Growing up, my favourite movies were Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, James Bond — anything with action and adventure. They typically starred daring men, but as a young woman I started admire more powerful, smart women who could command a room. Fast forward to today, and more women than ever are badasses who command the screen in an action movie. It’s a broader world out there for women characters in action, so here are 24 films starring badass women leads who keep the needle moving forward.
Enduringly popular video game star Lara Croft has graced the silver screen on multiple occasions, each time drawing a respected actress to the role. The first version, released in 2001, starred Angelina Jolie on the come up, but its 2003 sequel disappointed fans and bombed at the box office.
The 2018 iteration, starring Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, offers a more grounded adaptation of the archeologist’s adventures as Ms. Croft discovers the island where her father mysteriously disappeared and travels there to uncover its secrets. Along the way, she’s tested beyond her limits, surviving boat crashes, arrows to the side, and the jungle elements.
Whether it is better than the Jolie version is up for debate, but Vikander acquits herself nicely; even fans who were iffy on the movie were surprised by her verve — and she is returning for a sequel directed by Lovecraft Country creator Misha Green, which means a truly great Tomb Raider movie could still happen.
Mad Max: Fury Road
In the post-apocalyptic future, water is scarce and the world has been split into factions. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the muscle for Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the tyrannical leader of the Wastelands — or is she? Furiosa pretends to be doing Joe’s bidding when she takes a mission to Gas Town, but she’s actually hell-bent on freeing the woman her boss has held in captivity as breeding stock. Furiosa is as angry as she sounds — a fierce fighter unwilling to back down. She has a prosthetic arm, uses oil as black war paint, and the fighting skills to rival any attacker — including the titular Mad Max.
Charlize again flaunts her badassery in the action-adventure espionage film Atomic Blonde. Theron plays Cold War-era secret agent Lorraine Broughton, on a mission in Berlin to recover stolen information that could jeopardize hundreds of agents’ lives and must fight back when her cover is blown and she becomes a target. As you might expect considering director David Leitch worked on the first John Wick, the fight choreography is out of this world. We get to see Theron toss men twice her weight out of windows and it never seems less than plausible.
Saoirse Ronan plays the young assassination prodigy Hanna, living remotely in the wilderness with her father, rogue former secret agent Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who is teaching her the fine art of ending lives. Once Hanna’s ready, her mission begins — but she is pursued by special operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) who is as ruthless as she is. Director Joe Wright brings artful fairy tale beauty to the action-revenge drama, yet even as Hanna faces down villains who appear supernaturally capable, her fighting skills remain unmatched. The 2011 film was later made into a series on Amazon Prime.
Hopeful pageant queen Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets caught up in a drug ring (as one does). She’s then forced to act as a decoy for the dealer’s next run, and uses every ounce of her bravery to protect herself and her family as she’s thrown into the most dangerous situations of her life. The 2011 Spanish-language original was remade in English in 2019 with Gina Rodriguez in the lead role, but stick with the original.
After the death of their husbands, four women take on the burden of their spouse’s criminal debts and hatch a plan to keep themselves and their families safe. This cast of fierce women — Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki — are not playing games, and quickly prove to be as ruthless as their departed husbands. They quickly buckle down and defend their lives, determined to keep what is rightfully (if criminally) theirs. Watching these ladies plan, do target practice, and grieve is more powerful than you might imagine.
Disney’s recent live-action adaptation of its 1998 animated feature brings the enduring story of Mulan to life. The film eschews the animated film’s storyline for something closer to the ancient legend, but in either version, there’s no denying the main characters’ courage and strength.
Mulan (Yifei Liu) is gifted with an immense well of Chi energy as a child — something unheard of for a woman. She is told to hide her abilities, yet when her injured father is called upon to join in the war against foreign invaders, Mulan assumes his position, posing as a male soldier. She quickly proves to be more cunning and a greater adversary than even she realised against another badass woman, the witch Xianniang (Gong Li), who has used her Chi powers to their fullest, despite men’s restrictions.
