Recently, Charlize Theron spoke to THR about her upcoming Netflix project, The Old Guard, and her work in action films. Now, especially after her work in Mad Max: Fury Road, The Fate of the Furious, and Atomic Blonde, it seems a no-brainer to associate Theron with the genre: Of course, she’s an action star. Who on Earth doesn’t consider her one?

But Theron reminded the interviewer that that hadn’t always been the case for her. After the miserable failure of Aeon Flux, it was a decade before she was offered a straight action film with Fury Road. She was candid and frank in addressing the double standard for women in Hollywood when it comes to the action genre:

“A lot of women don’t get a second chance, but when men make these movies and fail miserably, they get chance after chance after chance to go and explore that again. That doesn’t necessarily happen for women. Fury Road came a good decade after Æon Flux, and there’s always been that voice in the back of my head that still somewhat responds to that. I’m still influenced by that, and it’s one thing that drives me. It’s unfortunate that we feel like the opportunity will be taken away from us in a heartbeat if we don’t succeed, but that is the truth. It’s not a very forgiving genre when it comes to women.”

She’s right: It’s not. Just look at superhero movies. After the successive failures of Catwoman in 2004 and Elektra in 2005, rather than chalking it up to the actual problem – thin stories with terribly cheesy dialogue at a time in which comic book movies weren’t yet a fully accepted norm – Hollywood decided the problem was that audiences didn’t want to see female-led action films. Male actors continued to dominate the genre, regardless of success or failure, while female actors took a back seat. It wasn’t until seven years later that a woman headlined another major studio action franchise when Jennifer Lawrence anchored The Hunger Games, and it wasn’t until 12 years later, in 2017, that another woman got the chance to lead her own superhero movie with Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman. It’s arguable that for a few decades, Milla Jovovich with the Resident Evil series was the only female action star out there. So, yeah. Theron’s assessment is spot-on.

Luckily, there are a number of women in the entertainment industry looking to change the perception that women can’t do action, and they’re making strides. Studies have shown that female-led films are more profitable, and more consistently, than movies with male leads. With that and Hollywood’s increasing reliance on franchises to prop up the studio system, the last few years have suddenly offered more opportunities for women in action-centric roles. Theron has taken those opportunities and run with them, establishing herself as a legitimate action star.

But Theron is far from the only actress who has found success once again in the action genre in the middle of an already well-established career. After reprising her role as Storm in X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, Halle Berry went relatively quiet before reemerging to play Sofia in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum last year. Berry trained for months in weapon mastery, hand-to-hand combat, and attack dog training for the role, and it showed. Her turn as the attack dog-toting, ass-kicking ally of John Wick earned rave reviews and was a reminder that Berry, who starred in that ill-fated Catwoman movie, can throw down with the best of them.

It’s not just veteran actresses reestablishing a foothold in the action genre. In recent years, we’ve seen younger actresses making sure to establish from early on in their careers that they can, will, and want do to action. Take Gal Gadot and Margot Robbie as examples. Gadot cut her U.S. audience teeth in the Fast & Furious franchise, playing the tough-as-nails Gisele in three movies before landing the coveted role of Diana of Themyscira in Wonder Woman. Detractors initially wondered whether or not the lithe, willowy Gadot would be convincing in the role of the powerful Amazonian warrior, but upon Wonder Woman‘s release (and even earlier, in Batman v Superman), Gadot more than delivered. Few in the world now would question whether or not Gadot can convince in an action movie. Besides the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, Gadot is also starring in Netflix’s action-adventure Red Notice opposite all-action, all-the-time stars Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne Johnson.

Margot Robbie, who burst onto the scene in 2013 with The Wolf of Wall Street, is possibly even a better example of a young actress establishing a space in the action genre. Her action bona fides have been mostly established within the DCEU as Harley Quinn in movies like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. The latter was one of the most inventive movies in terms of action sequences and fight choreography in years, thanks in large part to Robbie’s athleticism and agility selling the action. More recently, it was announced that Robbie has nabbed the lead role in a new Pirates of the Caribbean spinoff from Disney, ensuring the action-heavy franchise will be anchored by a woman moving forward.

It’s Just As Important To Get Women Writing Action Scripts

Robbie’s influence on the action genre isn’t just limited to what she does in front of the camera. She’s turned herself into a powerhouse in the industry, helping to oversee and develop the future of Harley Quinn movies with Warner Bros. as well as producing films like the upcoming remake of Tank Girl. And she’s gone even further, joining forces with screenwriter Christina Hodson to form Lucky Exports Pitch Program, a joint venture between Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment and Hodson’s Hodson Exports. The initiative, which launched last year, has the aim of getting more female-identifying writers hired by studios with a focus on action-oriented scripts.

