This fall sees the premiere of two highly anticipated female-centric superhero shows, the feminist-leaning Supergirl (which flew onto CBS last week with stellar ratings) and the sexually nuanced Marvel’s Jessica Jones (November 20, Netflix). The sad truth is, one of the reasons they’re both such welcome additions to fall’s new lineup stems from the tired yet irrefutable fact that the number of robust women superheroes anchoring onscreen plotlines remains criminally low. But, it’s not totally hopeless — there has been a small handful of fabulous, forceful portrayals that paved the way for Melissa Benoist’s Kara Zor-El and Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones, who in a perfect world will usher in even more nuanced heroines.
Over the nearly 50 years’ worth of TV and movies covered here, female superheroes have fought an ongoing battle against one-dimensional representation, lack of backstory, underdeveloped personae, and relegation to eye-candy status. As these women have knocked down barrier after barrier (both literally and figuratively), they’ve kicked the damsel-in-distress label to the curb in favor of more complex portrayals. At the same time, these added facets bring out a real humanity in characters who for decades were just supposed to take down the bad guy without any acknowledgment of the psychological damage that might accompany that. With this level of empowerment and growing equality comes a new layer of purpose, especially if the character in question is the protagonist in her own show or film.
The metric for this list is a fluid one, as the characters and their depictions are so vastly different, not everyone can be held to the same exact standard (after all, some are across one to four movies, others across seasons and seasons of TV). This is especially true in cases where the superheroes themselves are victims of poor development by their original creators in comic-book form, or simply intended to be female counterparts to existing male characters. Needless to say, it’s about as complicated as Buffy and Angel’s whole thing. Generally, however, rankings are based on the complexity of the character (Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Mystique, for example, turned the X-Men villain into someone sympathetic), the level of range and charisma in each actress’s performance, whether the portrayal can be considered groundbreaking and/or progressive, and the superhero’s level of importance to the story at hand. Because there are so few exemplary portrayals of female superheroes, you’ll find that the lowest-ranking characters here are plenty flawed — and so we’re quite critical of them. (You don’t wanna see the ones who didn’t make the list.) “Best” is a bit of a misnomer when there’s so much room for improvement.
25. Anna Paquin as Marie D’Ancanto/Rogue
As seen in: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Anna Paquin is more than capable of portraying a supernatural being who can carry a project for seven seasons straight (see: True Blood), but unfortunately for the Oscar-winning actress, her stint in the X-Men films had her all-powerful comic-book character reduced to a distressed damsel who needed to be periodically rescued by Hugh Jackman’s alpha male Wolverine. This has more to do with the overall treatment of women in the X-Men movies than Paquin’s performance, as Rogue is stuck in overused love-triangle subplots more than ones pertaining to saving the world. The majority of her screen time tends to show Rogue either struggling to understand her powers or making the decision to eliminate them altogether. By the time she’s learned to control how she absorbs the life force of anyone she touches, Rogue has barely logged in any hours as an X-Men member before she’s exchanging her leather suit for a mutant “cure.” However, in a faint glimmer of hope for the character, she appears in the hallways of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters after Wolverine has rewritten history in Days of Future Past, presumably still in possession of her abilities.
24. Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl
As seen in: Batman and Robin (1997)
There is very little to applaud about Joel Schumacher’s embarrassment of a film Batman and Robin, but it has to be commended for finally getting around to including Batgirl in the franchise. Alicia Silverstone’s performance isn’t much to write home about, as she comes off as a restless crime-fighter wannabe looking for a little fun while Batman and Robin did most of the work. Still, it was cool to see her character updated from a good-girl librarian to a leather-jacketed computer-science whiz who got kicked out of a prestigious university for racing motorcycles. Silverstone’s Barbara/Batgirl also gets points for wanting to relieve her uncle Alfred Pennyworth from his “dismal life of servitude,” and for providing us with the movie’s only girl fight (with Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy).
23. Kristy Swanson as Buffy Summers
As seen in: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Kristy Swanson will always be credited for bringing Buffy Summers into our lives, but we wouldn’t witness the Slayer as she was truly meant to be until five years after the movie debuted. Swanson’s wooden (pun intended) take on the role, which was due to Joss Whedon’s original script being turned into a vampire satire, had Buffy as a whiny Valley Girl who ended up playing comedic second fiddle to supporting co-stars. Who could forget future two-time Academy Award–winner Hilary Swank sneering, “Get out of my facial!” It’s one thing to laugh at SoCal stereotypes like Swank’s character, but Swanson’s Buffy was just as shallow, making it impossible to connect to someone who was supposed to be a hero and a role model.