Raya and the Last Dragon
The once united land of Kumandra was a place of harmony between humans and dragons, until the day destructive monsters called the Druun appeared, turning all beings into stone. Legend says dragon magic banished the Druun, and all but one dragon was turned to stone in the process. Ever since, the people have been divided, as Raya and her father protect the last piece of dragon magic keeping the Druun at bay, hoping to one day unite the kingdoms under the banner of Kumandra once again. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done, and due to mistrust and betrayal, the Druun resurfaces and Raya must find the last dragon to destroy them.
Voice actors Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina are an unstoppable duo as Raya and the dragon, Sisu, reveal two sides of being a hero: Raya is strong fighter, trained in agility and martial arts, while Sisu favours love, wit, and bravery to show people that the only way to defeat the Druun is by working together.
Captain Marvel is a Kree Warrior (as far as she knows) fighting in the intergalactic war with the Skrull alien race. When she begins to have visions of a past life on earth, she must uncover the truth about her past to help her people (whoever they may be). She’s such a powerful character not only because of her ability to confront issues head on, but also because she holds the power of photon energy inside her body. Both her super strength and dynamic character told all little girls to keep getting back up even when the forces that be tell you to stay down.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Left by her parents on the desert planet of Jakku, young forager Rey (Daisy Ridley) is told she is nobody and that no one in the galaxy cares for her — but she has a “feeling” someone who does will come for her one day. Rey realises she can harness one of the most powerful energies in the universe — the force — and her power is immense. Untaught, she can move objects with her mind, wield a light saber, and fight against well-trained masters.
This was the first time a Star Wars film featured a female Jedi as the main protagonist, and one of such power. Some fans didn’t like the idea that Rey (a woman) had so much power, yet her counterparts Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Luke Skywalker were heralded for their abilities, and seeing characters like Princess Leia and Rey standing in their power is well overdue.
The third instalment of the Thor series takes on a completely different tone, thanks to director Taika Waititi. Although our lead character is still Thor (Chris Hemsworth), this time teamed up with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), there are other ancient, powerful characters in the mix.
The Valkyrie are the first warriors of Asgard, holding immense strength, power, and riding majestically on pegasuses; they defended the kingdom since before Thor was even a sparkle in Odin’s eye. Tessa Thompson plays a fallen Valkyrie, but don’t let her drinking and crude attitude fool you — she could still go toe to toe with The Hulk and beat Thor, if she wanted. The antagonist is a force to be reckoned with as well: Thor’s unknown sister, Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), has returned to bring destruction with a thousand daggers and a smile on her face.
This time around, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is assembling a team (but not the X-Men) to take down the time-travelling brute Cable and save the world. So he puts out an ad (as one does). The people who show up in response are definitely a band of misfits, chief among them Domino (Zazie Beetz), who has the power of luck. Of course, Deadpool is sceptical, but when she proves herself on the mission (and manages to become the only surviving member of the team outside of the unkillable Deadpool), he realises she’s not to be messed with. Her luck gets Deadpool out of all kinds of trouble, including being locked in a power-dampening collar. Even better, she has a mean ‘fro and a badass costume.
Set during the Japanese and Korean war, Assassination follows three contract killers as they attempt to track down a target whose death could end the occupation in Korea. Along the way, they are double-crossed and have to fight for their lives to complete the mission. Main character An OK-yun (Jun Ji-Hyun) is the sharpshooter who must survive firefights, car chases, and betrayal, but she holds her own against some of the most dangerous hitmen in the country.
At the age of nine, Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) was orphaned after watching her parents being killed in her childhood home, and from then on she trained as an assassin to one day get revenge. In Colombiana — a critically-panned movie that still manages to be fun — Zoe Saldana was kicking henchmen in the face and shooting her way through heavily-guarded fortresses in the days before we came to know her as Marvel’s Gamora.
Terminator: Dark Fate
The Terminator saga will likely never end — when time travel is involved, the timelines are infinite — and in this timeline, AI has evolved to be much more human. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a human with future tech that makes her virtually indestructible, and was sent from the future to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who is an important figure in the new future where John Connor didn’t make it. This film has not one, but three strong women lead characters, including the iconic Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) alongside Grace and Ramos.
