There’s nothing like watching our male action heroes do their thing, whether we’re talking about James Bond saving the world (25 times so far!), John McClane proving himself to be the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time (though we’re glad he is) in the Die Hard films, Martin Riggs resisting suicidal tendencies to fight the bad guys alongsideRoger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, John Rambo singlehandedly refighting and winning the Vietnam War, or John Wick proving that hell hath no fury like a man left dogless,
But while the action genre has been ruled by men almost from the beginning, the ladies have been gradually staking major claims to their territory in both television and film. In the former, one of the earliest examples that comes to mind is Diana Rigg as Emma Peel on the British TV series The Avengers (no superheroes there), Stefanie Powers as April Dancer on The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Lindsay Wagner as Jamie Somers, The Bionic Woman; Dana Scully skeptically combatting the supernatural on The X-Files, and the tattooed Jane Doe on Blacklist fighting her past to do some right in the world.
On the big screen, we’ve had Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars films, Trinity breaking down the walls of reality in The Matrix, Storm, Rogue and Jean Gray doing the mutant shuffle in X-Men; former spy turned housewife turned spy again Charly Blatimore in The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Bride in Kill Bill (both volumes). And in both mediums there’s been Charlie’s Angels, giving us three times the butt-kicking.
It wasn’t easy — and we know there are many others we could have included — but what follows is our guide to some of the toughest ladies we fear to love.
Alice (Resident Evil Films)
Outside of The Walking Dead, it’s difficult to think about another franchise that has celebrated zombie apocalypses the way that Resident Evil does. And it’s even tougher thinking of someone who has taken down more of the walking dead than Milla Jovovich’s Alice (a character created for the films rather than the games that inspired the films in the first place). Formerly an operative for the Umbrella Corporation — the bioengineering pharmaceutical company that triggered the zombie T-virus — she is now considered an enemy, and will stop at nothing to take down them and the zombies. The film series consists of Resident Evil (2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016) and the reboot, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021). The critics aren’t too fond of the series, but the audience goes for them.
Batgirl (Batman Franchise)
When ratings began to dip on the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series of the 1960s, the producers decided to expand the Bat-family by introducing Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, who, it needs to be said, provided a whole new dynamic to the idea of a costumed hero. Her alter-ego was Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon, and she could definitely handle herself in a fight (helped by Craig’s training as a ballet dancer). The character would later be played by Dina Meyer in the TV series Birds Of Prey (2002) and Alicia Silverstone in the feature film Batman & Robin (1997). There have been a number of aborted Batgirl projects, including a Joss Whedon film version and the HBO Max production (starring Leslie Grace) that was canceled while in post-production.
Black Widow (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Her name is Natasha Romanova, a Russian spy and assassin who eventually defected to the United States to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. Although the character has been around in the comics since 1964, she truly came to prominence in the form of actress Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2 (2010), followed by The Avengers (2012), Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), where she bit the dust was saving half the universe; and the prequel Black Widow (2021). While we recognize that we’re a bunch of sexist pigs for saying this, we have no choice: Johansson does amazing things to a black leather outfit beyond kicking ass in it.
Sydney Bristow (Alias)
J.J. Abrams may have gotten some heat off his series Felicity, but he really became a part of the geek zeitgeist with the creation of the spy series Alias (2001-06). In it, Jennifer Garner plays Sydney Bristow, an English graduate student who has been recruited as an operative by the organization SD-6. Sadly for Sydney, when her fiance is killed she discovers that SD-6 is in reality a branch of the criminal organization the Alliance Of Twelve. As a result, she becomes a double agent for the CIA. Jennifer Garner totally rocked as Sydney, shocking people who knew her from a mousier part on Felicity. The action of this series was pretty amazing for the time, Garner constantly changed her appearance with a wide variety of wigs and outfits, and everything from the music to the editing to the nature of the storytelling pushing innovation.
Lorraine Broughton (Atomic Blonde)
You would probably have to be dead inside to watch this film, and not feel your adrenaline — let alone your blood — pumping. Charlize Theron, as chameleon an actress as you’re likely to find, takes on the role of British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton. Her assignment: to prevent World War III on the eve of the Berlin Wall collapsing. The action along the way is unrelenting, all supervised by David Leitch, action director extraordinaire, having previously co-directed John Wick and taken directorial control Deadpool 2 and Bullet Train.
Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
She saved the world. A lot. Buffy Summers also ushered in a new wave of feminism for young women around the world as she battled back the demons of adolescence. The fact that they also happened to be actual demons was almost besides the point. Kristy Swanson gave the part her all in the 1992 feature film of the same name, but Buffy really came to life when Sarah Michelle Gellar was cast in the role for television by Joss Whedon. Gellar brought the angst, the humor and the staking, mastering them all over the course of the show’s seven season run and establishing Ms. Summers as one of the medium’s most progressive heroines.
Clary Fray (Shadowhunters)
Growing up is seldom easy, but it becomes a royal pain in the arse when you suddenly discover that you’ve got a destiny in front of you that you had no idea was there. When Clary (Katherine McNamara) turns 18, it’s revealed to her that she’s actually a Shadowhunter, essentially a human born with angel blood who is given the task of protecting humans from demons. She’s definitely Buffy-esque as she tries to balance her new calling with humor and a growing ability to carry the action along with her fellow Shadowhunters. The show, based on author Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, ran for three seasons on Freeform.
