Action films have existed as a dominant genre of cinema for over a century, birthing a broad spectrum of sub-genres as a byproduct of their success. An unsurprising consequence of the success of the action genre, however, is its disquieting lack of women protagonists. While it is not a remarkable truth that for decades action films have been chiefly commanded by men, it is one that is deliberately beginning to shift.
In a category saturated with prominent action franchises from 007 to Mission: Impossible to Indiana Jones, the dominion of the male action hero has been largely unparalleled. With few exceptions prior to the 2000s (such as the Thelma & Louise or the Alien franchise), action films starring women have been few and far between. As this dynamic in cinema is shifting, let's take a look back at a few of the most distinguished female-driven action films of the last decade.
10 Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Okja is the tale of Mija, a South Korean girl who assists her grandfather in raising a lab-bred "super-pig" called Okja as part of a decade-long experimental competition led by the fictional Mirando Corporation. The film follows Mija in her determination to rescue Okja from a life of forced laboratory breeding and inevitable slaughter at the hands of the Mirando Corporation.
Nominated for a Palme d'Or at Cannes and regarded as one of Netflix's best original films, Okja functions as a resolute condemnation of the meat industry and provides an evocative portrait of an earnest young girl unfaltering in her efforts to rescue her lifelong companion.
9 Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is the story of Diana (Gal Gadot), the Amazonian warrior princess raised by a matriarchal civilization on an isolated island paradise. Diana leaves the island when she learns of a war being fought by humans in the outside world, believing it to be the work of Ares, the Greek god of war. Diana resolves to assist in the war and bring Ares's efforts to their finality.
Despite being snubbed by both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, Wonder Woman's achievement at the box office earned it the success of becoming the highest-grossing superhero origin film of all time. It was the first female-starring superhero film to be released in twelve years, and Wonder Woman perfectly synthesizes conventional facets of the action genre with its raw female regency.
8 Widows (2018)
Directed by Steve McQueen, Widows chronicles the lives of four women who are connected only by their husbands, a criminal group killed in a heist gone amiss. Following the deaths of their spouses, widows Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) must deliver on the debt incurred when their husbands were killed with $2 million in stolen cash.
A screenplay co-penned by Steve McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, the film follows these three thoroughly mismatched women as they cultivate their own heist in pursuit of settling the debt and securing their individual futures against the backdrop of corrupt Chicago politics.
7 Sucker Punch (2011)
Written and directed by Zack Snyder, Sucker Punch divulges the tale of Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman wrongfully blamed for the death of her sister and institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. With the help of four fellow patients under the looming threat of lobotomization, Babydoll plots her escape through the lens of heavily imaginative fictional scenarios (a form of escapism from her circumstances).
The film was notoriously poorly received by critics and all but flopped at the box office, largely a result of the film's message becoming muddled in Snyder's many layers of abstraction. Sucker Punch is a highly stylized amalgam of action and high fantasy, with the singular theme - womanhood is often like fighting a losing battle - being quite relevant.
6 Revenge (2017)
Directed by Coralie Fargeat, Revenge is the gory tale of Jen's (Mathilda Lutz) troubles in marital infidelity. The mistress of married CEO Richard (Kevin Janssens), Jen is brought along as an accessory on his annual hunting trip to the desert with his two equally wealthy friends. After one of those friends assaults Jen and a failed bribe attempt leads to the three of them leaving her for dead in the desert, things go hideously awry.
Though the film only had a limited release in the US, it was critically well-received and won a Jury Award for best narrative feature. It delivers a thrilling, carnage-infused retribution narrative and functions as a blood-drenched cautionary tale for misogynists everywhere.
5 Captain Marvel (2019)
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Captain Marvel is the tale of Vers (Brie Larson), a member of the Kree Starforce with mysterious powers and an acute case of amnesia. After a cataclysmic mission leaves her stranded on Earth, Vers discovers her true identity: Carol Danvers, a former US Army test pilot who gained her powers after destroying an experimental light-speed engine powered by the Tesseract.
Though it is the twenty-first superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel is the very first of those twenty-one films to feature a female protagonist. The film broke multiple box office records and delivered a superbly nuanced female superhero narrative: One in which a woman can feel every ounce of her emotions and still wield immense power.
4 Tomb Raider (2018)
Directed by Roar Uthaug, Tomb Raider reboots the story of Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), the tenacious daughter of a vanished adventurer. Lara is a bike courier and amateur boxer who is forced to claim her inheritance under threat of her father's estate being sold out from underneath her. Upon exploring the estate, she discovers and pursues a lead regarding her father's disappearance.
Alicia Vikander lends a scrappiness and a charming arrogance to Lara's character. Even though the film's box office success was lukewarm and critical reviews were mixed, Tomb Raider functions perfectly as an uncomplicated and fun action flick that has no interest in dabbling in the profound.
3 Atomic Blonde (2017)
Directed by David Leitch, Atomic Blonde is the tale of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a distinguished MI6 agent dispatched to Germany to secure a compromised list of active undercover foreign agents. Set against the backdrop of political turmoil on the eve of the Berlin Wall's collapse, Lorraine partners with station agent David Percival (James McAvoy) to help navigate her hunt.
Though it broke no records, the film performed well at the box office and was critically well-received. Propelled by a robust soundtrack, it is a rhapsody of adrenaline-charged stunts and ultra-violence driven by the eternally commanding performance of Charlize Theron.
2 Hanna (2011)
Directed by Joe Wright, Hanna is the story of the titular character: A teenage girl raised in the isolated wilderness of Finland by her father, who trains her to become an assassin. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is tasked with luring and killing Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the senior CIA officer responsible for the death of Hanna's mother.
Set against a thudding industrial score composed by electronic duo The Chemical Brothers, the film lends a unique atmosphere to the action genre. Its heavy reliance on references to classical fairytales gives the film a slightly fantastical aftertaste, while its energetic action sequences ring true to more traditional facets of the genre.
1 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Directed by George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road continues the saga of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and his fight for survival against totalitarian leader Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys. More fundamental, however, is the core story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leading the escape of Immortan Joe's most prized possessions: His five wives.
Though its box-office success was average, Fury Road continues to be one of the most critically acclaimed action films of all time, winning six Oscars out of its ten nominations. A gritty and thunderously kinetic film (to say nothing of its achievement in stunts and visual effects), it spotlights Furiosa's rescue efforts and her rejection of a patriarchal authoritarian order in which women are valued solely for their capacity for breeding.