For all that Marvel’s lady heroes remain relatively underrepresented on screen, they’re pretty much exploding in the comics, with all kinds of badass women and lots of stories to choose from. Female superheroes tend to fit a familiar pattern for the most part – beautiful, capable, and poorly dressed (at least in their everyday alter egos) – but the definition of what makes a hero (and specifically a female hero) is ever-widening, leading to leading ladies who are just as complicated and realistic as they are effective and strong. Representation is important, especially for a readership looking to connect with a character they can find some facet of themselves in. Heroes inspire us, but they also resonate with us because their struggles are all too human.
The women on this list are conflicted with troubling backstories, or they’re young and learning as they grow. They’re snarky and sarcastic; they’re bubbly and fun. In short, there are all different kinds of women who make all different kinds of heroes, and they’re all wonderful in their own way. And yeah, some of them even have cute costumes too.
Here are the 13 Best Female Marvel Superheroes
13. Squirrel Girl
Though her name and powers – the ability to communicate with squirrels, as well as some physical squirrel attributes – imply sheer ridiculousness, Squirrel Girl (aka Doreen Green) has won the affection of her audience nevertheless. She isn’t a dark and gritty hero by any stretch, and it’s the lightness of her story, her quirkiness and charm, that makes her such a breath of fresh air. Though she never made it onto the actual Avengers, she was a member of the comedic Great Lake Avengers, and later served as a nanny to Avengers Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.
The last year saw her headlining her own comic title, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which follows Doreen as she attends college and battles foes, whom she often defeats via overwhelming hordes of squirrels. Squirrel Girl is proof that a story doesn’t have to be deadly serious or darkly comedic to engage readers; sometimes, being fun is enough.
12. Jessica Jones
Thanks to the recent Netflix adaptation, Jessica Jones is on everyone’s minds. Acting, for the most part, without a superhero moniker (her term as the caped crusader Jewel ended traumatically), Jessica is a private detective with a chip on her shoulder, in the style of many noir-ish antiheroes since time infinitum. She’s a newer hero – as in, she made her first appearance in 2001 as opposed to the 1950s – and her character reflects these more modern sensibilities. Jessica is messed up emotionally and mentally, an alcoholic trying her best to overcome a painful past and not always succeeding.
Allowing Jessica to be conflicted, sharp, and occasionally even unpleasant is important; more people are likely to empathize with someone in a state of confused flux more than a perfect hero who has it all together. Even though regular people don’t have Jessica’s superstrength or her ability to fly (and maybe they’ve never been literally mind-controlled), plenty of people have suffered abuse, addiction, and depression. Seeing that reflected on the page can be an immense relief.
Comic universes often grow so expansive that they lead to multiple characters acting under the same superhero label (there are three Captain Americas running around these days), and there is also a trend of male and female variations on similar names (see: Spider-Man and Spider-Woman, though their origins differ wildly). So while there is the long-running male Hawkeye (Clint Barton), the Avenger played by Jeremy Renner onscreen, there is also his female protégée and partner, Kate Bishop.
Kate first appeared Young Avengers, filling the void left behind by Clint after his temporary death, and proved herself adept not only at archery but all kinds of combat. The thing with Hawkeyes is that they’re just normal people with exceptional skills, as opposed to being literally superpowered, and though this can make them the butt of some jokes, it also brings an interesting edge to the character. Kate isn’t the kind of hero who is gifted with extraordinary abilities and has to figure out what to do with them; she’s a hero because she wants to be one, because she worked at it. She’s tenacious and determined, as well as seriously funny and feisty. It’s really no wonder she’s a fan favorite.
Gamora is one of Marvel’s more cosmic superheroes, a green-skinned alien who is the last of her species. She was adopted as a child and raised by the supervillain Thanos, growing up to be an incredibly skilled and deadly assassin. She goes on to join the Guardians of the Galaxy, and appeared in the recent film adaptation, where she was played by Zoe Saldana.
