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The best female-led action movies of the last decade

Action films have traditionally been testosterone-fueled, drag-down, shoot-'em-up vehicles for muscled male actors to get their rage on, with women generally sidelined as love objects or sidekicks if not murdered in the first few minutes to motivate the lead character's rampage. But women are equally capable of strapping on a gun, a sword, a bow and arrow, and even a lightsaber in defense of their own lives and the people they love — and the movies have started to recognize this. Between 2009 and 2019, women onscreen saved the world from any number of existential threats — maybe not as often as men, but with a growing frequency, and one audiences can expect to increase in the wake of the success of the best female-led action films of the past ten years. 

From super-powered protagonists to well-trained assassins and everyday women who are forced to fight through particularly bad days and unfortunate circumstances, these stories focus not just on their strength, but also the moments of vulnerability that keep them moving toward their goals. Buckle up as we explore the best female-led action movies of the past decade. 

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road may have Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) in its title, but make no mistake about this being one of the best female-led action movies of the past decade — and of all time. After getting captured by sadistic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Max is rescued by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who arrives to free Joe's harem of sex slaves from his boil-covered clutches on a wild ride for everyone's redemption. 

With the exception of Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, in previous installments the franchise's treatment of women was often atrocious, which was one of the huge surprises with Fury Road: The women are the story in all their fierceness, vulnerability, and warrior strength emerging through powerhouse ensemble performances. In fact, such an offering of strong women in a Mad Max movie did spark a miniature wave of men boycotting the film for this very reason. Max often literally takes a backseat to Furiosa and her wards, whose three-dimensional characters are fleshed out beautifully amid the gun blasts, screaming, and riotous drum beats that drive Fury Road. A thrilling franchise revival and a rock-solid action adventure, this film proves that women aren't just things in the action genre — they can be a movie's humanity as well as its heart and soul. 

Wonder Woman (2017)

Princess Diana of Themiscyra (Gal Gadot) was living a perfectly happy if somewhat grueling Amazon experience, practicing her swordplay and archery on the hidden island of women she would one day rule. But then along came wounded soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who informed the Amazons that a terrible war was taking place and the good guys wouldn't be able to win without help. Diana made the hard decision to leave her home, knowing she might never return, to use her superpowers to help win the first World War. 

While we don't spend nearly enough time with the Amazon warriors as we could (or should) have — these strong and gorgeous women deserve an entire movie of their own — watching Diana face hordes of men in uniform by herself and defeating them easily was indeed a special moment for women's representation in the action genre. But what makes Diana unique isn't just her strength. She is just as capable of love as fighting, and her moments of vulnerability with her Amazon sisters and later with Steve Trevor make this superhero very, very human.  

Captain Marvel (2019)

Marvel's first female-led film follows a Kree soldier named Vers (Brie Larson) who suffers from amnesia after getting blasted by the tesseract that also gave her superpowers. After getting captured by enemy Skrull shapeshifters, Vers escapes and crash lands on Earth where she discovers she had a previous life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. But as she pulls at the loose threads of her life before, more secrets are revealed that will change the course of human — and alien — history. 

Captain Marvel diverges from other films in the MCU with a Shyamalan-worthy twist in the end that adds a particularly feminist gaze, slyly calling out the gaslighting many powerful women go through at the hands of men attempting to control them. Captain Marvel's message is clear: believe in yourself and your gifts, even when people you look up to might tell you otherwise. Brie Larson's kinetic performance highlights Captain Marvel's incredible physical prowess as well as Carol Danvers' innate humanity, making this movie much more than a straightforward superhero flick. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

On the desolate planet Jakku, we meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman eking out a lonely hardscrabble existence after being abandoned by her parents as a child. She quickly becomes the focus of an interstellar battle between the fascist First Order and the ongoing interplanetary Resistance, and by the time the credits roll on The Force Awakens, Rey's place in Star Wars canon is thoroughly cemented. 

With The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams takes the franchise into fresh territory, making new room for a more inclusive set of Star Wars characters that includes a new lead heroine who is anything but a princess — and also a three-dimensional character in her own right. Rey is strong indeed, but her loneliness and trauma adds a healthy dose of humanity to this interstellar space opera. 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

With urging and support from General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Rey locates Leia's brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who begins training a precocious Rey in the ways of the Jedi. As teased in The Force Awakens, Rey has natural talent that quickly develops into a formidable power — but not enough to pull Leia's son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) back from the clutches of the dark side of the Force. 

