Top 10 Female Superheroes in Film

by Warren Cantrell on March 5, 2019

in Top 10s

Well, then: here we are. Marvel Studios has elbowed their way back in everyone’s life this week with the release of their eponymous superhero: Captain Marvel. The story of an alien-human hybrid with near-limitless powers and a predilection for skin-tight onesies, the film is a rare example of a female-fronted superhero film in a genre that often positions women in supporting roles. This got Scene-Stealers thinking about the best examples of female comic book superheroes in film, as there have been many great examples (along with several bad ones) over the years.

So, as long as the movie character in question was adapted from an existing comic book or graphic novel, they qualified for a spot in the ranking (sorry, Buffy, no reverse-engineered comic incarnations allowed). To keep things from getting bunched up around one or two great characters, only one incarnation of a particular female superhero was permitted, which made for a couple of tough decisions that will be expanded on in a few of the selections below. When ranking the ladies, the quality of the movie(s) the character appears in, the abilities of the superhero, and the performer’s acting proficiency were all considered.

Some close-call honorable mentions that didn’t measure up in one or all of these categories included Peggy Carter from Captain America, Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad (Christ, that movie sucked), Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II from Watchmen, Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, Hope van Dyne from Ant-Man, and Sif from Thor: all of whom missed out on a spot. So, with all of that out of the way, let’s start with a 90s cult-classic favorite…

10. Lori Petty as Rebecca Buck/Tank Girl from Tank Girl

An interesting character stuck in a mediocre movie, Tank Girl is 104 minutes of regrettable “what-if” in action. Based on the 1988 comic of the same name, Tank Girl was a post-apocalyptic scarcity yarn about water in the Australian outback (Mad Max’s ears are burning, FYI). Lori Petty played the eponymous character, who found herself in the clutches of the bad guys, led by the always delectable Malcolm McDowell, only to then bust loose with a tank to raise some hell. Spunky, loyal to her people, and tough to kill, Tank Girl eventually ran into some half-human-half-kangaroo mutants, who allied with her to take on the water-monopolizing goons in power. A sort of proto-Furiosa, Petty’s character in the film worked more than she didn’t, displayed a fantastic amount grit and resilience, and was more than equal to the task of taking down McDowell’s Kesslee character. Based on the criteria for the list today, however, she was a bit lacking, as this movie is famously cheesy, and Petty…well…she’s never been accused of possessing a surplus of talent. For a slight improvement on all these fronts, we ought to turn to…

9. Zazie Beetz as Domino from Deadpool 2

This one was a ton of fun, admit it. The Deadpool franchise is famous for pointing out its own inconsistencies, contrivances, and ironies, so the introduction of luck-fueled Domino (Zazie Beetz) in Deadpool 2 was a real treat. Indeed, as Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) mentioned himself, “luck” isn’t something that translates well to film, so to accomplish this in the raunchy sequel, a series of Rube Goldberg-like sequences served as the foundation for the character’s action. Domino’s luck served her well, too, as she squared off with Cable (Josh Brolin) without incurring much damage and was the reason the disastrous X-Force raid came off as well as it did. Indeed, pretty much everyone in X-Force except Deadpool and Domino either died or suffered grievous bodily harm, so the impressiveness of her survival cannot be overstated. As far as the film goes, Deadpool 2 is an entirely serviceable, nay, enjoyable sequel to an instant classic, and Beetz is a delightfully breezy addition to a cast that prizes a mix of humor and strong physicality. 

8. Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton from Atomic Blonde

You’re goddamned right this one qualified! Adapted from the graphic novel “The Coldest City,” Atomic Blonde was the story of MI6 field agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who stabbed, punched, kicked, and fucked her way from one end of 1989 Berlin to the other. On the hunt for a missing microfilm document that contained the names of all active spies in Berlin, Broughton had to peel through several different layers of deceit and double-crosses ranging from Stasi, CIA, KGB, and fellow MI6 agents to get to the bottom of things. Atomic Blonde lived unequivocally in the real world, hence the absence of any “powers,” yet the scene with Broughton in the back of a sedan, or fighting through a hallway, painted her as the equal of pretty much everyone on today’s list. Indeed, it’s almost more impressive, here, for Theron’s character wasn’t fighting black-blooded cannon fodder aliens or the like, but other trained spies who were often bigger and stronger than she was. A magnificent performance in a stellar film, Broughton just missed out on the #7 spot, held down by a fierce warrior in a game-changing film that was one of 2018’s best…

7. Danai Gurira as Okoye from from Black Panther

In Black Panther, Okoye (Danai Gurira) served as the head of Wakanda’s Secret Service, the Dora Milaje, and was the traditional “body man” for the king. And while she wasn’t at her best when she lost one regent to a terrorist bombing, she distinguished herself during the reign of the next monarch, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). While in South Korea, Okoye showed how she could blend in and infiltrate behind the lines just as well as kick a little ass in tight quarters (both skills ended up being necessary). When a usurper made a legal challenge for Wakanda’s throne, Okoye maintained her honor and defended “the king” despite her own personal feelings. This one act said more about her character than any stand-off against a war-rhino or Thanos ever could and is a big reason why Okoye worked so well in Black Panther and beyond. It’s hard to imagine a fiercer, or more invested performance than that given by the immensely-talented Gurira, who was just one member of an absolutely stacked cast. Indeed, had Okoye enjoyed some genetic modifications, or scored some battlefield wins against more formidable opponents, she might have gotten ahead of…