Hodson had this to say at the time of the announcement:

“It is no secret that there are more men than women getting hired to write big-budget studio movies, and yet there are a huge number of talented female voices looking to break into this space. I have been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on a number of franchise movies, alongside great male and female writers. Feature writing has traditionally been a solitary exercise but it doesn’t need to be. I wanted to create a program that was as much about peer-to-peer collaboration and community as it is about changing the statistics. Margot and I share a passion for championing female voices and feel that one way to do that is to connect these writers with a wide array of experts in big-budget filmmaking — men and women alike.”

The program selects six women or female-identifying writers for a four-week course in which they take their ideas for an action script and then break, outline, and develop them into ready pitches that can be taken right to studios. Giving female writers this exposure and experience is the first step they need in order to land big-budget studio jobs and follow in the footsteps of writers like Hodson and Nicole Perlman, who have become go-to names when writing action tentpoles. Hodson has Birds of Prey, Bumblebee, and the upcoming Batgirl and The Flash on her plate and is set to be one of Warner Bros.’ screenwriting anchors for the next few years. Perlman’s resume includes Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, and Pokémon Detective Pikachu, as well as soon adding an EP credit to her name with Fast & Furious 10.

Yet, for every Hodson and Perlman, there are dozens of men being tapped to scripts in the action genre. It’s why Lucky Exports is such an important initiative. More women penning action scripts is necessary to bring gender parity to the genre. Female writers inject nuance and realism into female characters that male writers often miss. A scene in Robbie and Hodson’s Birds of Prey perfectly illustrates what happens when you have women writing women. In the amusement park fight sequence, there is a moment where Black Canary is getting frustrated by her long hair getting in her face during the fight. As Harley Quinn roller skates past, she offers Canary a hair tie.

It’s a brief moment, but one that endeared itself to female audiences (and men who are used to being with partners with long hair). I brought a friend with me to my press screening, and at that moment, she turned to me and excitedly asked, “Did a woman write this? A woman had to have written this!” Male writers almost always look at female characters visually: Long hair is considered sexy on a woman, and so female characters’ hair is almost always down when they fight, even though it’s not practical. Women, however, watch scenes like that and roll our eyes – it’s a pain to do yoga with our hair hanging in our faces let alone throwing down in a fight where having one’s vision unobscured is vital. Hodson writing the hair tie exchange was a nod from a woman to other women: “I see you, I hear you, I know this male-gazey movie cliché is annoying and I’m fixing it.”

Female Directors Are Finally Starting To Break Through In The Action Genre, Too

Just as more women are lending their experience and insight to the page in the action space, more women than ever before are bringing their keen eye to behind the camera. Perhaps the best example of a female filmmaker leaving her mark on the action genre is Lana Wachowski. She and her sister, Lilly, reinvented what was possible in the action space with The Matrix in 1999. Since then, Lana has remained firmly planted in the world of action and will unquestionably elevate the genre again when The Matrix 4 hits theaters in 2022.

It’s important to note, too, that Wachowski shoots all her own action. Often, productions will bring in a second unit director specifically to shoot action sequences as shooting action sequences requires a very specific eye and skillset that not all traditional filmmakers have. Wachowski does, something that notable stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski emphasized when it was reported that he and David Leitch will reunite with Wachowski to help with stunts and action on The Matrix 4:

“[O]f late, and especially on Matrix 4, she’s directing her own action. The second units for them are mostly establishing shots, the B-sides of some of the compositions for some locations. But Lana, she does her own action. She weaves it into the main unit stuff, which is why their stuff looks so good.”

But if Wachowski is the godmother of female action filmmakers, and other veterans like Kathryn Bigelow have shown they have what it takes to shoot action, there are more women honing their action directing chops in Hollywood than ever before. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was about as action-heavy as you can get, as was Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey for DC, with Ava DuVernay’s The New Gods in development. On the Marvel side of things is Captain Marvel co-director Anna Boden and Cate Shortland, who is helming the upcoming Black Widow, along with Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals. Mulan, directed by Niki Caro, looks to be the most action-oriented Disney live-action remake yet, full of martial arts fight scenes and pitched military battles.

Smaller-budget action films are seeing more women behind the camera, too, such as Paramount’s The Rhythm Section, directed by Reed Morano. So are streaming services: This week, Netflix is releasing the aforementioned The Old Guard starring Theron and KiKi Layne and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. The film adaptation of the Image Comics title follows a group of immortal mercenaries as they discover a new member right as they are exposed to the world.

One day, I won’t have to write articles like this and nor will film critics have to put together “X Studio Movies Directed By Women This Year” lists as women directing and starring in action tentpoles will be as much the norm as men running the genre. We’re not there yet, but it’s gratifying to see the strides are being made by the fierce and talented women determined to carve out a space for themselves in the action genre and even more determined to pull other women up behind them.

Release dates may yet change, but these are the female-led and directed action films hitting theaters later this year:

Click on the links to add them to Your Watchlist and we’ll let you know when tickets go on sale.

  • Editorial