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The rise of the female action hero

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From sidekick to to star, the female action lead has finally arrived

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Gal Gadot went from supermodel to Wonder Woman
Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Big budget action films of the 20th century were solely the domain of the classic alpha male, epitomized by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

People could point to outliers like Ripley, the protagonist of 1979’s Alien played by Sigourney Weaver, but Alien was a science-fiction horror, and Ripley slowly emerges out of an ensemble cast to become our sole survivor. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor evolves from a woman in peril in 1984’s Terminator to an active—and absolutely ripped—hero in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But even though she is the narrative voice of the film, she is still playing second fiddle to Arnold. 1997’s G.I. Jane, with Demi Moore, was perhaps the first attempt—albeit a halfhearted effort—to make a woman an A-list action hero. Audiences said no, but then, they weren’t given something to say yes to.

The 21st century brought on a rush of female heroes, but by-and-large the initial offerings were low on substance and high on sex appeal. Charlie’s Angels (2000), Lara Croft (2001), and Catwoman (2004) defined this new take on the female action hero. Angelina Jolie went on to make a career out of this concept, playing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), Wanted (2008), and Salt (2010). Salt, like G.I. Jane before it, amounted to a halfhearted effort to make a woman an action lead. While it boasted a 110 million dollar budget, Salt had originally been written for a man, and the resulting film never quite got off the ground.

The next decade, the 2010’s, would see the rise of a new kind of female hero—one much grittier, stronger, and less dependent upon sex appeal. In a sense, this era was something of a throwback to Ripley and Sarah Connor, but it also was inspired by current day developments. One of those developments being the dominance of Ronda Rousey from 2012 to 2016 and the establishment of the female fighter within pop culture. Although Laila Ali and others had done a lot for women’s boxing before Rousey, Rousey broke new ground in creating a new archetype for the female action hero.

Over the course of the decade, Hunger Games (2012), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) moved the primary female character from sidekick to front and center, although even Hunger Games leaned heavily upon an all star cast. Finally, in 2017, Gal Gadot carried a big budget tentpole action film almost solely on her shoulders—and succeeded. With a 120 million dollar budget and 821 million dollar box office, Wonder Woman demonstrated that a female action hero could carry the day.

2020 is poised to take that hypothesis and prove the theory. There are no less than four big budget action movies led by female action heroes this year.

1.) Wonder Woman 1984 - Everybody’s favorite Amazonian is back, bringing her lasso of truth and her bullet-deflecting bracelets with her. Original director Patty Jenkins is back at the helm.

Release date: June 5, 2020

2.) Mulan - Originally slated for a 2018 release, the martial arts-heavy live action version was stalled in part by a one year long search for a lead. Liu Yifei was chosen in large part because of her martial arts background, both in the dojo and on the screen. Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and Gong Li are in the supporting cast, but the weight of the 300 million dollar budget rests squarely on the slender shoulders of the 32-year-old Yifei.

Release date: March 27, 2020

3.) Black Widow - Scarlett Johansson gets her standalone Black Widow picture at last. With the action more along John Wick lines than the typical MCU fiesta of CGI, Black Widow might be a refreshing change for fans who aren’t used to practical effects. Its budget is rumored to be around 150 million, similar to the first Wonder Woman movie.

Release date: May 1, 2020

4.) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of the One Harley Quinn) - While this movie makes a point of being an ensemble piece, in truth it rides almost solely on its lead. It was produced by star Margot Robbie, who hired Christina Hodson to write the script and Cathy Yan to direct. Robbie pitched the project to Warner Bros. back in 2015, and has worked hard to have her vision come to fruition. It will be the first R rated movie in the DC extended universe.

Release date: February 7, 2020