borg’s Best of 2021–Kick-Ass Genre Heroines

Once a year at borg we ask: What makes a great screen heroine? It’s time for borg′s annual look at the Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines in film and television.  We’re highlighting the very best from a slate of fantastic heroines, with characteristics to learn from and root for.  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.  Over the years we have expanded the list to include any tough, savvy, gritty character played by a woman, so villains are welcome here, too.  (Want to see previous years’ kickass genre heroines to see how 2021 compares?  Here are 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015). Some may be frazzled, put-upon, war-weary, or human, but all have fought, some against difficult circumstances, others against personal demons (literally, figuratively, or both), and some against gun and laser fire.  And they all showed what a tough, kick-ass, and often badass, character is about.

This year we add three superheroines, an amnesiac bounty hunter, four police detectives, a thief, a grifter, a hacker, 13 martial arts experts, three soldiers, a god, a duchess, two college students, three Russian assassins, a spy, an actress, a cyborg, a bartender, a forensics expert, a hitman, and a helicopter pilot, with eight characters we’ve seen in past years and 13 all-new characters we’ve never seen in any medium before–all in a roster split between 21 television and 13 movie characters. Credit goes to both the writers, costumers, and other creators of the characters and the actors and performers that brought them all to life.

These are the Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines of 2021:

Antonia Dreykov aka Taskmaster (Black Widow).  Was there a more intriguing, surprising, gut-wrenching character this year than Olga Kurylenko’s super-powered cyborg?  She was one of the best costumed villains this year and certainly the most sympathetic, leaving the question: Where does she go from here? (Disney)

Faye Valentine (Cowboy Bebop).  Daniella Pineda’s spin on this classic sci-fi character couldn’t have been better.  Always eager, always excitable, always refreshing, as she pursued the dramatic journey to discover who she really is. (Netflix)

Raya (Raya and the Last Dragon).  It was her sacrifice in the film’s climax that makes Kelly Marie Tran’s animated heroine one of Disney’s most heroic.  Loyal and determined after the loss of her father, Raya and her world are a celebration of Southeast Asian culture, and her martial arts skills derived from Pencat Silat and other styles of Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Thai kickboxing. (Disney)

Zhilan (Kung Fu).  Another heroine in her own story, the villain of Kung Fu employs all the best features of your favorite martial arts masters: cunning, determined, mysterious, and decisive, Yvonne Chapman’s character was one of the best parts of this new series. (Warner Bros.)

Parker (Leverage: Redemption).  Parker is flat-out the best thief to ever hit your TV set.  Had we been creating the Kick-Ass list in the initial run of Leverage she’d already be on it.  With a second season in the works, you’ll have even more chances to see Beth Riesgraf’s heroine who steals for the good guys.  (iMDB TV)

Scarlett (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins).  Even more than in the previous movies, Samara Weaving’s take on the comic book and animated series G.I. Joe heroine was spot-on.  We’re only at the beginning of this reboot of the movies, but Scarlett left us wanting more. (Paramount)

Lady Sybil Ramkin (The Watch).  Dead set on unwinding the rule of law and order that made her fantasy universe town slide into the crevice of debauchery that it has become, Lara Rossi’s Lady Ramkin boasts a pocket-sized dragon to help her along. (BBC America)

Xialing (Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings).  The daughter of the mythical warlord Xu Wenwu, and sister of Shang-Chi, never had it easy, left to teach herself the ways of martial arts and magic.  By the time Shang-Chi catches up to her, Meng’er Zhang’s rebel is already running her own small empire–with eyes on an even bigger prize. (Disney)

Tree Gelbman (Happy Death Day 2U).  No character went through more change than Theresa (“Tree”) in these two time loop movies.  Her growth and success are easy to see comparing the angry sorority student in the first scene of the first film with the mastermind genius at the end of the second.  Perfectly pulled off by Jessica Rothe. (Blumhouse)

Lady Liberty (Jupiter’s Legacy).  Although Leslie Bibb didn’t get much room to flesh out her character, in the sixth episode Grace aka Lady Liberty is the one left to save the world while the supermen are off doing their thing again.  A good start to a superheroine we won’t see again thanks to cancellation of the series. (Netflix)

