Hollywood has made leaps and bounds in their treatment of female characters, even if in many cases there’s still a long way to go. We’re far from the era of women being reduced to distressed damsels, seductive temptresses and cheering girlfriends who never leave the sidelines.
The muscle-bound action guy with perma-stubble and really big machine guns isn’t going away any time soon, but at least now there are scores of female characters who can do the exact same thing. Most recently, Charlize Theron proved that she could ride with boys by taking on a bonafide '80s action legend in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Here are just a few women from live-action films who can stand on their own and get things done without a man in sight.
11 BLACK WIDOW in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Avengers have had powerful female superheroes as part of the team for most of their history. Black Widow manages to stand above the many others not only for lacking superpowers, but because her complex history and adaptability have made her a comic mainstay. And being played by Scarlett Johansson in the film series definitely helps.
As a former KGB agent, the MCU version of Natalya Romanov is portrayed as a spy without peer, displaying incredible talents in psychological manipulation, firearms and "chair-fu." She holds her own against alien invasions and killbots using nothing but her weapons, skills and ingenuity. It definitely says something that in a group that includes a Norse god and the world’s most advanced robot suit, Black Widow is still a vital member of the team.
10 IMPERATOR FURIOSA in Mad Max: Fury Road
When a female lead pushes the actual male title character out of focus, it’s probably a sign that you should take notice. Imperator Furiosa was the true heroine of Mad Max: Fury Road, with Max (Tom Hardy) more or less tagging along. She has a robot arm, is an expert with every gun known to man (probably), drives like a beast and is more or less the embodiment of the word "badass." Despite being played by Charlize Theron, she’s far from the typical lady warrior in both appearance and style.
Furiosa also isn’t devoid of character, as it was her compassion that ignited the events of the film when she helped to free several woman from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and her tough-as-nails determination that allowed her to escape with the Wives and stay alive during a movie-length car chase through the desert.
9 THE BRIDE in Kill Bill
The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo, from Kill Bill is more of a nuanced character that she initially appears, but this doesn’t dampen her ability to ruthlessly murder anyone in her one-woman quest for revenge. Leaving a mountain of bodies in her wake, The Bride, as played by frequent Tarantino-muse Uma Thurman, takes on trained assassins, martial arts masters and entire legions of ninjas, but never falters, no matter how long the odds.
Known for techniques such as the one-inch punch and the "Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique," Kiddo’s true desire is to simply have a normal life. Fortunately for us, she spends two films on a magnificent and slightly-ridiculous murder spree before she achieves that goal.
8 RIVER TAM in Firefly and Serenity
Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters, and the ladies of Firefly are no exception. Not all of them take down hordes of bad guys while suffering from crippling mental issues, however, which is why River Tam (Summer Glau) is so exceptional.
Born with extraordinary abilities, River was taken by an institution that used her as an experiment, resulting in severe mental trauma even after she’s freed. She might need saving a few more times than most women on this list, though to be fair, most of them didn’t have pieces of their brain removed for science. When it really counts, River is an expert marksman, skilled pilot and nigh-unstoppable force of martial arts destruction, as seen when she mows down an entire room of Reavers without a second’s hesitation.
7 YUKIO in The Wolverine
The Wolverine delivered two strong female characters: Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and Yukio (Rila Fukushima). While Mariko displays several times that she’s not afraid to stick bad guys with throwing knives, she does also have a tendency to get kidnapped. Yukio, on the other hand, has no such flaws.
Serving as a zen foil to Wolverine, Yukio is a skilled ninja with precognitive abilities. While most characters with any kind of psychic power tend to find themselves on the sidelines, once again, Yukio is having none of it. She breaks Logan out of his sulking, stares down a bunch of rednecks, slices her way through dozens of trained ninjas, rescues Wolverine and is generally the reason anything gets done in the film. What’s more, Yukio has no attraction to Wolverine, treating him as an equal rather than as a love interest. The film ends with her just tagging along with Logan as if they’re a couple of stabby-slicey buddies off on a mad romp - a film we’d pay to see, by the way.