22. Helen Slater as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl
As seen in: Supergirl (1984)
Supergirl, like Batgirl, has had a tricky history, as her foundation is little more than just a female version of Superman. But that doesn’t mean she deserves to be portrayed with as little respect as she was in the utter garbage that was the Supergirl movie 31 years ago. The problem with the film, which the CBS series seems to have rectified, is that Helen Slater’s Kara/Supergirl was completely unrelatable to anyone she interacted with on Earth. That’s because Supe’s cousin crash-landed when she was a fully formed adult, and had zero experience with mortal behavior (the new TV show has Kara growing up with a human foster family). So aside from the fact that Slater’s Supergirl was the weakest Kryptonian on record, barely able to overpower Faye Dunaway’s mail-order witchcraft, she also made for a pretty lame fake teenager. Why Lucy Lane kept wanting to hang out with someone as boring as Linda Lee (Kara’s on-Earth alias) is beyond me.
21. Jessica Alba as Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman
As seen in: Fantastic Four (2005), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Who cares that Sue Storm was a brilliant genetics researcher? Her sole mission in both the 2005 Fantastic Four movie and its sequel seemed to be figuring out her relationship with Ioan Gruffudd’s Mr. Fantastic — and finding the time in between saving the world to get married. Not much of an inspiration for burgeoning female scientists, to be sure. (It’s also not a good sign when the most memorable thing about those movies was Kerry Washington’s blind-artist character, Alicia Masters.) Maybe this counts for half a point: Like Halle Berry, Jessica Alba is the rare actress to have played not one but two superheroes in her career.
20. Jennifer Garner as Elektra Natchios
As seen in: Daredevil (2003), Elektra (2005)
Jennifer Garner’s Elektra Natchios got a raw deal: She witnessed both her parents’ murders, and was killed herself in Daredevil. But not even the rare gifts of a resurrection and her own movie could rescue Garner’s onscreen version of this skilled, red-bustier-garbed assassin-for-hire. Regardless of your feelings about the character, it’s difficult to take the Garner performance seriously when she’s subjected to an out-of-control wind machine pointed directly at her inexplicably long locks in this scene. Let’s hope that when Elodie Yung takes over the role in the second season of Netflix’s already-great Daredevil series next year, Elektra will get the deference she deserves.
19. Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde
As seen in: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Ellen Page’s performance is in no way the issue here when it comes to how the X-Men films made Kitty Pryde, an incredibly important and powerful character in the comic books, an afterthought. First, she was demoted to Rogue’s rival for Iceman’s affections in X-Men: The Last Stand (never mind that she could, I don’t know, walk through walls?). Then, in last year’s Days of Future Past, she was upgraded to the technically critical role of enabling Wolverine’s 21st-century brain to enter his 1973 body. But most people don’t remember that it was Page’s Kitty who was responsible for changing history because she was stuck in a dystopian future with her hands next to Hugh Jackman’s temples the whole time. It was the menfolk, like James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr, who did all the heavy lifting and swaggering in wide-collared paisley shirts.
18. Halle Berry as Patience Phillips/Catwoman
As seen in: Catwoman (2004)
There are many, many things wrong with both this movie and Halle Berry’s performance. However, much as it may pain comic-book purists to hear this, credit must be paid to Catwoman and its creation of the brand-new character Patience Phillips for a number of reasons. First off, it is the only onscreen incarnation of the villainous Catwoman that makes her an actual superhero (or super-antihero). She has real powers for once (speed, agility, heightened senses, an Eartha Kitt–inspired purr), and after a short-lived stint as a cat burglar, this is the first time we’ve seen Catwoman seeking justice for those who have been wronged. She may do so in a mischievous manner, but ultimately, you really wanted someone like Patience’s Catwoman for a best friend (Alex Borstein’s Beau’s-lines-affected Sally hit the jackpot there). Also, while Berry’s Patience was way more flat than multidimensional, it was still inspiring to watch her go from meek wallflower to a self-possessed, leather-suited badass.
