If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs, you might know by now that I love action films. Recently there has been some talk about female-led films, particularly action/adventure types of movies, and there are some that think a female action star is doomed to fail. Is it sexism? Misogyny? Or is there some truth to these naysayers? Let’s take a look at some of the action films starring women and see for ourselves.
I would like to get one thing out of the way first. Those who are against a female action star, for instance those who don’t think a standalone Black Widow movie from Marvel Studios would sell, tend to bring up failed movies. "Remember how terrible Catwoman was? That is EXACTLY how bad a Black Widow movie would be!" No, it wouldn’t. Why would anyone think that? Yes, there have been plenty of failed female-led films, both financially and critically. But there have been countless failed male-led movies too.
Batman & Robin was atrocious. Even as a kid I couldn’t get into it. But you don’t hear people saying Doctor Strange will be bad because Batman & Robin was. Saying that makes just as much sense as saying a Black Widow movie, or any other female-driven picture, will be bad because of some unrelated movie that failed. A terrible movie fails for many reasons: bad writing, incompetent directing, poor editing, wooden acting, dated special effects, or all of the above. But I have never seen a movie that was bad simply because the gender of the lead didn’t work for me.
None of this is even taking into account all of the successful action films starring women. Aliens is arguably one of the best sci-fi action movies ever made. It followed Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor (not counting the cat) of the first movie. She didn’t play a helpless damsel, or a sidekick, nor was she a well-trained badass. She was a fairly average woman thrust into a fight for her life, forcing her to use her brains, experience, and courage to adapt. She survived where the arrogant Marines failed and then went toe-to-toe, or more like claw to mechanical boot, with the giant alien Queen.
In 1990, we received the wonderful French action thriller La Femme Nikita, which followed a convicted felon on her journey to becoming a government-sanctioned black ops assassin. Nikita was tough, smart and flawed like any well-crafted character. This film was so successful and popular that it spawned a Chinese remake titled Hei mao (1991), a U.S. remake in Point of No Return (1993), and two separate fairly successful TV shows that ran for four and five seasons respectively.
Another big one was Kill Bill starring Uma Thurman as The Bride/Beatrix, a trained assassin on a quest for bloody, violent vengeance. This film gave us a capable, highly trained badass as she took down one assassin after another. The Kill Bill films quickly became popular and successful, and given the over-the-top action inspired by ‘80s and ‘90s martial arts movies, they sometimes felt like violent comic book movies. There were no questions over whether a woman is right for these kinds of roles and no debate about how a male star would sell better. All three of those films, and plenty more, have gone on to become classics in their own right.
Over the past year or so, there has been slightly more “controversy” regarding some of the female-led movies. I am, of course, referring to Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, both of which feature female stars in pre-existing franchises where men traditionally held the role of the primary protagonist. This has resulted in a small portion of guys taking to the internet to complain about the films’ perceived sexism towards men.
It started with Fury Road, where Charlize Theron performed wonderfully as Furiosa, the protagonist and more defined hero, as the titular Max (Tom Hardy) took on a more silent, grunting role. This sent small groups of men into a frenzy, something I thought was just a joke at the time. I didn’t believe people actually thought this was some anti-male conspiracy. Fury Road gave us a fun, energetic, and violent action film - so who cares what gender the protagonist is? Her acting was great and the movie was fun. What else could you ask for?
Then The Force Awakens came around, giving us a woman and a black man as the two main leads, with the main villains being white men. That did not sit well with the supposed same portion of guys. They cried foul and were unhappy that they were not being represented as lead heroes. Clearly a majority of the world disagreed as The Force Awakens shattered box office records left and right. For me personally, I thought Rey was the breakout character of the film; she was fun, independent, and tough. But some thought she was too much, so they were offended by the overt way in which she was depicted as not needing a man’s help. I didn’t see the problem. I loved it.
The outcry only seemed to worsen once the trailer for the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was released, featuring another female protagonist as the focus. This stirred up the crazy even further in this tiny group of guys, who were now pissed that the Star Wars franchise has TWO female-led movies in a row. Who cares that the first six films featured two men as the primary protagonists? They want more white men to get their chance to star in movies! Boy I wish there was a sarcasm font.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that you must love every action movie with a female star. That would make as much sense as saying you should love every action movie starring Bruce Willis. This also doesn’t mean that if you don’t like one of these movies, you’re automatically sexist. Some people have different tastes and may dislike otherwise popular films for a variety of unrelated reasons. I merely wish for people to stop considering it an automatic negative if a movie features a female lead, and instead focus on the story, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, score, or any other aspect of a film that actually matters.
There is nothing wrong with having male leads in films, but there is also nothing wrong with having female leads, regardless of the genre. There have been plenty of successful and great movies across all genres that have featured both genders as the stars, just as there have been more than enough bad films to go around. We should not be looking at the increased gender diversity in any given film as a negative, but rather support it as women are just as capable of giving us great film experiences and they should be given more chances to do so.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.