Men in Black: International
In the fourth movie of the Men In Black franchise, Agent M (Tessa Thompson) finally gets a lead that brings her to the secret headquarters where she demands to be a part of the team. Given that she’d been searching for most of her life, and that she was even able to find the most secret organisation on the planet, Agent M is allowed to join and team up with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth). The two make an odd couple, with Agent M’s level-headedness balancing Agent H’s impulsiveness, and while critical reception disappointed at around 23%, it’s still fun to watch Tessa Thompson with more screen time to battle monsters and search for mission clues.
An unusual shimmering forcefield threatens to transform the planet in Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel of the same name. The military puts its faith in a team of scientists, played by a stellar cast of women including Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson. The five women venture into what’s called “the shimmer” and endure mind-bending mutations as they gather information to survive, and the movie as a whole is a fantastic display of strength and vulnerability led by an all-women cast.
Of course, Black Panther stars its titular male character, but the Dora Milaje are the king’s trusted advisors, warriors from birth, and protectors of Wakanda. They’re stoic and strong, with indestructible vibranium spears that are best wielded by their leader, Okoye (Danai Gurira). But they’re more than powerful soldiers — characters like Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) are fearless diplomats, and Black Panther also features one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe, a scientist named Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is T’Challa’s sister and who, in the comics, goes on to become the Black Panther herself. We’ll see if that happens in the second movie, currently scheduled for July 8, 2022.
In the comic book world, women heroes were often counterparts to a male original — Superman leads to Superwoman, or Hulk to She-Hulk — but Wonder Woman is a unique character from an island of all-women warriors tasked with protecting Earth from the evils of man. In the 2017 movie, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) leaves her island of Themyscira in hopes to defeat Aries, the God of War, in the first woman-led superhero movie since Jennifer Garner’s Elektra in 2005.
Charlie’s Angels has been iconic since its first iteration on television in 1976 when Farrah Fawcett’s hair curls became a symbol for strong, independent women. The plot has kept rather consistent: Three women work for a private detective agency run by a mysterious man named Charlie, and are skilled in deception, fighting, and weapons. They’re likely to smile in your face one minute and kick your teeth in the next.
The Angels has received several remakes, most notably a movie adaptation in 2000 starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu, then again in 2019 with Elizabeth Banks taking over the traditionally male role of Bosley, who had been played by Bill Murray in 2000 and Patrick Stewart in 2019.
Based on the best-selling book series, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) represents Panem’s District 12 in a brutal competition called the Hunger Games. One contestant from each district is meant to compete in a battle to the death, but when Katniss and the others learn of an uprising against their tormentors, her brash personality and skillful bow make her the reluctant-yet-inspiring leader of the rebellion.
Set in a future where the X-Men are no longer a team, Logan cares for Charles Xavier as they attempt to live off of the radar — that is, until a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) is thrust into his care. While unsavoury characters look to capture Laura and train her for military use, Logan tries to protect her but quickly learns that Laura can also take care of herself. She has claws similar to Logan’s, leading to her decapitating a full-grown man when she and Wolverine first meet, and proves to be a fierce girl on her way to taking up the helm as the next Wolverine.
Ant-Man and The Wasp
In the first Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was being trained by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) to become the hero despite Hope being more skilled than Lang. Her father was too afraid to lose her, but Hope chooses to become a hero regardless in Ant-Man and The Wasp where she’s essentially the main character of the story, billing be damned. She dons a new suit with wings and blasters that accompany her shrinking powers, and it’s phenomenal to see her shine.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn has been a fan favourite since the ‘90s Batman: The Animated Series. Not only is she an actual doctor (a psychiatrist, to be exact), she’s become a symbol for women to be unapologetically themselves. In Birds of Prey, Harley detaches herself from the Joker and finds a team of superpowered women to help her fend off the men who want her dead. The film has its issues with so many characters to fit into a limited runtime, but its cast of fierce women makes it so satisfying.