So, back in August I did a post talking about the women of the Marvel Studios Films, doing that made
me think I wanted to talk about all the superheroine film performances I’ve loved. Then a few months ago we did a whole post trying to figure out how to define a superhero. It ended up being a really interesting discussion (one in which by some miracle everyone was really well behaved! Miracles! They do happen!). However, the end result was that it became increasingly clear that everyone has a different view of these things and as such I would never satisfy everyone’s definition since such a thing didn’t exist. So I'm just going to choose to satisfy only my own criteria and everyone has to deal with that.
I was originally going to do a best 50 but while there are well over 50 roles of note, there weren’t really 50 I felt passionate about and wanted to discuss, even cutting down to the top 25 I found I was talking more about the problems I had with the roles/performances than the things that I loved, and since I intended this to be largely a positive post, I cut the list down again to a Top 10. And that was the sweet spot where I felt a horrible yearning for a few that had to be left off and could speak with real love about the roles on the list.
There’s probably a lesson here to be learned…something very simple like…we need more superheroines (by many definitions) on film because there should be way way way more than 10 or even 20 that I want to talk passionately about instead of talk critically about or say yes XYZ about the role are great but man did they screw up ABC. When it comes to male superhero roles in film I haven’t put as much thought into it but I’d wager I can get to 20 with ease and with few “negative things to say” and probably even without using my preferred criteria (which broadens the list dramatically). Anyway, food for thought. Hopefully in the coming years this list will change significantly as we get Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, more of those women already on the list like Black Widow and hopefully many other new and classic women heroes brought to film besides. All that said, the list is PAINFULLY white -- as in 100% -- which is mostly my responsibility/downfall since it's my list, but to be honest, the non-white major roles were so few and far between it was ridiculous. We gotta change this, guys.
So here’s my highly subjective Top 10, but if you want to check out more amazing superheroines (and action heroines) on film I urge you to check out this fine list at io9 which is not “wholly complete” but is a really great starting place if you like action heroines on film.
Here are the guidelines I’ve decided to use for this piece, and while you’re welcome to discuss them in the comments, let’s evaluate my totally subjective list using this criteria, okay?
Oh, and a shout out to commenters Greg, John King, and Dean for ultimately coming up with especially great suggestions that helped me decide on my parameters and format. Oh, and I only considered live-action, not animated as the comparisons aren't really fair using both.
A superhero must have at least two of the following three characteristics:
- Powers: superpowers, but that can include enhanced abilities - including tech. (think Iron Man)
- Identity: distinctive codename alias and/or clearly defined costume/uniform.
- Mission: some kind of clear mission, which can be heroic, social, or personal, but does not have to be.
So, for example: Buffy (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) qualifies as she meets numbers one and three; Black Widow (Avengers) qualifies as she (at least) meets numbers two and three; Rita “Full Metal Bitch” Vrataski (Edge of Tomorrow) meets numbers one and three (and probably even #2 depending on your personal view of her uniform and nickname); Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman) meets all three; and Ripley…oh my beloved Ripley…she’s right on the line. In all four films she wears a distinctive uniform that could qualify as a costume, in Aliens she uses tech that might qualify her for powers and in Alien Resurrection she has legitimate super human powers, and in all the films she has a clear mission and even destiny. More than anything, for a young (and old) Kelly Thompson she was such a hero and idol that it’s impossible not to think of her as a superhero. So I’m giving it to her. And guess where she’s gonna place? That’s right kids. Right at the top.
Let’s start at the bottom though, with #10…
01. LIZ SHERMAN
Selma Blair in Hellboy and Hellboy II: Golden Army
Before we talk about Sherman (sorry, Liz) this is probably the place to note that I was dramatically frustrated that I couldn’t put Peggy Carter/Agent Carter on the list. She’s the one woman that I found I really wanted to talk about and could not simply because her most significant work was on TV and not film. I wasn’t sure where to qualify her DVD Short either, if I’d included that maybe it would have edged her onto the list? But since it wasn’t in theaters, it didn’t feel fair to include. So Peggy Carter is our unofficial #11 I suppose).
