Best Action Franchises Led by Women
Jan 9, 2023
There’s been a lot of debate in the media recently and for, well, decades, about if women can lead action movies. The obvious answer is: yes! There’s no question that women can carry a franchise. The real discourse is about whether or not those movies actually do a service in representing women. There have undoubtedly been series of action films where the female characters lack dimension and complexity and fail to get the feminist message across. Nevertheless, for every failed portrayal, there is at least one success. Massive-scale franchises aren’t going anywhere, and the space for female-fronted ones is only growing. As we make room for those, let’s remind ourselves of the best action franchises where ladies take the lead.
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Image via 20th Century
If anyone can be considered the blueprint for female action stars, it’s Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise. Alien is one of the most classic sci-fi action franchises in history, with the first installment being released in 1979. The other major franchises at the time were Star Wars, Star Trek, and James Bond. In a male-dominated genre and industry, it was groundbreaking for Weaver to star in a film of that calibre. Her badass character, Ellen Ripley, is one of the few truly feminist roles in action film history since she couldn’t be less concerned with vanity or being likable to her male counterparts. Weaver went on to star in three more Alien sequels, one of which even garnered her an Oscar nod. She is certainly the glue that holds the Alien series together because the installments that don’t star Weaver don’t even compare to the ones that do.
It’s unfortunate when you realize that video games have more female protagonists than movies do. So the decision to adapt popular games into a film series was pretty ingenious, and in turn, started to blaze the trail for female-led action franchises. One of the first adaptations was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Though the 2001 movie was no critical success, it made a massive splash at the box office, probably due to the already-established fan base. Lara Croft provided a kick-ass role for actresses spanning over two generations. Angelina Jolie played the titular heroine in the first two Tomb Raider films before the role was later reprised by Alicia Vikander in 2018’s Tomb Raider. The initial film’s success opened the door for more women-centric video game adaptations to get made.
Image via Constantin Film
Following in Tomb Raider’s footsteps, the Japanese video game Resident Evil was turned into a film in 2002 and is still a running franchise today. The first six original films starred Milla Jovovich as Alice, a killing machine with superhuman powers that she needs to learn to navigate. At one point, Resident Evil was the highest-grossing movie series based on a video game in history. Not only did the film have Jovovich as its leader, but the supporting cast was also made up of badass women for a better part of the franchise. Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, and Ali Larter all played integral roles in the Resident Evil series. The films have been praised for accurately representing the gaming experience and have spawned a 2021 reboot movie and a 2022 Netflix limited series.
Image via Columbia Pictures
The timeless tale of Charlie’s Angels is the gift that keeps on giving. The story of three women with extraordinary talent and knowledge who get tapped to become top secret spies has given nine actresses the opportunity to kick some ass over the years. The originator was a mid-1970s television show, and one of the first hour-long dramas in television history to star women. The classic narrative was designed to stand the test of time, and that proved correct when a reboot was greenlit over two decades later. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu led the two-film series that thrived in the melodramatic excess that is the early 2000s. While fans have been demanding the third installment for years, they got a 2019 remake starring Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott instead. The thread that ties all three generations of the franchise together is the remarkable strength of a true female friendship.
The Twilight Saga
Image via Summit Entertainment
The fame and success of the Twilight Saga is a never-ending cycle. It seems like every year, there is a resurgence in popularity for a specific line, scene, or character from the series. Part of the appeal is the relatability of lead character Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Her awkward tendencies and lack of social skills rang true to the adolescent audience, and her being thrust into a whirlwind vampire romance with Edward Cullen was perfect escapism fodder. One unique attribute about the Twilight series is that Bella did not participate in any action sequences until the final film. That just goes to show that it doesn’t matter if your lead is an all-powerful, crime-fighting heroine. If a woman is well-written, three-dimensional, and humanly flawed like Bella, she can carry one of the most successful franchises of all time.
Image via Sony
Speaking of vampires, the Underworld franchise stars Kate Beckinsale as the undead elite assassin known as Selene. The movies did not do well in the eye of the critics, but when you look at the numbers, that honestly doesn’t matter. The five films grossed almost half a billion dollars worldwide and spanned across 13 years, so give credit where credit is due. Beckinsale broke out of her pattern of only leading romantic comedies and became a literal action figure. The gothic, blue-hued visuals of the Underworld films started the cool-toned trend that many fantasy films to follow adopted. The emo vampire-core style is coming back, so maybe we’ll be privy to an Underworld reboot any day, or perhaps that Blade crossover we tragically missed out on.
The Hunger Games
Image via Lionsgate
Even in 2012, it was still considered a risk to have a female-fronted franchise. Despite all of its predecessors, The Hunger Games was one of the first series marketed toward young adults, specifically young girls. With characters like Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose (Willow Shields), Foxface (Jacqueline Emerson), Rue (Amandla Stenberg), and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), the films provided a broad range of female representation. The Hunger Games franchise was highly successful (although the interest did admittedly fizzle toward the end of its run). However, the fandom’s hunger (no pun intended) for more has never wavered, even though the last film debuted in 2015. A prequel film, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is set to release in 2023.
Image via Lionsgate
The early to mid-2010s were a breeding ground for young adult book series being adapted into movie franchises. The Divergent trilogy was next in the pipeline to be released and kept up the trend of having young women at the helm of the story. Shailene Woodley portrayed the lead character Tris, an outcast who doesn’t fit into any of the dystopian city’s newly assigned factions. Despite getting caught up in the futuristic sci-fi flare, the core message of the Divergent films is to never sacrifice your autonomy, especially as a young woman in a patriarchal society. The series drew frequent comparisons to The Hunger Games due to the general storyline and world, but who cares? Every other action movie starring a man follows a similar narrative. There’s enough room for plenty of Insurgents and Mockingjays to go around.
The franchise that needs no introduction. From her 1941 debut in All-Star comics to Lynda Carter’s portrayal to Gal Gadot’s version, Wonder Woman created the archetype of the strong female character. There have been countless iterations of the iconic superhero, and there will continue to be, even after the sad news that Gadot’s reign may be over. While not every version of Wonder Woman is the exemplary feminist, Patty Jenkins’ take gets pretty damn close. Even though the Justice League character’s first standalone film was a huge success, it was still challenging to get the film made after it sat in movie purgatory for years. Thank god it did, since the first film is one of the best to come out of the DC cinematic universe.
If this list proves one thing, it’s that women can carry the hell out of an action franchise.
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