Best women-led action movies

Published 5:30 pm Thursday, March 2, 2023


Best women-led action movies

Women in film are no longer relegated to background characters whose sole purpose lies in supporting and motivating their male counterparts.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the action movie space, with movies like “Kill Bill” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” putting women protagonists in starring roles and quite literally flipping the script on this traditionally male-dominated genre.

Women’s portrayals in action stories vary widely, from young adventurers and vengeance-seeking heroines to warriors and intergalactic freedom fighters—and, over the years, audiences are seeing more of them.

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In 2007, just 20% of characters in action movies were women. By 2019, there were 27.9%. A GLAAD study in 2021 found that of the 77 films the seven major studios released, only 20.8% included LGBTQ+ characters. These figures show that the film industry still has a long way to go regarding more inclusive on-screen representation.

Despite its shortcomings, Hollywood has taken steps toward more expansive storytelling. Stacker put together a list of the best women-led action movies to honor this progress in light of International Women’s Day on March 8. We compiled data on all women-led action movies and created a Stacker score representing a weighted index split evenly between IMDb and Metacritic scores. The film had to have an indisputable woman lead, classify as an action film on IMDb, have a Metascore, and have at least 5,000 votes to qualify. IMDb user votes broke ties.

The formula of women-led action movies works: Among the films on the forthcoming list are huge blockbusters, fan favorites, and inspiring tales offering audiences storylines in which women are more than only supporting characters.

Keep reading to discover the best women-led action movies of all time.

Madison Troyer contributed reporting for this story.

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Viola Davis ready marching to battle with a machete in a field of women.

TriStar Pictures

#25. The Woman King (2022)

– Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
– Stacker score: 83.24
– Metascore: 77
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Runtime: 135 minutes

Starring Hollywood powerhouse Viola Davis as the leader of the all-woman West African army of the kingdom of Dahomey, “The Woman King” melds historical drama with epic battle scenes with beautifully cinematic filmography. It’s also a rare film featuring a Black cast and a Black crew in key positions. The film is not without controversy, though: Historians noted the fictionalized characters inaccurately portrayed the warriors’ role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Natalie Portman with a shaved head.

Warner Bros.

#24. V for Vendetta (2005)

– Director: James McTeigue
– Stacker score: 83.24
– Metascore: 62
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Runtime: 132 minutes

“Remember, remember the fifth of November.” This Guy Fawkes-inspired film takes place in London under an oppressive government. A vigilante named V (Hugo Weaving) is determined to spark a rebellion. He gets help from Evey (Natalie Portman), who becomes his friend and partner against the government while staging a public protest. Evey plays a pivotal role in understanding V’s motivations and rallying people to fight for their freedoms.

A woman covered in dirt with tears in her eyes and a star earring.

M.E.S. Productions

#23. Revenge (2017)

– Director: Coralie Fargeat
– Stacker score: 83.82
– Metascore: 81
– IMDb user rating: 6.4
– Runtime: 108 minutes

Jen (Matilda Lutz) goes on a weekend getaway with her married boyfriend, ending with a brutal assault. Jen lives through the experience and aims to exact revenge on those who caused her unimaginable pain. The film’s small cast includes just a handful of actors, with Lutz as the sole woman and undisputed star.

Melissa McCarthy in all black pointing a gun in a parking garage.

Twentieth Century Fox

#22. Spy (2015)

– Director: Paul Feig
– Stacker score: 83.82
– Metascore: 75
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Runtime: 120 minutes

CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally gets out from behind the desk when her lead agent (Jude Law) falls off the grid. Cooper must take matters into her own hands; her revenge mission leads her on an action-packed journey of comedy, vengeance, and self-discovery as she tracks down a dangerous stolen device.

An animation of a woman riding a shelled creature in a jungle with a horse-shaped cloud in the background.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

#21. Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

– Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa
– Stacker score: 84.97
– Metascore: 74
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Runtime: 107 minutes

Though the animated film disappointed at the box office because of its method and timing of the release, “Raya and the Last Dragon” brought a breath of fresh air to the Disney movie slate. It introduced audiences to Kumandra, a world inspired by Southeast Asian mythology and imagery where powerful women lead as a matter of course. The tale centers around Raya, a warrior on a quest to track down the last dragon and save her world. With her are other strong female characters, including Sisu, the last female dragon, and Namaari, a nemesis-turned-ally.

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An animation of a woman warrior on a horse.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

#20. Mulan (1998)

– Directors: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
– Stacker score: 84.97
– Metascore: 71
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Runtime: 87 minutes

The story of Mulan, now done by Disney twice, is familiar: The titular character takes her sick father’s place in the Chinese military by pretending to be a man. A departure from the typical damsel in distress Disney princess, the animated “Mulan” was progressive for its time. Through Mulan’s switching into stereotypically masculine gender roles, while previously failing at meeting her traditionally feminine duties, the film also makes a commentary on gender identity that’s easy to miss.

A woman hugging a giant creature.