6 RITA VRATASKI in Edge of Tomorrow
Appearing in the recent Edge of Tomorrow, Sergeant Rita Rose Vrataski has earned her unflattering nickname of ‘Full-Metal Bitch’ before the story even begins, due to her incredible kill record fighting hordes of alien invaders. Also known as ‘The Angel of Verdun’, Rita’s war record is used to inspire troops worldwide.
What’s more, the roles in the film could easily have been reversed; Rita could have been the panicking soldier stuck in a time loop, with veteran legend William Cage (Tom Cruise) helping her to become an alien killing machine. Instead, Rita is the hero and mentor. It’s through her understanding of the time loop and incredible skill that the humans even stand a chance in the war. There’s also the fact that Emily Blunt just looks so very comfortable in a heavily-armed robot suit.
5 ELLEN RIPLEY in the Alien Quadrilogy
It’s clear that Ellen Ripley from the Alien series - despite being played by Sigourney Weaver - wasn’t meant to be a glamour icon. Instead, she’s become one of the most famous figures in science fiction, an ordinary woman who faces down an unstoppable monster and survives where her male colleagues cannot. What’s more, she manages to survive many such encounters while trained soldiers are killed en masse, and is cloned 200 years into the future by virtue of sheer badassery .
Whatever your opinion of the later Alien movies, there’s no denying that Ellen Ripley was a milestone in the way Hollywood treated female characters.
4 SARAH CONNOR in the Terminator series
Google a picture of Terminator’s Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and you’ll get mostly the same thing: sunglasses, a really big gun and an expression that says she’s not shy about using it. Sarah’s character develops over the course of the films (and is played by a variety of actresses), going from the typical damsel in distress to a battle-hardened warrior determined to protect her son at any cost.
But even in the early days Sarah was no slouch, crushing the Terminator sent to kill her and later transforming herself into a stronger (and far more muscular) figure to teach her son John the skills he needs to survive. Both a single mother and a warrior, Sarah Connor fights to save all of humanity from destruction, and does most of it alone. Emilia Clarke's portrayal of a young Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys carries on this legacy, rebooting the timeline and turning Sarah into a gun-toting warrior.
3 ALICE in the Resident Evil series
Regardless of your opinion about the films, it’s easy to see why Alice (Milla Jovovich) makes the list. Deliberately injected with the t-virus, which usually turns people into zombies and not much else, Alice instead gained superhuman abilities such as speed, strength and for some reason, telekinesis. These powers also give her enhanced senses, fast healing and allow her to return from death.
Alice survives not only the Raccoon City outbreak, but five years on her own during the zombie apocalypse, and she has an impressive track record of killing nigh-unkillable genetic experiments. Even without her powers, Alice’s skills as a security operative are impressive, and she is able to use her cunning to take down enemies much stronger than her.
2 EOWYN in The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Within Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe, women and children are expected to flee while the men go to war. Eowyn, on the other hand, is having none of that nonsense. A shieldmaiden of Rohan, she might complete her royal duties with customary grace and elegance, but put a sword in her hand and she’s a full-fledged killer, complete with slick one-liners.
In clear defiance of every expectation (because, y’know, she’s a frail woman) Eowyn rides to war, fights alongside her fellow men, defends her king, slays a monster and stabs Sauron’s most powerful warrior in the face. Seriously, right in the face.
It’s easy to criticise Eowyn for immediately falling for Faramir after the battle, but there’s no denying that she proved herself the equal of any man in a society that didn’t even think that was possible.
1 MEI in House of Flying Daggers
House of Flying Daggers is known for stunning choreography and gorgeous scenery, though its strong characterizations can’t be over looked. Mei is not only an incredible fighter with dagger-flinging skills that are nigh-implausible, but she (spoilers) manages to go through most of the film pretending to be blind. Despite this putting her at a disadvantage in fights, she still takes on hordes of opponents, often alone, and beats them all without a scratch. You try feigning blindness while taking on twenty guys armed with only a bamboo pole. It’s really not that easy.
The end of the film (spoilers again) sees Mei make the ultimate sacrifice, hurling a dagger that was lodged in her heart to save the man she loves and bleeding out in the process. She might now have "won" her final battle, but like a true warrior, Mei had the courage to do what was right, even at the cost of her own life.
The damsel in distress is disappearing, replaced by a ton of powerful female characters. Are there any great examples that aren't on the list? Let us know in the comments!