Ellen Ripley (Alien)
“Get away from her, you bitch!” — Sorry, there is simply no way to think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley from the Alien films without that iconic moment — when, inside an exo-skeleton, she is ready to kick some extraterrestrial ass in order to save the young girl, Newt — coming to mind. It was Weaver/Ripley that truly ushered in the age of the action heroine on the big screen, when, as the rest of the crew of the Nostromo was picked off one-by-one, she was the one who engaged in final battle with that nasty xenomorph. Incidentally, Ripley’s warning was given in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel to Alien, Aliens. The actress eventually returned for Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997).
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
In between being nominated for and winning Academy Awards, Jennifer Lawrence has provided plenty of big screen thrills for her fans. To some degree this is true of her role of Mystique in the X-Men prequels, but she really came to pop culture prominence as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games films (based on the novels by Suzanne Collins). The setting is a dystopian future and Panem, a country that consists of the Capitol (where the wealthy live) and 12 districts in which the populace live in poverty. Every year, children from those districts are chosen to participate in a battle to the death known as “The Hunger Games.” Needless to say, it is Katniss — a participant in the games — who becomes a beacon of freedom as she attempts to take down a corrupt and inhumane system. It takes four films, but she successfully meets her goals.
Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
She began “life” as the star of the Tomb Raider video game, but Lara Croft has become much more. As Wikipedia nicely sums up, “She is presented as a highly intelligent, athletic, and beautiful English archaeologist-adventurer who ventures into ancient, hazardous tombs and ruins around the world.” You know, it’s like Indiana Jones, but different. The character was featured in a dozen games, comic books, novels and two films starring Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle Of Life (2006). The character returned in Tomb Raider (2018), with Alicia Vikander in the title role.
Nikita (La Femme Nikita)
The character of Nikita has been kicking ass for much of the past 22 years, and odds are pretty strong that she’ll eventually make her return. The character first appeared in the form of actress Anne Parillaud in Luc Besson’s 1990 film. She’s a teenage junkie who participates in a robbery, murders a police officer and is forced to become an assassin as part of The Centre, or be killed. She chooses the former and goes through an amazing transformation. The original is a French film that was remade in America as 1993’s Point Of No Return (starring Bridget Fonda), and became the subject of the 1997-2001 TV series La Femme Nikita (starring Peta Wilson) and 2010-13’s Nikita (starring Maggie Q).
Rey (Star Wars)
Given how reviled the Star Wars prequels were by a great many people, there was legitimacy surrounding the question of whether or not the sequel trilogy could capture the magic of the originals. Well, we’re happy to report (you know, in case you missed it) that The Force Awakens was a massive success that introduced a new wave of characters. Prominent among them is Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a scavenger abandoned as a child on the desert planet Jaku (these films always have a desert planet). Over the course of the film she also discovers that she is Force-sensitive, she could be related to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker (she's not), and she lightsaber’s Kylo Ren’s ass at the end of the film. The second film, The Last Jedi, was divisive and the third, The Rise of Skywalker, was stoopid with the revelation that Rey is actually Palpatine's granddaughter. However, Ridley was instantly endearing in the role and we wouldn't see the return of that particular Jedi.
Sarah Connor (Terminator films)
How does a waitress go on to become one of humanity’s greatest champions? That is the arc for Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor over the course of the first two Terminator films. Targeted by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killer Terminator robot from the future, Sarah must be eliminated before she even gets pregnant with a son whose future destiny is to lead the human resistance against the machine. Between The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Sarah’s transformation is remarkable, and Terminators actually should fear her. Lena Headey took on the role for the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09) and Emilia Clarke in the film Terminator Genisys (2015). Hamilton was back in Terminator: Dark Fate, but by then the series was really, finally over. Until next time.
Yet another action-based heroine dressed in leather, and somehow we don’t mind in the least. Kate Beckinsale made a hell of an impression in the original Underworld (2003) as Selene, a vampire “Death Dealer” who serves as a soldier in the war against the werewolves, rediscovering elements of her humanity along the way There’s all sorts of political intrigue involving the various vampire “houses,” but the action here is the draw as we’re given a new twist on vampires. Beckinsale reprises the role in Underworld: Evolution (2006), Underworld Awakening (2012) and Underworld: Blood Wars (2016).
While the message isn’t delivered as well as it was by Buffy Summers, the Girl Of Steel nonetheless stands as a successful embodiment of girl power in the 21st Century. Thanks to actress Melissa Benoist on the TV show six seasons from 2015 to 2021, there is a successful combination of vulnerability and strength as she navigates living amongst humans as Kara Danvers while defending the Earth from various threats, largely extraterrestrial. She’s Superman’s cousin, and in the season two finale actually beat the mind-controlled Man Of Steel in combat. Don’t let that sweet smile fool you — she will kick your ass if it’s warranted. Previous actresses to play the character were Helen Slater in the 1984 self-titled film and Laura Vandervoort on the TV series Smallville. Next up is Sasha Calle in the universe-altering The Flash (2023).
Not only has the Amazon Princess come to our world to save us from our darker impulses, but she may have put the DC Extended Universe back on track as the 2017 film was a major hit. Not so much its sequel, Wonder Woman 1984 (2020). Gal Gadot perfectly encapsulates the nurturing and warrior aspects of Princess Diana (aka Diana Prince) and had merely whet our appetite for her return in both versions of Justice League (Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder's). The most iconic version of the character up until this point was the Lynda Carter TV series from the 1970s.