Kate Street Picture Company

#19. Okja (2017)

– Director: Bong Joon Ho
– Stacker score: 85.55
– Metascore: 75
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Runtime: 120 minutes

Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) is a South Korean girl who lives on a farm with her specially bred “super pig,” Okja. But when a corporation takes Okja away to the U.S. for its own materialistic reasons, the pig’s beloved friend must go on an epic rescue mission to save him. The Netflix action film also stars Tilda Swinton as the CEO of the antagonistic company.

A frightened woman looking up a ladder.

Paramount Pictures

#18. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

– Director: Dan Trachtenberg
– Stacker score: 85.55
– Metascore: 76
– IMDb user rating: 7.2
– Runtime: 103 minutes

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a bunker after a car accident. Her captor (John Goodman) convinces her the outside air is compromised and will kill them. Michelle becomes suspicious of his behavior and eventually discovers the facts for herself. Her race for the truth and freedom drives this intense drama.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.

Warner Bros.

#17. Wonder Woman (2017)

– Director: Patty Jenkins
– Stacker score: 86.71
– Metascore: 76
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Runtime: 141 minutes

This DC Comics film follows the journey of Diana (Gal Gadot), an Amazonian princess who leaves her secluded, all-women island home to stop an ongoing battle during World War I. Diana’s journey toward discovering the truth about herself and claiming her status as Wonder Woman unlocks her otherworldly powers.

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutherson and Woody Harrelson walking in a line in between soldiers.

Color Force

#16. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

– Director: Francis Lawrence
– Stacker score: 87.28
– Metascore: 76
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Runtime: 146 minutes

Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss Everdeen, the winner of the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Katniss and her co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) go on a winner’s tour but soon realize an uprising is brewing among the districts. Later, another round of deadly games starts with terrible new rules.

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Uma Thurman holding a sword in a yellow and black jumpsuit.


#15. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

– Director: Quentin Tarantino
– Stacker score: 87.28
– Metascore: 69
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Runtime: 111 minutes

The Bride (Uma Thurman) is a former assassin who wakes up from a four-year coma, aiming to get revenge against her ex-lover and anyone who contributed to her mounting losses. The Bride sets on her path and meets nearly impossible enemies along the way. The original film was nearly four hours long, hence its release as two volumes.

Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo all dressed in dark colors standing in a warehouse.

New Regency Productions

#14. Widows (2018)

– Director: Steve McQueen
– Stacker score: 87.86
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 6.8
– Runtime: 129 minutes

A heist thriller starring an ensemble cast of four women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo) finds its power in what other thrillers don’t deliver. “Widows” lets viewers into the lives of its main characters as they deal with relatable, everyday problems. From race and gender to childcare issues, and domestic violence, the women’s backstories add value without over-sentimentalizing.

Naomi Watts Jack Black and Adrien Brody in a cave hiding from King Kong.

Universal Pictures

#13. King Kong (2005)

– Director: Peter Jackson
– Stacker score: 88.44
– Metascore: 81
– IMDb user rating: 7.2
– Runtime: 187 minutes

The infamous giant gorilla King Kong returns in this remake of the original 1933 film. Kong takes an actor (Naomi Watts) during a movie shoot on Skull Island. Her co-workers launch a rescue mission, battling dangerous animals and elements, while she attempts to ensure her survival by forging a bond with the massive gorilla.

Daisy Ridley flying a space ship with a furry creature as the co-pilot.

Walt Disney Pictures

#12. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

– Director: Rian Johnson
– Stacker score: 88.44
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 6.9
– Runtime: 152 minutes

“Star Wars: Episode VIII,” better known as “The Last Jedi,” stars Daisy Ridley as Rey, a woman who shows signs of the Force and seeks out Luke Skywalker for guidance. Rey hopes to hone her skills to aid the Resistance, including General Leia Organa, Poe Dameron, and Finn, in a fight against Kylo Ren. The film is the penultimate installment in the decades-long “Skywalker Saga.”

Franka Potente with bright red hair talking on a red phone.

X-Filme Creative Pool

#11. Run Lola Run (1998)

– Director: Tom Tykwer
– Stacker score: 89.02
– Metascore: 77
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Runtime: 80 minutes

“Run Lola Run” is fun and energetic, as an action movie should be. A character in trouble with some dangerous people calls the only person he knows can help—a plot not unlike many others. Now, add nonlinear scenes, three different versions of the story, and the fact that the person charged with saving the day is the character-in-trouble’s girlfriend, and you have the experimental film, “Run Lola Run.”

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An animation of a man and a woman standing in front of a tall building.


#10. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

– Director: Mamoru Oshii
– Stacker score: 89.60
– Metascore: 76
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Runtime: 83 minutes

This animated film follows Motoko Kusanagi (voiced by Mimi Woods), a cyborg agent tracking a villain called “The Puppet Master” who hacks into the minds of cyborg humans. Motoko’s quest puts her in a vulnerable place because of her target’s ability to alter strangers, and she begins to think about her own identity and what her life could be like if she were more human. “Ghost in the Shell” takes place in 2029 and heavily influenced the Wachowski sisters, who went on to make “The Matrix” trilogy.

