What better way to celebrate the strong, determined leader Leia Organa made famous by actress Carrie Fisher than to celebrate her legacy in the genre heroines of today? What do most of the characters on this year’s list of Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines have in common? Most have roles that could easily be swapped with a male. Sure, you can have heroine characters who are written to largely rely on traditional female qualities, but women characters bending gender roles are breaking new grounds. We met characters this year who were held back in their place in time by their status as women, and it is often that role that prompts them to gain the fire and passion necessary to become the heroine of their stories. So we have both a dress-wearing, well-read 19th century Jane Austen character on our list, but also a space-faring criminal in combat boots, a sea captain, an alien survivor, an alien visitor, a warrior, a sorcerer, a group of clones, a gunslinger, two cops, a zombie, and a supernatural assassin.
In past years we were able to select our Best Kick-Ass Genre Movie Heroine and Best Kick-Ass Genre TV Heroine, but this year the studios gave us more to cheer about than ever, and instead of ranking them we’re highlighting the very best from an unprecedented slate of heroines, with characteristics to learn from and emulate. Determined, decisive, loyal, brave, smart, fierce, strong. You’ll find no one here timid or weepy, but all rely on their individual skills to beat the odds and overcome any obstacle that comes their way. Some may be frazzled, put-upon, war-weary, very human, resulting from trying circumstances, personal losses, and even death of friends and family. But they all mustered up the strength to rise above it all. These are the Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines of 2016:
Sara (The Huntsman: Winter’s War). Heroines can be medieval or fairy tale warriors, a trained Huntsman quick with a bow and arrow or two-handed swordplay. Jessica Chastain’s Sara was never seen in Snow White and the Huntsman, but we quickly learned why Chris Hemsworth’s Eric was filled with despair when learning of her supposed death. A loyal warrior to her queen, she must decide whether to join her excommunicated secret husband against the forces of evil or stand with Queen Freya and her manipulative sister. A powerhouse trio of actresses, Chastain’s Sara rises above them all opposite Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron in this great fantasy film.
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). You already know Elizabeth Bennet as the eldest sister in the classic Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. An obnoxious mother harassing her, unlikely prospects for marriage, and an oppressive society with little opportunity to make her own choices. Readers finally get to witness how the classic character might react when given opportunity–opportunity to learn Eastern mysticism and Japanese martial arts, and a role where she and her sisters and friends can fully defend their family and home from a zombie onslaught. Lily James couples lacy dresses, Regency manners, and in-your-face, Quentin Tarentino-inspired kicks, with classic swordplay–and bloody beheadings. If a war is coming, you want the likes of Elizabeth Bennet on your side of the battle lines.
After the cut, we reveal the rest of our list…
Alice Kingsleigh (Alice Through the Looking Glass). A great feature of sequels is the ability to see a character grow beyond her first character arc. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh is a girl struggling with a decision who is assisted by an underworld of strange characters. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, Alice has broken away from the social mores that held her back before to become captain of her own ship. But a domineering mother is about to ruin all of that. Alice’s sense of duty to her mother prompts her to consider giving it all up, but the repeated appearance of the antagonist of the earlier film is enough to cause Alice to fight, while saving a friend in despair along the way. There’s a reason Alice is a time-honored heroine, and Mia Wasikowska gives us the perfect performance.
The Ancient One (Doctor Strange). The original role of The Ancient One was a supreme sorcerer and a male in the comic books. In the film adaptation Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One is a Celtic mage, again the master sorcerer, and the one who brings Doctor Strange into the mystical arts. She is a true wizard of the J.R.R. Tolkien variety, calm and decisive, she is also immortal. She can fight with the best of them, think Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Trinity in The Matrix. And she also has a sense of humor, figuring just the right way to convince Doctor Strange he can wield his own powers.
Eleven (Stranger Things). We get glimpses of the terrible past Eleven had to endure before she encountered three new young friends in the woods. Learning what she is and what she can do is the through-line of this year’s Best Retro Fix, Netflix’s Stranger Things. She soon learns what friends are, and what it means to be a friend. She’ll also learn what she can do when her friends are put into danger, and what she will risk to protect them all. An eleven-year-old that is as impressive an actress as Millie Bobby Brown, with her stunningly sharp instincts and the ability to show fear and fire as the alien with an affinity for waffles, can only go upward from here.
Wynonna Earp (Wynonna Earp). Like Liv, the Sestra, Eve, and Jyn, Wynonna Earp, played by Melanie Scrofano, does not want to be different. She would be quite happy not having killed her father thank you very much, and having her older sister back with her and her little sister. But it so happens the legendary lawman and gunslinger Wyatt Earp was cursed, and in this supernatural, Western, horror TV series his granddaughter Wynonna Earp in the present day inherits his Peacemaker, a unique weapon she must use to kill off bloodthirsty ghosts called Revenants. Like the greatest of the kick-ass heroines, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wynonna has a calling, a calling she cannot, and will not, turn her back on. She is still going to live her life on her own terms, but she might not be exhibiting the best judgment along the way. Wynonna is sharp-tongued and swaggering, a perfect modern-day gunslinger, and backed up with an excellent supporting cast, she’s a modern day superhero in a story tied to yesteryear.