17. Laura Vandervoort as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl
As seen in: Smallville (2007–2011)
Laura Vandervoort’s portrayal of Kara Zor-El in the CW series was always pretty solid, and it was a significant improvement over Helen Slater’s feeble turn in Supergirl. On Smallville, Clark Kent had to learn how to fly from his female cousin. Burn. Vandervoort’s Kara was cool and unafraid to use her otherworldly powers, unlike the series’ hesitant protagonist. This version of Kara still remained aloof from most other humans because, like in the film, she hasn’t spent much time on Earth. However, it was Vandervoort’s assertive, self-assured approach to the character that heightened Kara’s appeal. But, as is the case with too many female superheroes onscreen, Smallville was still Superman’s joint, not Supergirl’s, and Kara was never more than a supporting player.
16. Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch
As seen in: Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015)
She is the first official female Avenger with superpowers, and the second female member of the team (in the movies). These criteria automatically put Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch onto the list because they are important weapons in the ongoing fight against male dominance in the Marvel cinematic universe. Olsen’s portrayal also has helped to usher in a new wave of complex female superheroes onscreen, as Wanda experiences extraordinary losses in Age of Ultron — the death of her twin brother; the destruction of her homeland — yet she finds an inner strength to not collapse under the pressure, and she ultimately flips sides to join the Avengers.
15. Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl
As seen in: Batman (1967–1968)
Batgirl’s late-in-the-game arrival on the campy Batman series during its final season was a good idea in theory, but it was hard to cheer for Yvonne Craig’s super-smart librarian character when her foil, Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, was a lot more fun to watch. Mostly, it was infuriating to see such a brainy female superhero relegated to sidekick afterthought. Also not helping Batgirl’s credibility was her ride: a lavender motorcycle that had a giant ruffle adorning the front and a frilly bow on the back. But don’t count Craig’s Batgirl out entirely: She was able to make much more of an impact a few years after Batman went off the air in this great wage-equality PSA, featuring Burt “Holy Act of Congress!” Ward reprising his Robin role.
14. Rebecca Romijn as Raven Darkholme/Mystique
As seen in: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Rebecca Romijn’s take on the shape-shifting supervillain Mystique will always be monumental because what would this era of X-Men films be without this character? However, Romijn’s Mystique tended to fall into the simplistic, hired-muscle category. With no backstory, her relentless loyalty to Ian McKellen’s Magneto was admirable, but it seemed a little sycophantic. Her myopic devotion to Magneto and disdain for non-mutants would eventually bite her in the ass when, in The Last Stand, she was injected with a mutant cure (ironically, in an attempt to save Magneto) and her mentor abandoned her for becoming human against her will. It wouldn’t be until Jennifer Lawrence assumed the role in the prequels that Mystique became a multifaceted character, her evil behavior explained.
13. Eartha Kitt as Catwoman
As seen in: Batman (1967–1968)
She only appeared as the Caped Crusader’s devious feline foe a total of three times in the Batman TV series, but Eartha Kitt made the most out of her trio of episodes, easily influencing Halle Berry’s cinematic performance with her sultry purrs and hisses. Like most of the villains on Batman — or, rather, as the ladies were called on the show, “villainesses” — you rooted for characters like Kitt’s naughty, rule-breaking Catwoman much more than the square defenders of justice like Batman and Robin. Kitt’s groundbreaking portrayal also fills an important slot on this countdown because she flawlessly embodied a beloved comic-book character during a time when African-American actresses playing substantial roles was still a rarity on television.
12. Jessica Alba as Max Guevara
As seen in: Dark Angel (2000–2002)
Jessica Alba’s Max Guevara was a genetically enhanced vigilante who could easily outrun, outpunch, and outjump any human being on a postapocalyptic Earth, other than her fellow far-flung X5s. The concept of someone like Max was and still remains an excellent idea, considering the continued lack of formidable female superheroes onscreen. Her desire to lead a normal life despite being on the run from the government lab that created her gave Max a crucial added layer that too often isn’t explored with most superheroes (i.e., the fact that there can be drawbacks to having all of these amazing abilities). Unfortunately, Max shared too many similarities with another more relatable superhuman named Buffy Summers, who was busy kicking evil’s ass over on another network, with much better dialogue (more on that soon).