Chief Karen Vick (Psych 3: This is Gus).  Chief Vick is always the center of the room, whether Chief of the Santa Barbara police force or the SFPD.  She’s not the typical police procedural boss–she actually listens to even the quirkiest ideas in the room, always finding a way to get the criminal, while balancing a personal life she mostly keeps behind the scenes. (iMDB TV)

Nancy McKenna (L.A.’s Finest).  Who needs the Bad Boys when you have Syd and Nancy?  The 2019-2020 series is probably the best buddy cop show with women in the leads–ever.  Jessica Alba’s McKenna had to battle a secret past, a public persona husband, and case after case that fused all parts of her life together. (Spectrum)

Elle (Blade Runner: Black Lotus).  Her full story isn’t finished yet, but already she’s established herself as the next generation of Earth’s future.  All her talents and programmed actions are nothing compared to her drive to find out her own origin story. (Adult Swim)

Hikari Kuina (Alice in Borderland).  Of the pantheon of incredible female characters leading the series, it seems nobody suffered more adversity than Aya Asahina’s Kuina.  Struggling to discover herself early on as a boy, by the time of the Games her confidence and abilities are unquestioned. (Netflix)

Sophie Devereaux (Leverage: Redemption).  Gina Bellman’s new mastermind of Leverage Inc. has grown more than anyone since we first met her in 2008.  An actress whose best roles are becoming characters in real life, she’s moving past the loss of Nathan and confidently leading the newly expanded team. (iMDB TV)

Maya Lopez aka Echo (Hawkeye). She held her own with the likes Ronin and Kingpin.  Will she take over the mantle of Ronin as in the comics for her new series?  And Alaqua Cox’s sympathetic villain does it all without the use of her hearing and aided by a prosthetic leg.  (Disney)

Sonya Blade (Mortal Kombat).  Another update to a character from the past, Jessica McNamee’s soldier of the Earthrealm only gets started in this reboot opener, but she manages to lead all the male heroes through every obstacle of the film. (Warner Bros.)

Rizuna An (Alice in Borderland).  Facing a complete disaster to her world, Ayaka Miyoshi’s police detective never gets caught up in the chaos but instead focuses her skills in forensics to sleuth out who really killed the girl at the Beach. (Netflix)

Baroness (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins).  The part-time heroine, part-time villain barely got started in this first reboot of the franchise, yet Úrsula Corberó filled the part made famous in the comics and animated series, and she showed us enough of her fighting skills to keep fans coming back for more.(Paramount)

Breanna Casey (Leverage: Redemption).  The first newcomer to the Leverage team since the beginning, Aleyse Shannon’s hacker was the centerpiece to update the mastermind plots into a new era of high-tech crimes.  She smartly balanced uncertainty and newbie nerves with her team of older Robin Hoods trying to do good. (iMDB TV)

Melina Vostokoff (Black Widow).  Academy Award-winning British actress Rachel Weisz created a believable Russian who was both good guy and bad guy.  Happily she ended up re-building her most unusual family for the forces of good to be one of the best parts of the movie. (Disney)

Yuzuha Usagi (Alice in Borderland).  The series doesn’t really get moving until Tao Tsuchiya’s Usagi enters the scene.  Her climbing skills set her apart in a mountain-like urban apartment, and she uses her uncanny skills to defeat a diabolical, deadly game. (Netflix)

Syd Burnett (L.A.’s Finest).  In any other series the role of Syd would have been cast with a man.  Gabrielle Union took a supporting character and turned her in to an icon, the ultimate cop who wouldn’t let anyone stand in the way of her getting her man, or woman.  Sure, she made mistakes, but she also made good on them.  She’s one tough character. (Spectrum)

D’Arcy Bloom (Resident Alien).  D’Arcy seemed like a disaster, living day-to-day as a bartender, having the same conversations with the same people, so it was a surprise when she stepped up to being the series heroine–literally a lifesaver in full rescue mode.  Her chaotic life was a great contrast to when she was called to action. (Syfy)

