As women finally find themselves in a position to take power in Hollywood, they still have a hard time rising to the top in specific film genres. It is most blatantly true in biopics and action movies.
Some of you may be ready to jump up and argue that there are plenty of women running action films.
And, in a way, that’s true. There are a lot of movies like “Red Sparrow,” “Lucy,” and “Atomic Blonde.” Films that put women in lead roles. Except those are, really, action movies for guys. They’re designed as focal points for the male gaze. They are female action heroes the way men want to see them. Nothing more.
There are also significant action films with female leads that aren’t the stars. Fantastic characters like Emily Blunt‘s Rita in “Edge of Tomorrow” and Charlize Theron‘s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Unfortunately, that also counts out Sarah Connor. “T2” may be her story, but it’s told through John’s eyes.
I would be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention how difficult it was to diversify this list. It’s bad enough that it’s hard to find female-led action films that are actually feminist. The challenge gets tougher when you try to seek out female-led action films starring women of color. Do better, Hollywood.
This week, in anticipation of Alicia Vikander‘s takeover of Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider,” we take a look at the 10 best female-led action films. Films that actually give women the chance to take charge and be their fierce selves.
10. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016)
The “Star Wars” franchise has given us memorable female heroines over its forty years. Princess-turned-General Leia Organa, Padmé Amidala, and Rey (just Rey) are all exceptional women in the “Star Wars” universe. But they all share so much of their stories and their screen time with their male counterparts. “Rogue One” also brings interesting men into the ultimate rebel mission. But the story belongs to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). From the opening scene, she leads this movie, taking charge even when she doesn’t know what or why. And she’s smart enough to know she can’t do it all on her own.
9. “Mulan” (1998)
Disney is known for its plethora of pretty princesses. They get to be smart and tenacious and talented. But not many of them get to be fighters. Mulan didn’t want to be a warrior, of course. She had a higher purpose: to save her father and her country. There aren’t many good reasons to turn the Disney cartoons into live-action films, but bringing this heroine to life for a new generation of girls sounds like a very good idea.
8. “Ghostbusters” (2016)
Yes. This is an action film. It is also a comedy and sci-fi and horror/fantasy. But it qualifies as an action film. And in this delightful romp, the women run the show. They are the scientists, the heroes, and they are so much fun to watch. The men in this movie are relegated to wimpy geek-turned villain, dumb blonde secretary, and inept politician. And the original Ghostbusters only wish they had such cool ghost-catching gizmos.
7. “Hanna” (2011)
Back when she was only Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan, and not three-time Academy Award nominee, the talented teenager starred in Joe Wright’s action thriller about a girl raised by her ex-CIA dad to become a particularly talented assassin. What makes this an even more compelling film? Hanna finds herself eluding a deadly enemy played by Cate Blanchett. Great female lead versus a great female villain? Sign us up.
6. “La Femme Nikita” (1990)
This criminal-turned-assassin was such an intriguing character, she spawned an American version of her film, as well as multiple television series. While this story does go somewhat contrary to the things that are normally frustrating with women in lead action roles, Nikita’s psychological journey is more compelling than most. It doesn’t just serve to turn her into a killing machine. It also becomes the way she regains control of herself.
5. “G.I. Jane” (1997)
If you want to understand what it’s like for a woman to try to break into an “old boys club,” watch this film. No, most of us aren’t out to join the Navy SEALs. But so many pieces of this film apply to every woman’s experience. From the discouragement of well-meaning loved ones to powerful players actively trying to sabotage success, every woman can relate in some way. Apart from that, though, is Demi Moore as Jordan O’Neill, transforming herself physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
4. “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996)
Geena Davis made amnesia cool way before Matt Damon showed up on the scene as Jason Bourne. Davis starred in Renny Harlin‘s secret agent film as a suburban mom with amnesia who discovers long-buried abilities after hitting her head in an accident. She joins forces with Samuel L. Jackson and discovers truths about herself and her forgotten past. Not only is it a great character and a fun movie, the journey to production turned out to be a fight, too, as producers wanted the lead to be…a man.
3. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
This dreamscape blend of fantasy, action, and adventure features some of the most gorgeously choreographed action scenes ever committed to film. A blend of martial arts, dance, and visual effects create a unique experience that is engaging and rich. And it reignited excitement for martial arts with a new audience.
2. “Aliens” (1986)
There is a constant debate over which is the better film— “Alien,” or it’s sequel. Both are great, and both give us a lot to love in Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. And while the first was an intriguing blend of horror and science fiction, the true action got started in the second installment. This time, Ripley knows what’s at stake and she’s not messing around. She will stop the aliens at any cost. It’s still scary, but after 57 years in hypersleep, Ripley is ready to fight.
1. “Wonder Woman” (2017)
It may seem too soon to declare “Wonder Woman” the best female-led action film of all time. But we waited 75 years for this, and it managed to exceed even the loftiest of expectations. The “No Man’s Land” sequence alone will stand the test of time as one of the most excellent action scenes ever, regardless of gender.