But Rey and Leia aren't the only strong women of the Resistance in The Last Jedi: Engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) play vital parts in the Resistance's battle against the powers of darkness. Admiral Holdo's steely resolve irks Poe Dameron into brash actions he eventually has to atone for, and watching him eat crow is almost as exciting as Holdo serving it to him steaming hot — before sacrificing herself to save the Resistance no less.  

Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)

Starring Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly as the respective title characters, Ant-Man and the Wasp was something of a palate cleanser after Avengers: Infinity War turned half of the Marvel Universe to dust thanks to Thanos' (Josh Brolin) genocidal snap. Balancing action and comedy, Ant-Man and The Wasp follows Scott Lang (Rudd) and Hope van Dyne (Lilly) as they attempt to rescue Hope's mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, where she's been trapped for decades. 

Lilly and Rudd are perfectly matched in their fighting skills as well as their comedic timing, with Hope/Wasp's snarky quips often jabbing as hard as her punches. She proves that a female action lead can be strong, yet vulnerable, and also incredibly funny. The Ant-Man franchise doesn't get as much attention as some of Marvel's other hits, but as Ant-Man and the Wasp makes clear, these films definitely add unique qualities all their own to the MCU.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Much like fellow Star Wars character Rey, Rogue One's leading lady Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) was separated from her family and forced into a rough-and-tumble life. Rescued by extremist rebel outsider Saw Guerrera (Forrest Whittaker) following the death of her mother and abduction of her father, Jyn is recruited by a rag-tag group of resistance fighters who have a plan to steal the blueprints of the Death Star, which leads to Jyn finally being reunited with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). Rogue One fills in the events that take place just before the franchise's fourth installment A New Hope — the blueprints Jyn and company lift are hidden in the droid R2-D2 and prove pivotal for the Star Wars saga to follow. 

While Rogue One's robot K2SO provides the occasional moment of comedic relief, Rogue One is still arguably the bleakest installment of the Star Wars franchise, painfully but also beautifully mapping the toll that authoritarianism takes on people as well as the human costs of war. Rogue One is far more than just an action movie with a kickass leading lady — it's a parable about the long-term effects of large-scale conflicts. 

Haywire (2011)

With almost as many plot twists as action sequences, Steven Soderbergh's Haywire features mixed martial artist Gina Carano in her first starring role as Mallory Kane, a private contract killer who finds herself enmeshed in a series of double and triple crossings revolving around a kidnapped and murdered journalist. Kane is framed for the murder and spends the rest of the film literally fighting for her life as a star-studded cast including Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Fassbender play various characters trying to support Kane (or trying to murder her). 

Carano did her own stunts for Haywire, and the camera makes sure you know it's actually her with lots of full-body action shots rather than close-ups of her face that interrupt the choreography. Roger Ebert even went so far as to compare Carano's fighting skills to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan — high praise that is well-deserved indeed. 

Widows (2018)

Widows follows Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as they take up the mantle of their recently killed mobster husbands in order to pay off their significant debts. The only problem is, the women don't really know what they're doing, which makes them easy prey for further manipulation and abuse at the hands of the criminal enterprises affected by their husbands' deaths.

Director Steve McQueen is a budding auteur, and screenwriter Gillian Flynn is a deft hand with three-dimensional female characters. Widows also manages to weave themes of race and racism, socio-economic issues, and critiques of sexism and misogyny into a pulse-pounding story about women having to fight bloody to get a piece of what's theirs — a story with a spectacular and surprising twist at the end to boot. With thought-provoking social and cultural commentary as well as a phenomenal cast, Widows isn't just an exceptional female-led action movie — it's a most excellent crime caper regardless of gender. 

Hanna (2011)

Raised deep in the woods of Finland where she hones her survival skills daily, the title character of Hanna (Saiorse Ronan) doesn't know the full extent of her powers until her father Erik (Eric Bana) is forced to reveal her true history: Hanna is part of a secret CIA program that altered the DNA of babies in order to create deadly super-soldiers, and the head of the program, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), wants Erik dead and Hanna back in her clutches. This action movie has shades of fairytale inspiration as young Hanna battles metaphorical evil witches and monsters in Marissa's crew... and eliminates each of these threats to her existence one by one.