A woman in a kimono holding an umbrella and a weapon.

Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd.

#9. Lady Snowblood (1973)

– Director: Toshiya Fujita
– Stacker score: 90.17
– Metascore: 80
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Runtime: 97 minutes

Yuki aka Lady Snowblood (Meiko Kaji) seeks to avenge her family after their brutal assaults and murder. Born in prison for a single vengeful purpose, Yuki is trained from birth to impose wrath against those who have wronged her mother. The Japanese film inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”

Emily Blunt and Victor Garber walk in a line of men in all black.


#8. Sicario (2015)

– Director: Denis Villeneuve
– Stacker score: 91.33
– Metascore: 82
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Runtime: 121 minutes

Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent leading an Arizona raid against a Mexican cartel. Macer and her fellow agents enlist an operative to help them take down this collective in a mission that only worsens after a leader’s daughter is kidnapped. Now, the team must race to protect the girl’s life and reveal what’s happening beneath the surface in this high-stakes situation.

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley running from an explosion.


#7. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

– Director: J.J. Abrams
– Stacker score: 91.33
– Metascore: 80
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Runtime: 138 minutes

Popularly known as “The Force Awakens,” this film introduces Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger and orphan connected to the Force. Rey is loyal, determined, and optimistic, ready to aid the Resistance in their continual fight for freedom. Rey becomes a new leader in the Star Wars saga, although mainstays like Luke Skywalker and Leia also play roles in the narrative.

An animation of a young woman standing next to a giant wolf.

DENTSU Music and Entertainment

#6. Princess Mononoke (1997)

– Director: Hayao Miyazaki
– Stacker score: 92.49
– Metascore: 76
– IMDb user rating: 8.4
– Runtime: 134 minutes

San, a young woman raised by wolves, and the wolf goddess Moro work with a young warrior to come to an agreement. Their choices affect a world where animals, humans, and spirits are at war because of humans’ overconsumption of resources. “Princess Mononoke” delivers commentary on the dangers and consequences of capitalism.

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Michelle Yeoh with blood on her face and a plastic eye on her forehead.


#5. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

– Directors: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
– Stacker score: 93.06
– Metascore: 81
– IMDb user rating: 8.0
– Runtime: 139 minutes

After decades of leading roles in Hong Kong action movies, Michelle Yeoh shines with her unique combination of acting, comedic, and martial arts skills in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Her award-winning performance as laundromat owner and accidental superhero Evelyn elevates the extraordinary work of mothers, homemakers, and immigrants, who all harbor a superhero side in their everyday lives. Stephanie Hsu’s performance as the villain and Evelyn’s queer daughter struggling for acceptance adds another fascinating dimension to this action-packed sci-fi adventure.

Uma Thurman driving a classic convertible with her hair blowing in the wind.


#4. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

– Director: Quentin Tarantino
– Stacker score: 94.22
– Metascore: 83
– IMDb user rating: 8.0
– Runtime: 137 minutes

Uma Thurman returns as The Bride, continuing her quest to finish off a hit list of people who have done her wrong. She tracks down her ex-boyfriend, Bill, who tried to kill her at her wedding years ago, and aims to finish what she started in the previous installment. While the previous film doesn’t reveal the real name of The Bride, this sequel lets the secret out, with a character calling her Beatrix Kiddo.

Linda Hamilton.

Cinema ’84

#3. The Terminator (1984)

– Director: James Cameron
– Stacker score: 95.38
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Runtime: 107 minutes

This classic action film features Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) caught in the crosshairs of a futuristic humanoid cyborg trying to kill her. Sarah must discover why she’s being targeted and survive against an unkillable foe. The threats of a nuclear holocaust, artificial intelligence, and ’80s flair bring this fast-paced story together.

Sigourney Weaver holding a large gun.

Twentieth Century Fox

#2. Aliens (1986)

– Director: James Cameron
– Stacker score: 97.11
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 8.4
– Runtime: 137 minutes

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been stuck in space for 57 years in an escape shuttle. Her original crew is long dead after an alien attack, but Ripley is alive and concerned about a new colony where alien eggs have been found. Ripley meets an abandoned girl, Newt (Carrie Henn), in the colony and takes on a motherly role to defend her from the existing alien threat.

Ziyi Zhang holding a sword.

Asia Union Film & Entertainment Ltd.

#1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

– Director: Ang Lee
– Stacker score: 100
– Metascore: 94
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Runtime: 120 minutes

This wuxia film set during the Qing Dynasty follows three protagonists: Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-at), Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi). Their stories intertwine as they seek freedom for a more unrestrained life, reconcile with love, and eventually find themselves caught in the crosshairs of battle. The film would become the highest-grossing non-English language film in the U.S. It has been remastered and released in 4K in 2023.

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