Onward to, Liz!
Liz Sherman in the two Hellboy films plays supporting role, “straight man,” and the love interest, all of which can be death knells on their own and which combined together do not necessarily make for a compelling character, and yet Selma Blair makes it all work. While Hellboy gets all the jokes and Liz gets the tragic tortured past which can often feel cliché, in the first film Blair takes a decidedly low key approach and instead of trying to draw attention to herself, almost caves inward, which ends up feeling far more interesting. Liz is someone that does not want her gifts or the responsibilities that come with them and while we meet her at a time when she’s trying to run away, to escape it all, she never feels like a whiner or a quitter and Blair’s choices give Liz a deep tranquil center, as well as a moral core for her team that fits well within their framework and also distinguishes her from the pack. It helps that the script and story also happen to give Liz REAL power, in some ways she’s the most powerful member of the team, and a truly necessary part, and that helps create additional layers, agency, and importance.
In the second movie she feels very different (including an awesome new asymmetrical hair cut – yay for great haircuts!) and like the character has really and truly evolved between movies. The work was mostly off screen but the results of those off screen changes are powerful and again, interesting now that we are meeting her again, a different version of herself. She's more capable, more centered, even more powerful, and largely has come to terms with who she is, what she is, and who she loves. And it's kinda beautiful. It’s one of many ways in which the writers and directors, and especially Blair make Liz feel so real and human – she changes just like real people do. For good and ill, and in the interesting ways that make a life worth learning about, worth watching on screen.
Anna Paquin in X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men The Last Stand, and (eventually) X-Men Days of Future Past
I’m sure many of you are surprised to find Rogue, who is sort of a lesser female lead in the X-Franchise placing in the top ten. Since her debut in X-Men where she was arguably the co-lead she has gotten far less screen time than most other X-Ladies including Mystique, Jean Grey, and perhaps even Storm and Kitty Pryde given the fact that she was cut from the theatrical version of X-Men DOFP. Despite the pushing of Rogue to the background since the first film, she definitely remains my favorite interpretation of the X-Women I love on the big screen. It helps her case that in truth I don’t love a lot of the other interpretations we’ve gotten so far, but Rogue in X-Men and even her reduced role in X2 were nearly perfect to me.
Rogue, along with Cass Cain and Wonder Woman usually ranks up among my very favorite comic book superheroines and so it was with huge excitement and more than a little anxiety that I walked into X-Men all those years ago. And though I will always be sad we didn’t get the more powered up version of Rogue I had come to know and love, I fell in love with this version too. Paquin struck just the right cord, finding the softness in Rogue and also the hard edges. A young interpretation of the character, Paquin played her perfectly, vulnerable and searching, but also determined and good. It’s a performance that stood out for a character when my hopes were impossibly high. A success by any measure.
She's been given less and less to do as the series has gone on, which is a real shame, and a reality that has hampered the growth of the character over time, but I still love what we got. And I hold out hope (desperate and unlikely though it may be) that a Channing Tatum Gambit movie will bring back a powered more adult Paquin and the saucy high-tension romance that 16-year-old Kelly has been dreaming of seeing on film ever since 1992. My script is ready, Hollywood, you have my contact info! :)
08. PEPPER POTTS
Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Avengers, and Iron Man 3
Pepper Potts gets on the list for hanging in there and showing real evolution as a character (and through a technicality of having superpowers in IM3). Sure Potts also has the benefit of four movies, more than any other female character on our list but she was a supporting role at best, and she easily could have fallen (from the start, or over time) into the token lady (and worse) damsel role, and she never does. She’s smart and bright and her presence on the screen is electric and funny while her chemistry with Tony Stark is magnificent. Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect Iron Man, but he’s never better than when he’s tete-a-tete-ing with Paltrow. They are simply magic together.
