Angelina Jolie is not like you and me—a fact made plain by her impressive acting talent, arresting beauty, and humanitarian work around the globe. Yet Jolie is also not like other movie stars. Or, at least, not like any other female movie stars.
This is reconfirmed by Maleficent, this Friday’s live-action retelling of Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty, in which Jolie stars as the iconic witch, who out of spite and fear over the birth of princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), curses the girl to death on her 16th birthday via the prick of a spindle. It’s a role that fits Jolie to a tee, in part because her looks—regally stunning, with more than a hint of malevolence to the twinkle in her eye—so ably match the villainesses’ original designs. However, there’s another reason that Jolie is tailor-made for Maleficent. Namely, that she’s the lone actress who can carry a special effects-laden spectacular on her own.
Virtually every other female A-lister (Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron) has made, and continue to makes, her career in genres in which women have traditionally been expected to operate: dramas, comedies and, specifically, romantic comedies. Only Jolie has set herself apart from that pack by vacillating between respectable, high-profile dramas and the types of big-budget event pictures traditionally reserved for male stars. And not just starring in them while playing second-fiddle to the surrounding special effects—as was the case with Sandra Bullock in Gravity, a film sold on the basis of, and primarily hailed for, its technical wizardry—but headlining them as the main attraction.
This isn’t to downplay or denigrate those mega-stars, but to recognize that Jolie exists in a somewhat different category than her closest female contemporaries. With a résumé that includes not simply adult fare such as Girl, Interrupted (for which she won an Oscar) and Beyond Borders, but also Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and Salt, Jolie has aligned herself less with female icons like Bullock and Roberts than with the gaggle of male stars who regularly flip-flop between “serious” work and giant summer-season films—Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, and just about everyone in the ever-burgeoning X-Men franchise (Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy). However unfair that paradigm, it’s men who are traditionally given the opportunities to flex their muscles and embody over-the-top evil in effects-driven popcorn extravaganzas. And Jolie continues to be that rare female star whose on-screen presence, founded on charismatic fearsomeness, allows her to singlehandedly shoulder the burden of CGI-infested sagas full of gunfights, car chases, magical creatures, and superhuman mayhem.
There are, without question, other actresses who operate in a similar vein: Jennifer Lawrence has thrived in Oscar-nominated material while also starring in The Hunger Games and X-Men series; Charlize Theron has a towering physical stature and badass attitude; 300: Rise of an Empire’s Eva Green boasts a warrior-babe ferocity; Scarlett Johansson has proven her metal in Marvel epics; Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey is an expert at imperial viciousness; and Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale have had considerable success in fantastical franchises. Of those, Lawrence is Jolie’s closest equal. Amidst The Hunger Games’ fanciful costumes and action-heavy set pieces, she stands tall as a three-dimensional heroine of forcefulness and resolve. Yet even Lawrence’s impressive franchise success has been at least partly due to the material itself, and her future ability to spearhead action-ish spectacles remains in question. Jolie, on the other hand, is not just an A-lister with superior genre credentials; she’s one who can mount a gargantuan, heavily hyped summer tentpole by herself, all while appealing to men and women (and, in the case of Maleficent, kids too!) in equal measure.
In this regard, Jolie bucks traditional gender roles by operating as a bona fide multifaceted movie star who refuses to be pigeonholed into the cinematic niches customarily reserved for, and dominated by, women. As with Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, Jolie is both the biggest star and the biggest special effect in Maleficent, her star-wattage as much a draw as any of the whiz-bang CGI that surrounds her. That she can happily co-exist amongst such sound-and-fury effects, and in fact tower over it as a legitimate larger-than-life figure of compelling power and sexiness, makes her unique in the history of cinema, which features a handful of instances of women pulling off such a trick in lavish historical epics (think Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra), but none in our modern era of brash, slam-bang computerized extravaganzas.
To some extent, this is because such franchise-ready films are rarely offered to, much less custom-built for, women. But it’s also because, besides having the clout to get her own projects off the ground, Jolie is an inimitably commanding actress. She’s capable of conveying a brand of ass-kicking strength usually sought from male matinee idols (who are expected to exude unrivaled toughness and determination) while nonetheless retaining her imposing attractiveness and a subtle sense of sensitivity and vulnerability—and, in fact, marrying all of that to form a vision of striking, independent femininity. She has an alluring magnetism that makes her seem dangerous even when she’s being sensual, erotic even when she’s acting downright menacing. In other words, she’s a superstar without equal, and one whose continued success in action- and effects-saturated arenas proves that blockbusters need not be the sole province of the big boys.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.