What makes Hanna special in particular is the haunting imagery and muted color palette that give the film an almost gothic look that tends to be reserved for action horror or fantasy. This is an action movie with a score that often sounds more like a lullaby or a heartbeat than the kinds of kinetic soundtracks that drive the genre. But simultaneously Hanna feels very real, and this is due to Ronan's nuanced performance as well as Blanchett's perfectly tailored evil. In Hanna a straightforward showdown between two women becomes an instant metaphor for toxic motherhood and (genetically modified) chickens coming home to roost. 

The Hunger Games (2012)

Each year in the dystopian hellscape of Panem, a boy and a girl from each of the state's 12 districts are randomly selected to participate in an epic battle to the death that will leave only one survivor. Based on Suzanne Collins' novel of the same name, The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers as tribute for the Hunger Games when her beloved younger sister's name is pulled from the girls' pile. With the odds ever not in her favor, Katniss sparks a revolution in Panem as she does every single thing she needs to do in order to survive, and helps many of her fellow tributes in the process. This revolution plays out over the course of four heart-pounding (and sometimes heart-wrenching) films as Katniss and her allies fight for a more equitable society.

Unlike many of their male counterparts, female action stars are often given room to display their physical strength and training, as well as the moments of vulnerability required in order to replenish that strength and keep fighting. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is no exception as she battles as much for her own survival as she does to protect the people she loves.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Charlize Theron's stylish and pulse-pounding '80s period piece action thriller Atomic Blonde has rightfully earned its place as one of the best female-led action films of the past decade. Having proven her action chops with her stunning performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron plays MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Her task: uncover a list stolen by the KGB identifying every agent from every government agency around the world working in the region before the KGB finds and kills them all. Unfolding over a soundtrack of still-banging '80s new wave tracks, Atomic Blonde's plot is eerily relevant to modern day and real-life spy stories

Theron brings her characteristic vulnerability along with her ferocity to create a unique character while still working within the genre's strict narrative confines. Atomic Blonde even passes The Bechdel Test: it features women, with names, who speak to each other about things other than a man or men in general. This alone is enough to warrant Atomic Blonde's inclusion in any best-of action movie list, whether led by women or not. 

Black Panther (2018)

Yes, the title character in Marvel's Black Panther is a king named T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman). But there is no Wakanda Forever without the many fierce women who stand by his side, including his genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his protective mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his love interest and lethal spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), and of course the battalion of warrior women of the Dora Milaje, led by their fierce general Okoye (Danai Gurira). T'Challa might be the official ruler, but he does nothing without consulting this fierce and vital cadre of women who often save the day as he battles the hostile takeover of Wakanda by Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). 

No offense to Black Panther himself, but throughout Black Panther he often feels like a supporting character in his own movie thanks to his badass female compatriots. He also constantly needs saving, which is a rather beautiful reversal of expected action movie tropes that depict the leading man as the one doing all the rescuing. And while Black Panther is almost wall-to-wall action, it still makes plenty of room for its women — even the ones who might not say much — to be fully realized and three-dimensional characters, so much so that they end up stealing the show. And we love them for it.  

Logan (2017)

Logan is named for its male lead, but it wouldn't be half the film it is without its young female star, Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) clone/"daughter" Laura, a.k.a. X-23 (Dafne Keen). In a 2029 where mutants are no longer born, the X-Man once known as Wolverine is aging slowly and terribly as he tends to his ailing mentor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) suffering from a dementia that makes his psychic powers run dangerously amok. 

Laura is created in a biotech lab where Logan's stolen DNA was used to try and build a super-soldier army — but when the program goes awry, the lab decides to murder all the children. Laura and handful of others escape, and although Logan continues to resist, Laura becomes his ward. Laura is not only pivotal to Logan's redemption arc, but also has her own fully dimensionally story to boot, making her as much the focus of Logan as Wolverine. Dafne Keen's portrayal of this young mutant is equal parts kinetic, emotional, and fiercely satisfying. Logan might be the heart of the movie, but Laura is its soul — and she adds plenty of brains and brawn as well.