11. Julie Newmar as Catwoman
As seen in: Batman, 1966–1967
Before backstories, complicated personalities, and actual names became a necessity for credible female heroes (or, in this case, antiheroes), Julie Newmar’s Gotham City villainess was enthralling audiences with little more than her charisma and a really sexy catsuit. We never learned Catwoman’s real name, or what drove her to a life of feral crime, but for a totally goofy series like Batman, it didn’t matter. Like many of the villains on the show, you secretly wanted Newmar’s tantalizing criminal to get away with her latest caper. That’s because this Catwoman had the one thing that has eluded so many of the women crime-fighters that came before and after her: total self-confidence.
10. Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers
As seen in: The Bionic Woman (1976–1978)
The athletic, smart, and beautiful Jaime Sommers embodied the late-’70s ideal of a non-comic-book-originated superhero. Since she was just an ordinary Earth-born woman who acquired some decidedly superhuman limbs, Jaime was a great role model for young girls because she looked and acted like them. Lindsay Wagner’s portrayal of the tennis pro turned spy gave viewers the thrill of watching the girl next door twist a metal pipe into a pretzel, or break into a safe with a flick of her wrist. She was definitely relatable, but her character — like so many other female superheroes — suffered primarily from the chauvinistic attitudes on TV at the time. Sure, she had incredible abilities, but more often than not, she was forced to use them because, for one reason or another, she was entrapped by evil men wishing to exploit her power. Also, the show itself wasn’t entirely original — it was a spinoff of The Six Million Dollar Man. So, like Supergirl and Batgirl before her, the Bionic Woman was really just a female extension of a male character.
9. Chloe Bennett as Daisy Johnson
As seen in: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–present)
Known primarily under her hacktivist pseudonym “Skye” for the first two seasons of the ABC series, this Inhuman S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is now officially known by her given name, Daisy Johnson (a.k.a. the superhero Quake). In addition to being a skilled martial artist like many of her fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (Black Widow, Melinda May), Daisy’s Inhuman status also gives her the ability to cause earthquakes and manipulate vibrations. Basically, that means she can knock you down with one swoosh of her hand. Daisy had a rough go of things in last season’s finale (spoiler alert), in which her human father killed her Inhuman mother. Despite winning the psychological-distress lottery with that one, Daisy appears to have moved on from her tormented past now in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third season, having graduated to a new leadership role in S.H.I.E.L.D. where she’s protecting other Inhumans.
8. Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May
As seen in: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-present)
One look at this supercut of Melinda May’s fight scenes from the first two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and you’ll be going “powers, shmowers.” As Phil Coulson’s onetime right-hand woman, this expert pilot and martial-arts specialist raises the question time and again of, “And a man is in charge of this team because …?” After taking out three large men with her bare hands in a recent episode, May herself had no qualms about pointing out to her victims that “a tiny little Asian woman kicked your ass.” Ming-Na Wen’s performance proves that you don’t need any sort of superhuman abilities to save the world, and that a small, non-Caucasian woman rocking a Blondie T-shirt is long overdue as an ass-kicking superhero.
7. Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe/Storm
As seen in: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
As previously noted, the X-Men film franchise hasn’t been much of a pal to the female superhero archetype, with the women playing supporting roles to the likes of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Halle Berry’s Storm, however, is the one who’s come the closest so far to a leadership position, briefly stepping in as the School for Gifted Youngsters headmistress and de facto X-Men leader after Stewart’s Professor X supposedly died in X-Men: The Last Stand (nah, just disintegrated). Storm also gets high marks for remaining on the good guys’ side for all of the X-Men movies despite the fact that she has the seemingly God-like — and possibly corruptible ability — to control the weather. You would think that would garner her at least one spinoff movie, but alas. Here’s hoping we’ll get to see Storm’s origin story onscreen once and for all when Alexandra Shipp takes over the role in X-Men: Apocalypse next year.
6. Famke Janssen as Dr. Jean Grey
As seen in: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
She is arguably the most powerful mutant in the Marvel universe, but in the X-Men movies, Famke Janssen’s Dr. Jean Grey, like her fellow females, ends up working in a secondary function in the first couple of films. To add insult to injury, we learn in The Last Stand that her unlimited telepathy/telekinesis powers were involuntarily constrained by Professor Xavier, presumably for her own protection. When the full spectrum of her abilities is unleashed, Jean becomes the uncontrollable, murderous Phoenix (making Xavier’s divisive decision to harness her powers understandable, even if Jean had no choice in the matter). Although Jean dies at the end of The Last Stand, she’s resurrected at the end of Days of Future Past after Wolverine changes history. As with the case of Storm, we should learn more of Jean’s backstory when Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner takes over the role in X-Men: Apocalypse next year.
5. Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman
As seen in: Batman Returns (1992)
Michelle Pfeiffer took the entrancing charisma of Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt and channeled it into what remains to this day the most multi-layered onscreen interpretation of Catwoman. Her Selina Kyle gave voice to timid women by encouraging them to embrace their playful inner cats as she was reborn courtesy of a very strange-looking form of feline CPR. Unlike Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Pfeiffer’s version leaned more toward the human side — making her more relatable — as the only new power she acquired was nine lives (nothing to meow at). That, and, as minor as it may seem, there was something really cool (and realistic) about her DIY catsuit. Newmar’s and Kitt’s haute couture Catwoman costume was just a little incongruous with a below-the-radar cat burglar. Pfeiffer also took the first real step in moving Catwoman away from her traditional villain definition into that of a conflicted antihero, albeit over her love for Bruce Wayne (you know, it’s a starting point).
4. Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow
As seen in: Iron Man 2 (2010), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015)
The 21st-century depictions of female superheroes have made excellent strides in exploring more human elements, even if the characters aren’t actually human. Often, the superheroes without superpowers on this list are forced to stifle their emotions in order to be accepted by their male/non-human compatriots, and not to be seen as weak. But in this year’s Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Scarlett Johansson turned out one of the strongest portrayals of a superhero’s humanity when her character, Natasha Romanoff, opened up to Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner about her forced sterilization. Here we have the model specimen of a highly trained, ass-kicking spy: She can pilot a motorcycle off a moving plane, ease the Hulk’s big-time stress, and do it all without breaking a sweat on her perfectly glowing skin. But Natasha has paid a huge price for those talents, and it’s a shame that those kinds of controversial scenes, like where she discusses how she’s not entirely okay with having no say over her reproductive future, are still so scarce in film and TV today.
3. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme/Mystique
As seen in: X-Men: First Class (2011), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Although theoretically a villain, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Mystique in the most recent X-Men movies has altered the shape-shifter’s definition to, at the very least, antihero. The prequel films’ backstory about Raven Darkholme allowed Lawrence to turn a previously one-dimensional character into a complex individual who isn’t so much a baddie but a tragic figure who has never been accepted for her true blue self, not even by Charles Xavier. Anyone who’s been bullied or felt judged for being different can relate to Lawrence’s Mystique. That’s not to say the character should be excused for the long line of dead bodies left in her wake, but unlike so many villains who aren’t given origin stories, now we understand that Mystique’s actions come from decades of pain. It makes her continued narrative all the more captivating.
2. Lynda Carter as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman
As seen in: Wonder Woman (1975-1979)
Forty years after she first donned Wonder Woman’s tiara and bullet-deflecting bracelets, Lynda Carter’s portrayal of the golden-lasso twirler remains a paradigm for onscreen superheroines. Whether she was fighting Nazis, chasing after an abducted Leif Garrett on a motorcycle (yep, that actually happened), or appealing to late-’70s teenagers by going all skater-chick, Carter’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman was the brilliant BFF of every girl’s dreams. Perhaps she didn’t have the emotional complexity of the heroes who took up her mantle in the decades to come, but Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman left an iconic imprint on a generation that trumps even the most multifaceted characters who followed her lead. When you close your eyes and imagine the ideal version of a confident, crime-fighting, ass-kicking woman, it’s impossible for those of a certain age not to envision Carter’s embodiment of the comic-book heroine, “in her satin tights, fighting for our rights, and the old red, white, and blue.”
1. Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers
As seen in: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
After Hollywood turned Joss Whedon’s original dark movie script into a lighthearted, Luke Perry–starring romp, the Buffy creator went back to the drawing board and emerged with the most powerful superheroine to ever grace our TV screens. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy Summers had a gift for snappy repartee — even when devoid of her own voice — in addition to the Slayer’s prerequisites of superhuman strength, agility, and dexterity with a wooden stake. Out of all the superheroes on this list, Gellar’s Buffy is the one who was the most like all of us. It’s only natural to fantasize about being a superhero, but here comes someone who has that gift, and all she wants is to be a normal teenager. But being normal was pretty hard for Gellar’s Buffy, considering on top of all her obligations, she had a tendency to fall in love with a couple of vampires here and there. That made Buffy’s humanity one of her greatest attributes — and one of the reasons why we loved her so.