The rise of the action woman

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Alicia Vikander, one where she talked about her role as the new Lara Croft and how the character has been rebooted as a more realistic heroine for modern women.

She mentioned how it seems there’s momentum these days, indeed appetite, towards high quality, well put together, action-driven films that feature a female lead. She mentioned Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and others, which got me thinking, is there momentum? Was there a specific moment that was the turning point?

Thinking back, Angelina Jolie has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since about 2000, with Charlize Theron playing her part too. But did they pave the way for the films we see now or has this been a longer time coming?

For me, I think the ’90s are a good place to start.
So below are the films and the various time periods that, for better or worse, I consider to have had a hand in where we are now. I’ve listed the actress, character, film, year, whether they were lead, co-lead or in a prominent supporting role, and the Rotten Tomatoes score, to give a rough indication of how the film was recieved by audiences.


THE 1990s

Yes we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien at the tail end of the ’70s, but the ’80s were dripping in macho testosterone. So, for me, the ’90s is where this movement started to gain traction, with actresses like Linda Hamilton and Geena Davis leading the way, putting in decent performances in exciting, entertaining movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) 92%
Sarah Connor (supporting) – Linda Hamilton

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) 68%
Samantha Caine (lead) – Geena Davis

G.I. Jane (1997) 55%
Jordan O’Neil (lead) – Demi Moore

The Matrix (1999) 87%
Trinity (supporting) – Carrie-Anne Moss

THE 2000s

The good work the ’90s women put in gets somewhat undone at the start of this decade, with a bunch of terrible films (Eon Flux the biggest offender) and, whilst it’s no fault of the various actresses involved, it took a one-two punch of Angelina Jolie (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to set things right. So by the end of the decade we were getting better films – and characters – with greater frequency (Hanna, Salt).

Then, by 2012, we’d probably reached a turning point. Angelina Jolie (aged 35 in Salt) couldn’t fly the flag forever, so others had to step up. Enter women like Jennifer Lawrence (22 in Hunger Games) and Saoirse Ronan (17 in Hanna), actresses that appealed and inspired a younger generation and helped push things further forward.

Charlie’s Angels (2000) 68%
Natalie Cook (co-lead) – Cameron Diaz, Dylan Sanders (co-lead) – Drew Barrymore, Alex Munday (co-lead) – Lucy Lui

Tomb Raider (2001) 20%
Lara Croft (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Resident Evil (2002) 34%
Alice (lead) – Milla Jovovich

Eon Flux (2005) 9%
Eon Flux (lead) – Charlize Theron

Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) 59%
Jane Smith (co-lead) – Angelina Jolie

Kill Bill (2003) 85%
Beatrix Kiddo (lead) – Uma Thurman

Wanted (2008) 71%
Fox (supporting) – Angelina Jolie

Salt (2010) 62%
Evelyn Salt (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Iron Man 2 (2010) 73%
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (supporting) – Scarlet Johansson

Hanna (2011) 71%
Hanna (lead) – Saoirse Ronan

Hunger Games (2012) 84%
Katniss Everdeen (lead) – Jennifer Lawrence

2015 ONWARDS

In 2012 Disney acquired Star Wars as a property and set about making plans to expand the franchise with new films and characters, ones that would appeal to a modern audience. The majority of moviegoers want to see female characters better represented on screen, so franchises like Star Wars really need to lead the way.

Additionally, along with Marvel’s MCU and a smattering of female superheroes, even DC studios got in on the act, with a female-led action movie in Wonder Woman (something Marvel could only really match with supporting characters in films like Black Panther). Momentum and quality, though, had really shifted. If the below selection are anything to go by.

Mad Max (2015) 97%
Furiosa (supporting) – Charlize Theron

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) 93%
Isla Faust (supporting) – Rebecca Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 93%
Rey (co-lead) – Daisy Ridley

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (2016) 85%
Jyn Erso (lead) – Felicity Jones

Wonder Woman (2017) 92%
Diana Prince (lead) – Gal Gadot

Atomic Blonde (2017) 77%
Lorraine Broughton – Charlize Theron

Black Panther (2018) 97%
Shuri (supporting) – Letitia Wright and Okoye (supporting) – Danai Garira

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