But four movies means nothing if you don’t let a character grow and Potts grows beautifully and realistically, from brilliant smart-mouthed assistant and potential love interest in Iron Man to brilliant smart-mouthed CEO of Stark Industries and actual love interest in Iron Man 2, to fully realized partner in love and business in The Avengers, to all of that plus temporary damsel in distress, and then full blown superpowered badass that actually takes down the big bad in Iron Man 3.
Iron Man 3 gets a lot of criticism, some of which I agree with, but it also gets A TON right and one of those things is that it’s actually a pretty feminist film. Ultimately Tony Stark fails to rescue Potts who then rescues herself and also saves Tony – it’s wonderfully on point and shockingly subversive when you step back to think about it. Though Tony has been all kinds of heroic, at the end of the day in IM3, when it’s time to kill the big bad, it’s Pepper who actually manages to get it done. And she’s magnificent. When I watch Iron Man 3, other flaws be damned, I find myself shocked that Shane Black and company got away with such a feminist ending and I love it. It’s the kind of ending that levels Pepper Potts up as a character and cements her place on this list…at least for now!
07. SELINA KYLE aka CATWOMAN
Anne Hathaway in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises
The only problem I've got with Hathaway's Selina Kyle is that she's only in the final Nolan film. If only we had gotten her in two films...or even three (give me a break, I'm greedy). Though Nolan's films are too often overflowing with too many characters, I would trade any of them (except perhaps Batman, Joker, or Gordon) for more Selina. Nolan and Hathaway's interpretation for Selina is right on point. Complex and wonderfully layered, she's a character that knows exactly who she is, even when she's questioning everything, and that is SO VERY RIGHT for Selina Kyle. It's too easy with sexy anti-heroes to make them into sultry cliches or scene chewing villainesses, but Hathaway plays Kyle just right. She sees that hard center of Catwoman -- the thing that both marks her as magnificent and also damaged just owns it.
Catwoman is one of the most layered characters in the Gotham universe (which is saying a lot) and we get all that on screen in The Dark Knight Rises and even with its overlong run time and too many characters, I never feel like I've had enough of Hathaway and Nolan's Selina Kyle. The complexity that Dark Knight Rises managed with Catwoman from her sexy smarts and sleek fighting style o her philosophies and political statements was simply dead on. She commanded attention in every scene she was in and they found that perfect blend of absolutely moral, so long as it’s her very specific brand of morals.
The performance left me ACHING for a standalone Catwoman movie. And after Berry's Catwoman some 10+ years ago I honestly never thought I'd say such a thing again. Great stuff.
06. JUDGE ANDERSON
Olivia Thirlby in Dredd
Easily missed among these other more successful big superhero-ish action films of the last few years, Dredd was a shockingly good comic book movie, and one deserving of far more praise and attention than it received. One of the many reasons this R-Rated super violent, gory, dark, and smart film deserved praise was its writing of Judge Anderson, and her portrayal by the wonderfully talented Olivia Thirlby.
In Dredd, Anderson is a naïve rookie Judge, one under intense performance pressure if she wants to make the cut, but she never lets that get in the way of doing what’s right. Trapped in Peach Trees – a massive residential apartment complex run by a drug lord – with Judge Dredd, Anderson uses all her skills – those she was taught as a Judge in training and the one she was born with – psychic powers – not fancy superhero-y ones but a more subtle version. As the moral center of Dredd, Anderson has a tender spot for the people of Peach Trees, having grown up (and been spit out) by a similar situation. But rather than becoming bitter or despising the people and system that basically tried to kill her at every opportunity growing up, she tries to help them, no matter what it costs her. Though a vastly different character than the devastatingly tough Judge Dredd, Anderson has her own kind of steel and Thirlby taps into with astonishing power.
Thirlby brings real complexity and humanity to the role. She’s powerful and emotionally available with beautiful layers that are both fragile and indestructible. To be honest, it’s hard to take your eyes off her, even at 5’3” she just commands the screen. Good good stuff.