Juliet O’Hara (Psych 3: This is Gus).  Had we started this list before 2015, Juliet would have appeared when we started watching her in 2006.  A cop who’s worked her way up the Santa Barbara police force, putting up with both the oversight of Lassiter and the antics of psychic detective-slash-boyfriend/husband Shawn Spencer before coming into her own as Lead Detective of the SFPD. (Peacock)

Anna (Anna).  No offense to the characters of Scarlett Johannson or Jennifer Lawrence, but Luc Besson knows how to make a movie about Russian women operatives.  And no slight to Charlie Theron’s Atomic Blonde, but Sasha Luss’s agent was slick and cool and decisive with a story to match.  And it didn’t hurt to have Helen Mirren’s character training her behind the scenes. (Summit)

Akiko (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins).  Security chief Akiko knows how to take care of the Arashikage clan–if only the family would let her.  Haruka Abe’s martial arts warrior should have led the clan, but that would have been a different movie.  Here she only had a supporting role, where she showed her stuff and Hasbro even made her into an action figure. (Paramount)

Marianne (Army of the Dead).  Put Tig Notaro in a helicopter, make her a pilot, and give us an action movie, and you know she’s going to be the best part.  And she was.  Las Vegas was only minutes from total destruction, but she was able to fix the escape route, while keeping calm, and keeping everyone else calm.  And that Notaro swagger and attitude just keeps getting better. (Netflix)

Yelena Belova (Black Widow and Hawkeye). With Hailee Steinfeld’s passionate new bow-wielder leading the next generation of the MCU, Florence Pugh’s Yelena adds a darker, differently layered driver to the future.  Her inaugural outing was both fun, exciting, and intriguing. (Amazon)

Sylvie Laufeydottir (Loki).  The spin-off Disney series was really more about Sophia Di Martino’s trickster, and at first it was jarring, but by season’s end we were okay with that.  And “our” Loki never could have overthrown the Time Variance Authority without her. (Disney)

Katy Chen (Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings).  Long overdue is a heroine in the MCU like Awkwafina’s Katy.  Best friend to Shang-Chi, she was willing to drop everything for him, while stopping to question all the bizarre world-building changes around her and help save the world at the end. (Disney) 

Margo Taft (The Last Tycoon).  Sometimes we miss a series and need to double back. This year one of our finds was The Last Tycoon, and Jennifer Beals’ lead actress in a very real feeling 1930s Hollywood was as strong, determined, and just plain incredible as any heroine in this or any year.  Battling issues of sex, race, economics and power, Taft took charge, conquered the likes of Louis B. Mayer, and came out on top–with the Oscar. (Amazon)

Paloma (No Time to Die).  The best part–the best action–of the latest James Bond film was Ana de Armas arriving first to lead us (and Bond) to believe she’s only been training as an agent for a few weeks, only to proceed to use the butt of her rifle and other abilities to take out the bad guys like an old pro when her weapon is out of bullets.  And she lived to fight again another day.  If only the rest of the movie had been as great. (MGM)

Kate Bishop (Hawkeye).  We barely know her and yet we’re ready to let Hailee Steinfeld’s new Hawkeye lead the Avengers into the next phase.  Smart, savvy, and confident in her abilities, Kate never lets Clint’s disparagement get to her, always searching out the positive and constructive angle, as all great leaders do. (Disney)

And that’s this year’s list of 34 heroines.  And a great mix: played by four black women, four British, one Spanish, one Mexican American, one Latina, two Russians, two Australians, one New Zealander, nine Asian or AAPI, one is deaf and Native American, and one LGBTQ–including one transgendered character.  Several characters who made previous years’ kick-ass heroine lists returned to TV and film and could very well make the list again, but we’re looking for new recruits, and we include characters from series or films that didn’t make it up the streaming channel algorithms to gain our attention in past years.  So we’re not forgetting characters like Black Widow in Black Widow, Gunnhild in the last season of Vikings, Juliet Higgins in Magnum PI, the 13th Doctor in Doctor Who, and Betty Cooper from Riverdale.  Keep coming back this month as we reveal the rest of our Best in Film, Best in TV, and Best in Print, and our borg Hall of Fame inductees for 2021.

C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg

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