6. Zoe Saldana as Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy

A genetically modified skull-cracker who could fight as long, hard, and well as anyone else in her squad, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has carved out a healthy spot for herself in the MCU. Skilled in unarmed combat, as well as those weird retractable space swords, Gamora demonstrated early on how formidable an opponent she was when she squared off against Quill, Rocket, and Groot simultaneously. Though not a top-tier, Oscar-nominated actress like some of the ladies listed here today, Saldana is indeed a fine performer, and is a big reason why the first Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded (her “straight man” role was the perfect anecdote to the film’s wall-to-wall wise-cracking). The brains of her squad, and the connective tissue for the whole MCU to the cinematic universe’s main baddie (Thanos), Gamora was just what this ranking was looking for. Gamora might have even moved up a little higher in the ranking had she…well…not gotten herself killed in Infinity War, which represented a pretty big hole in her superhero resume. To be fair, a lot of people died in that movie, including this next character…

5. Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch from Avengers: Age of Ultron

Hobbled by the fact that Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced the character, and further still by the not-at-all-convincing accent Elizabeth Olsen brings to the role, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch was nevertheless a powerful threat in the MCU and was in more good movies than bad ones. With devastating mind-control and telekinesis powers, she made for a formidable foe (or one hell of a sturdy ally). Her relationship with Vision offered some much-needed emotional grounding in Civil War, which was only further built upon to good effect in Infinity War. By the time of the latter’s movie’s premiere, Olsen seems to have figured out how to transcend the sometimes-stilted dialogue to affect an engaging side-plot that ties in well to the larger story. She’s gone toe-to-toe with some of the toughest heroes and villains in the MCU and lived to tell the tale, much like this next character, whose powers are a little less tangible…

4. Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman from Batman Returns

Sure, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Batman Returns didn’t have any real “superpowers,” but neither did Batman (Michael Keaton), so this one still scans. Besides, as Domino demonstrated, luck is its own advantage, and with her nine lives, Catwoman demonstrated just how useful kind, happy fate could be. After suffering a fall and what is implied to be a psychotic breakdown, mild-mannered secretary Selina Kyle transformed into her anti-hero alter-ego: Catwoman. In this masked role, she brawled Batman to a draw, out-foxed the Penguin, and was nothing less than deadly in all the encounters that demanded it. This film marked the high-water mark for the series until the Nolan reboots, and was nothing less than a smash hit when released in 1992 (and for good reason, it’s bad-ass and dark AF). And as far as pure acting talent goes, with the possible exception of Charlize Theron, Pfeiffer is about as good as it gets when it comes to this ranking’s stage chops. It was tough sledding ranking these last couple of graphic novel gals: a razor-thin margin separating Batman’s most famous female foe and this next nebulously-allied X-Men hall of famer…

3. Rebecca Romijn as Mystique from X-Men

Hot take time: Rebecca Romijn was a better Mystique than Jennifer Lawrence. There, it’s been said: fight me. Owing largely to the expansion of the character in the rebooted J-law incarnation, Mystique has become vulnerable and tame in ways that the Romijn version never seemed to be, and it has led to a de-fanging of the character and the absence of a mystery quality that was integral to its earlier success. Romijn might not be as good an actress as some of the others listed here today, but the use of her character in the earlier X-Men films carried far more menace and uncertainty, allowing her to impact the stories immensely in small doses. In other words, despite her limited dialogue and screen time, Romijn still managed to pack a wallop, and never once allowed the audience to imagine the character as anything more than a blue-skinned mutant who liked to kick in teeth. Lawrence’s try-hard version always came off as a little bit stilted, and like most things comic book-related, the deeper one digs into these characters, the less interesting they become. Subscribing to this model, this list’s #2 has remained shrouded in mystery since her introduction…

2. Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow from Iron Man 2, et al.

This was a tough one to beat. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was as fierce as any other woman listed today (she survived a tangle with The Hulk, after all), was played by a bona fide A-lister in Johansson, and to varying degrees, has been featured in the premiere films of the genre. Her physicality was unmatched by both men and women in the MCU, for despite the fact that she went into battle without an armored flying suit, magic shield, or freakish green mutation powers, she was never anywhere but right smack dab in the middle of the action. The mental equal of Tony Stark, a physical match of any spandex-sporting do-gooder, and an integral part of the narrative fabric of the MCU, right alongside Captain America or Thor, Black Widow really was without peer in her little world. In possession of Mystique’s moves, Tank Girl’s attitude, Catwoman’s superb fashion sense, and even Domino’s casual coolness, Black Widow was the best of all worlds when it came it female superheroes in film. Now, if she had some god-blood in her, like her buddy Thor or this next lady, she might have had a chance at snagging the top spot…

1. Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman from Wonder Woman

Well, what can a person say about Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)? She was the spawn of a god, could dodge bullets, withstand poison gas, and survived a fight that killed Superman, for Chistsakes. A bit naïve during her first trip off Themyscira, sure, but in Wonder Woman Diana quickly got up to speed with the way of the “modern” world and was single-handedly turning the tide in World War I battles in no time. Just as deadly with her bare-hands as she was with a sword or a shield, Diana also demonstrated that she had a keen mind as well as a warrior’s spirit. In her brief appearance in Batman vs. Superman, she outfoxed Batman (Ben Affleck), who in that world was supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, and later, during the Justice League film, she was the glue that held the team together. And while Gadot has only been in one good movie as the character, in that turn she was fabulous and the quality has rubbed off on the other appearances. Played by a magnificent actress in at least one film that was great, Wonder Woman had the skills to outshine everyone else listed today, and rightly sits atop this ranking of female superheroes in film.  

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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