Gamora has been through some serious ordeals in her life: the death of all of her people, an attack and rape as a young girl, and a prickly relationship with her adoptive father. Still, she isn’t necessarily defined by these things; instead Gamora pushes on and finds it within herself to be a proactive, protective force in the universe. There is a certain amount of fantasy involved in her appeal (she’s got the coolness factor in spades) but it’s Gamora’s strength that is most admirable.
9. Ms. Marvel
Ms. Marvel is another moniker held by a few different characters through the years, and the most recent girl to assume the honor is Kamala Khan. Kamala is notable immediately for being a Pakistani American superhero, as well as being the first Muslim superhero to lead her very own comic. She’s also a bright, charming, utterly normal teenage girl who just happens to be a shapeshifter.
It felt exciting and fresh to read Kamala’s origin story and see her slowly come into her own – figuring out her name, her look, and how exactly her powers worked. Technically, it wasn’t anything a comics-loving readership hadn’t come into contact with before, but because of who Kamala is – not just her ethnicity but her personality, a funny-but-awkward fangirl who could stand in for any of her readers – it felt new. Kamala is able to be relatable and aspirational at the same time, which is just part of what makes her great.
Elektra is something of an antihero, a figure of dubious morality who switches sides whenever it suits her purpose. As a very young child, her mother was killed and, as a result, her father hired an expert to train Elektra in martial arts for her own protection. She dated a pre-Daredevil Matt Murdock in college but the murder of her father sent Elektra into a tailspin, and she left college to continue studying martial arts in China. She joined a sect of mystical ninjas called the Hand, though she left them to become a solo assassin, even partnering up with old flame Daredevil to fight them.
As a mercenary with a short fuse, Elektra has trouble staying on the side of good. Sometimes she tries to make up for her past sins, but on other occasions, spite keeps her from making the right decision. She will work with criminals like Kingpin for money (and to twist the dagger in Matt’s side a little) but will also help set Wolverine on the path she herself can’t stick to. She’s a character motivated by revenge, by need, by anger – and it’s her personal battle that informs a lot of her appeal.
Rogue is one of a few characters on this list who have played the role of both hero and villain. Rogue is a mutant with the ability to absorb the powers and sap the vitality from others upon skin-to-skin contact, but her inability to control it has caused her a great deal of anguish. She is taken in by Mystique and her partner Destiny, who raise Rogue as a daughter, but while she may have found acceptance there, she was also utilized for nefarious purposes at Mystique’s behest.
However, as her powers continue to cause difficulties for her, she eventually turns to the X-Men to help her learn how to control them. This started her on her journey towards becoming a true hero. Though Rogue’s experiences are far outside the bounds of something a normal person would experience day to day, she is incredibly relatable. Her inability to control herself due to factors she holds no sway over can resonant with anyone who has ever felt helpless.
She-Hulk, real name Jennifer Walters, is a lot more in control and even-keeled than her famous cousin Bruce Banner. Jennifer is a lawyer who often helps her super colleagues in their legal disputes, in addition to all of her off-the-books crime fighting. She was first infected with her powers when a gunshot wound lend to Bruce giving her an emergency infusion of his blood. However, the Hulk abilities manifest quite differently in Jennifer and, instead of being a barely-contained font of rage and destruction, she was empowered not just physically, but emotionally.
A timid woman prior to her transformation, Jennifer becomes strong and confident, ultimately preferring the independence granted her so much that she chooses to stay in her Hulked-out form permanently. Being so physically powerful allows her a freedom not many women feel safe enough to take advantage of, and she can live her life exactly as she wants to live it. Jennifer chooses to live her life standing up for those without the same capabilities she has, which is just about the most heroic quality there is.
Janet van Dyne, also known as Wasp, is one of the founding members of the Avengers, alongside her husband Ant-Man. Janet gains her powers after the death of her father, a scientist, in an effort to avenge his murder. The experiment she undergoes gives her the ability to shrink to miniscule size and grow wings and, though those powers can seem less than impressive (and they did increase over time), Janet’s tenaciousness more than made up for it. She even led the Avengers for many years, very successfully.