Liv Moore (iZombie). Second only to Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany in her ability to pull off new characters every week, Rose McIver’s Liv Moore was stuck as a zombie medical examiner in last year’s freshman season of iZombie. She must eat brains to survive, but with each brain she takes on the memories and qualities of the person the brain came from. This year the writers upped their game and provided McIver the canvass to portray a hilarious group of victims Liv must help. McIver brought life to each of those characters via the body of Liv Moore. It’s crazy. It’s fun. And Liv proves every week there is nothing she can’t handle.
Sarah and the Sestra (Orphan Black). Tatiana Maslany not only overcame the genre barrier this year by netting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, she proved that she is the best actress on television, playing Sarah Manning and all of her “twin” clone sestra: Cosima Niehaus, Alison Hendrix, Beth Childs, Helena, Rachel Duncan, Krystal Goderitch, Katja Obinger, and MK (and a few others), often with two or more of these characters in the same scene. Each of these characters have their own motivations, they are all fighters (and a few, killers), and can kick ass with the best of them. No actor or actress in Hollywood, on TV or in film, or anywhere else, can possibly be working as hard as Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black. Her characters even look different from each other. A pretty incredible feat to pull off.
Misty Knight (Luke Cage). “I don’t just seek justice, I stalk it.” With those words we know that Luke Cage has a battle ahead of him if he is going to demonstrate his innocence. Simone Missick’s Misty Knight knows the citizens she serves don’t trust the police force, but she is determined to help them and be the cop they want her to be. While Cage works outside the law, Knight maneuvers within the confines of the law. And she learns Cage can be trusted. She doesn’t have a superpower like Cage, or does she? Her ability to read a crime scene is up there with the skills of Sherlock Holmes. Ultimately she becomes the real-life heroine we wish we had more of.
Eve (Grimm). Eve, formerly Juliette, live-in girlfriend of Grimm series lead Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) really took the series’ viewers by surprise. Bitsie Tulloch, played the quiet but intelligent and curious Juliette in the first seasons of Grimm, but Adalind cursed her to become a Hexenbiest, only to be killed by Truble for participating in the death of Nick’s mother. Based on what we knew about the rules of the Grimm-verse, we thought dead was dead. But we were glad we were wrong. What returned was a Hexenbiest with a purpose, a decisive, deadly mercenary, one of those thugs you’d see in a line-up next to Boba Fett in another franchise. Eve is as cool as they come, cut from the mold of River Tam (Summer Glau, Firefly), but we can’t help hoping she can be turned back to the good side with only a few episodes left in the series next year.
Judy Hopps (Zootopia). A female rabbit that can teach us the importance of fairness and justice? Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is as determined as any kick-ass heroine on this list. Judy must persevere through a boot camp gauntlet through the police academy in the face of those who only want her to fail. But she never gives up, becoming the valedictorian of her class. Once on the force, like Charlie’s Angels, she is selected only for light work, like issuing traffic tickets. But she won’t be put in the corner. She takes on the most important assignment in the city, and uncovers and foils a political scandal along the way. In a film where the message of breaking barriers is not always subtle (and maybe that’s a good thing right now), Judy becomes the heroine we all need.
Jaylah (Star Trek Beyond). In any other year, Jaylah, played by Sofia Boutella, would stand out as the lone kick-ass heroine of any film or television series. In the Star Trek franchise, she very well may be THE most kick-ass female character ever introduced. More than any other character this year, Jaylah is self-reliant, self-motivated, determined, and fierce. Skilled in the martial arts, she wields a quarterstaff that doubles as a rifle, and she is a survivor. Her family killed by the ruthless Krall, she finds an abandoned starship that she cloaks and uses as a home fortress, learning English from the computer system. When the crew of the Enterprise comes along, it is Jaylah who saves the day, and who is ultimately responsible for saving millions of lives on the Starbase Yorktown.
Jyn Erso (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso is the heroine Star Wars fans needed. Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Rey is well on her way, and a great kick-ass heroine in the making. But she’s not really arrived yet. Director Gareth Edwards wasted no time showing Jyn Erso as a survivor, from her first scene–scrappy, resourceful, quick to knock out even those who are trying to rescue her. Yes, Jyn must be rescued three times in Rogue One, but each was part of her own calculated risk taking. When the Rebels wouldn’t believe in her, a motley band of warriors abandoned the Rebels to join her in what otherwise would have been a one-woman crusade. When all is said and done, how can anyone say how many planets, how many millions of lives, Jyn Erso saved?
Do you agree with our selections? Do you have other kick-ass heroines you’d add from his year? Let us know in the comments. And keep coming back this week for the Best in TV and Best in Print, and our borg.com Hall of Fame inductees for 2016.