Everett Collection; Square Enix; EIDOS; EIlzek Kitshoff/Warner Bros; Moby Games
March 16, 2018 at 02:39 PM EDT

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“I can get so fed up talking about strong female characters, because it’s like, what is that?” Alicia Vikander says of Lara Croft, whose iconic boots she fills in the new cinematic entry to the Tomb Raider series (in theaters now). “She earns each step along the way to be able to pull a warrior out within her.”

She has a point. Before Gal Gadot gave Wonder Woman new life, before Katniss Everdeen outwitted dystopian tyrants with a bow and arrow, Croft was an OG pop-cultural disrupter, blazing a trail as the digital world’s answer to the patriarchal tradition of action-adventurers. Her revolutionary legacy never cemented quite like that of Superman and Batman, but Croft is making another go of it with this revived cinematic narrative — and it’s a timely superheroic quest of self-discovery that falls into a lineage spanning two decades.

Initially conceived as a man, Lady Croft landed as an effortlessly hip, clever British aristocrat with a penchant for exploration. She sprang from Core Design animator Toby Gard’s desire to buck the gaming industry’s tendency to portray women as damsels in distress, much like Princess Peach or Zelda. In the original 1996 Tomb Raider game, the first time we met the character, she was an unconventional lead, one who didn’t need supernatural powers to vanquish evil; she’d save the world with physical prowess and brainy gumption. But the game’s publisher, Eidos, had other ideas. By the release of 1997’s Tomb Raider II, they’d marketed her as a cyberbimbo, largely against Gard’s vision of her as a dastardly James Bondette. Though she was now an unprecedented mainstream celebrity (her pixelated image appeared on magazine covers, in sexy commercials for soft drinks — she even went on tour with U2), Eidos made Croft a cheap male fantasy.

“There was always a disconnect between the marketing and the games,” says Core Design developer Gavin Rummery, who admits that hawking Croft as a “glamour model” was key to her success, even if it defused her feminist power: By 1998, the two games had sold roughly 15 million units combined. “Games had pretty much been ignored by anyone but teenage boys. Suddenly we had this character that people saw as a woman. It wasn’t a fat Italian plumber jumping around a magic land. She was real, like a movie star.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Playing Croft in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the character’s first film, made an actual movie star out of Angelina Jolie. At a time when most summer tentpoles starred men, the film bagged $131 million domestically — then the top haul for a female-fronted actioner. Director Simon West molded his heroine — never bogged down by romantic subplots — as a badass genre role model for girls, with more scenes of assured tomb raiding and less overt sexuality, which he says “probably would’ve been the death of the film and the character.”

Though her next outing on PlayStation 2 flopped, Croft rebounded when Crystal Dynamics took the reins from Core Design for 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend and the monumental 2013 reboot, simply titled Tomb Raider, which repositioned the character as a wide-eyed postgrad on her first adventure — far more relatable to the increasing number of young women flocking to videogames.

Tomb Raider: The Art and Making of the Film by Sharon Gosling, published by Titan Books and TOMB RAIDER © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. TOMB RAIDER and LARA CROFT are trademarks of Square Enix Ltd. All rights reserved.

“I wanted to bring her down to earth,” Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett says of the game, which follows Lara to a remote island in search of a lost kingdom once ruled by a powerful sun queen. That’s also the plot of the newest film, in which Vikander’s Croft searches the island for her long-lost father, battling the elements (and a nefarious rival explorer) with little more than her wit and a ferocious spirit. Yet again, Lara’s resilience — her most enduring superpower — remains.

“The truest essence of her is that she’s human,” says Vikander. “She has the famous traits that she’s always had, but we’re opening the door to her being vulnerable…. Our times are changing [and more] female stories are finally getting the chance to come to the surface.”

Ilzek Kitshoff/Warner Bros.

Screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet, who penned Tomb Raider with Alastair Siddons, initially wanted to shatter Croft’s “impossibly cool” persona with an action comedy built around a “sassy” teenage Lara, but felt the film soar to new dramatic heights in Vikander’s hands. “Alicia had a huge voice in shaping the character,” she praises. “A lot of the tone was determined by how she saw [Lara]…. Women in the industry, especially actresses, are finding their voice in the creative process.” Case in point? Says Robertson-Dworet, “After [director] Roar Uthaug, it’s really Alicia’s movie — and that’s something you’d never say about a female-led action movie 20 years ago.”

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