leading men can beat up enemies, whether it’s by using a magic hammer, inventing weapons, or turning into a giant green rage monster. Though there aren’t as many leading women in action films, we get the same trend with protagonists like Lara Croft and Katniss Everdeen. Evy truly gets to be our protagonist, and that’s all the more interesting because of the way she breaks gender stereotypes. She’s not a fighter, so she can’t be an Action Girl—she’s, as she proudly claims, a librarian. She faces sexist comments from the American treasure hunters they run into, who can’t believe that a woman is leading an expedition, and from Rick himself at the start of their acquaintance, when Rick kisses her without her permission as part of an escape attempt. We get to watch Evy brilliantly overcome all of it—thanks to her knowledge, Evy’s group is able to find things that the sexist Americans don’t, and Rick slowly falls in love with Evy and treats her with the utmost respect. At the end of the movie, Rick is the one who fights the mummy, but Evy is the one who reads the spell to render him mortal (and thus killable). She doesn’t take a level in badass by learning to fight—she sticks with what she knows and her skills are never painted as inferior to Rick’s. Turns out archaic Egyptian factoids can save the world.
By the time the second movie rolls around, Rick has taught Evy how to use a sword and a gun, but it doesn’t fundamentally change her character. She can hold her own in a fight, but her strength is still her knowledge, and she’s still the same nerdy Egyptologist dragging her family out into the field to study tombs. Furthermore, The Mummy Returns utilizes Evy’s motherhood in a way that we don’t get to see in other female protagonists.
In The Mummy Returns, Evy and Rick are now married, with a son, Alex. This is a rare direction for a movie—I can’t think of another movie where the hero is a mom with a kid. Only Orphan Black, in TV land, comes close, but even in that show, the kids aren’t fully-realized characters. Alex O’Connell is a mischievous, clever little kid, and he pushes off this movie by putting on the bracelet of Anubis, which shows him the way to the pyramid of the Scorpion King. Imhotep promptly kidnaps Alex in the hopes of find the Scorpion King’s pyramid for himself, because he knows whoever defeats the Scorpion King will get command of his army. Evy and Rick have to chase Imhotep down before he kills Alex and destroys the world.
Although Evy and Rick have been married for a good number of years at the start of the movie, it clearly didn’t have any adverse effect on their relationship. Rick never judges Evy for wanting to be out in the field as a mother and never attempts to tell her to stay at home with their son. When he does ask her to slow down a little, it’s because he’s worried for her safety. And the two of them are still very into one another, much to Alex (and Jonathan’s) disgust. It’s a far cry from the usual action heroes, who don’t usually go on globetrotting adventures with their wives.
And within the movie’s action-adventure plot, Evy gets some serious character building. She finds out that she’s the reincarnation of Princess Nefertiri, and thus the rightful protector of the bracelet. While this is problematic in several ways—most importantly, actress Rachel Weisz has no Egyptian heritage that I know of, although Evy at least is half-Egyptian—it does turn the movie from a usual action chase plot into a plot about Evy regaining her agency. In her past life, she wasn’t able to defend her pharaoh father and she wasn’t able to kill Imhotep or his lover, Anck-Su-Namun. As Evy regains her memories of her past life, she also realizes that her mission has a personal aspect on top of everything: she can prove herself against Anck-Su-Namun and avenge her father.
None of this, of course, means that the movie is free of problems. Both movies try their best to make a damsel of Evy—she’s often kidnapped by the bad guys so that Rick has to save her (Rick doesn’t really get much motivation aside from that) and of course, when she’s kidnapped, she’s usually in a lacy black negligee. Evy and Rick are both white, despite supposedly being a reincarnated Egyptian princess and an Egytian warrior of God, respectively. Most of the unnamed Egyptian extras end up dying, as do some of their named Egyptian friends, and, of course, the whole franchise is based around people who go to Egypt to plunder its treasures and sell or display them for profit. I unfortunately can’t comment on the franchise’s use of Egyptian mythology, having neither an academic nor personal background in that area, so if you do, please leave me some comments in the comments section.
However, despite these problems, its unfavorable reviews, and its regrettable special effects, the Mummy franchise succeeded in showing how to write a great female character. Evy is a character with remarkable skills and remarkable flaws; she’s a character who gets to be a mother but who isn’t reduced to her motherhood, and she gets to save the world. That’s not something we can say about many of the women who grace our action-adventure films today—women rarely, if ever, get to lead, and even more rarely get to lead without physically kicking ass. Hopefully other movies can learn from the Mummy franchise’s example—without picking up any of its bad habits. So, if you get a chance, you should definitely watch The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. And remember—there was no third Mummy movie.