Janet is highly capable and intelligent heroine, able to perform her duties with competence and flair (she even takes a detour as a fashion designer, just for fun). Her importance to the Avengers can’t be emphasized enough, especially considering the MCU has fixed the male-heavy team-up in the public’s eye; in her time as leader, Janet made a point of recruiting more women to the team, such as She-Hulk and Captain Marvel. Janet dealt with the loss of her father and a turbulent relationship with her husband, but she was always able to pick herself up and put herself back together.
Mutant heroine Storm (real name Ororo Munroe) has one of those backstories you only see in fiction: the daughter of a Kenyan princess and American photojournalist, she was born in Harlem and raised in Egypt until her parents passed away (much like Disney princesses, superheroes are not allowed to have living parents). Her natural abilities of flight and weather manipulation lead to her being recruited by Professor X to join the X-Men.
As one of the first black female characters to take on an important role in comics, Storm is historically significant in addition to being a compelling character (and a literal queen after her marriage to Black Panther). She is one of the most powerful superheroes on this list thanks to her control over the weather and she wields that power expertly and carefully, eventually going on to lead the X-Men. Her combination of composure and immense power make her intimidatingly cool.
3. Black Widow
Natasha Romanoff has seen the most big screen attention as of the last few years, though all the fan clamoring was never able to result in a solo film outing. Natasha is a complex character that has seen many rewrites and revisions in her personal history, and she is also on a unique journey for a female character: she is the former bad guy on a mission of redemption. The reserved hero on a lonely path towards absolution is a popular trope, but not one that many women get to headline.
Natasha started off as an antagonist of Iron Man, but over the years her history was altered to make her a child agent for the KGB, trained to be a spy in a special Black Widow program where she was brainwashed and her memories altered. Natasha defected as an adult and has since spent her time atoning, trying to make up for the violent acts she performed during her tenure as a spy. While popularity with fans can often push female villains towards working with the good guys, Natasha’s active choice to change sides informs a big portion of her character and definitely makes her someone to root for.
2. Scarlet Witch
Wanda Maximoff is often depicted side by side with her brother Pietro, also known as Quicksilver, and she is considered one of the most powerful characters in Marvel canon, being able to warp and alter reality. She is the daughter of the villainous Magneto (though this has faced some retcons in the last year), and did start off as a (reluctant) villain herself but quickly switched allegiances and became an Avenger.
Like many immensely powerful characters, Wanda has to deal with how to wield that power so that she can control it without it hurting her or someone she loves. She is not always able to do so. Add her ever-shifting parentage and heavy themes of discrimination (not only as a mutant, but as a Romani woman), and you have an incredibly complex (some might say convoluted) story with a very rich character right in the middle of it.
1. Captain Marvel
Due to headline her own movie (probably, someday), Carol Danvers is a deeply beloved heroine in the Marvel universe. She started off as the original Ms. Marvel and though her origin story quickly took on some twists and turns, she had a fairly normal upbringing for a superhero. She grew up without powers, joined the Air Force, and eventually NASA. It was then that some alien run-ins resulted in Carol’s powers, which include strength, stamina, flight, and a collection of other goodies.
Carol fought the good fight under the name Ms. Marvel for years but after several harrowing experiences (abduction, bizarre forced pregnancy, and de-powering at the hands of Scarlet Witch – just to name a few) led to some soul-searching, she went on to adopt Captain Marvel as a title. Strong-willed and stubborn, Carol endeared readers to her not just for her strength but for her struggles, which included alcoholism (in a connection to another Marvel heroine with similar issues, Carol was Jessica Jones’ original blonde best friend in the comics). As with many of the women on this list, it’s the human foibles that make their heroism poignant, understandable, and something to marvel at.
Any other great female heroes we left off this list? Let us know in the comments below!