There's never been a successful movie about a female superhero. And lately, there's been lots of talk about whether such a thing could even happen. But superhero movies are just action movies with a slight twist — and there have been plenty of successful female-led action movies. See for yourself.
As we've discussed before, superheroes aren't really a genre, they're a collection of other genres smushed together. (Try explaining how the Spectre and the Incredible Hulk belong to the same genre.) The movies below mostly fit into the "action adventure" or straight-up "action movie" molds, and most of them have some fantastical elements. For the most part, these have a female lead, rather than a prominently featured supporting character or sidekick.
Also, we left out animated films, and foreign films — because it's harder to judge the success or failure of movies made overseas.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
The lackluster sequel pretty much bombed, but the first movie was a bona fide hit, making $275 million (in 2001 dollars) on a budget of just $115 million. And they're talking about doing a new Tomb Raider film now, which should tell you something.
The Resident Evil Movies
Another video game franchise — and the fact that they're up to the sixth movie in the series ought to tell you something. The last one was horrible, but it was made for just $60 million and grossed nearly $300 million worldwide. (Although it barely made back its budget domestically.) The earlier films in the series did about similarly well domestically, but this series is actually getting more popular worldwide.
The Underworld Movies
These have generally made a pretty healthy profit, too, although the most recent one underperformed domestically. Like Resident Evil, this is a medium-budgeted series that seems to do well enough around the world to justify cranking out one every few years.
Angelina Jolie was arguably one of the main selling points of Wanted, although she didn't star in it. And this James Bond-esque spy thriller, which was written for a male star, made close to three times its budget worldwide. Proving that if you write a movie for a compelling action hero and then cast a woman — rather than write for a "female action hero" — you can do really well.
The Hunger Games
And then there's one of the 800-pound gorillas in the room. This is clearly Jennifer Lawrence's movie, and she's carrying the action. And this is one of the most successful films of all time at this point, with audience salivating for the three sequels that are already in production. This movie made more money than Man of Steel, on a much smaller budget.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Sarah Connor isn't really the action hero of the first Terminator — but arguably, she steps up in this film. She shares the on-screen heroics with Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800, of course, but her toughness and fighting spirit carries a lot of the movie, and she's the main human hero of the film.
Kill Bill, Parts 1 & 2
The Kill Bill movies cost about $30 million each to make, and were humongously successful, with the first movie taking in about $180 million (in 2003 dollars) worldwide. Just amazing.
This one is sort of an edge case — it cost around $48 million to make and grossed around $97 million worldwide. It also opened at #1 at the box office on its opening weekend. Not a huge smash, but Ridley Scott's gritty military drama probably made back its money.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films
We said no foreign films — but these movies were huge successes in the States. And the U.S. remake was also pretty huge. You could argue Daniel Craig is the real star of the U.S. movie, but it's not named after him and the "action hero" stuff mostly belongs to Rooney Mara.
The first Alien was more of a space horror film, with Ripley as the "final girl" — but this is a straight-up action movie, and Ripley is clearly the hero, who gets the final boss fight at the end of the film.
The Cynthia Rothrock opus
Rothrock starred in an unthinkably large number of "B" action movies with titles like Tiger Claws 2 and Undefeatable. There's almost no information available on how much these films cost to make, or how much money they actually made in the end — but people kept spending money to make films starring her, so you have to assume someone made a profit. (Thanks for suggesting her, Guild_Navigator!)
You could argue this one was also a horror film, and Noomi Rapace is the "final girl" — but it's pretty action packed, what with the dodging spaceships and dealing with squid babies and stuff, and Rapace carries most of that.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This movie made $16 million domestically on a budget of around $7 million — and more to the point, did well enough to justify a TV series, which went on to achieve way more notoriety. Obviously, not a huge hit, but given that it was pitched as a wacky horror-comedy about a cheerleader fighting vampires, that's not bad. And arguably, this was one of the few successful superhero films of the 1990s that wasn't about Batman.
Man, Sandra Bullock has done way more for female action heroes than you might realize, at first blush. Let's hope the Bullock Effect helps Gravity. This film about an FBI agent going undercover at a beauty pageant made $212 million (in 2000 dollars) on a budget of just $45 million.
Like Tomb Raider, this film had a terrible sequel that deserved its ignominious failure. But I have a huge soft spot for the first movie, and it did quite well: $264 million worldwide (in 2000 dollars) on a budget of $93 million. And this is basically a superhero film, in all but name.
The Pam Grier movies
A discussion of female action movies would be ridiculously incomplete without acknowledging the massive success of Pam Grier, star of Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown, among others. Also in the Blacksploitation vein: Cleopatra Jones, which Wikipedia claims was a "box office success."
Point of No Return
The U.S. remake of La Femme Nikita made about $44 million in today's dollars — not great, but apparently good enough to make a cable TV series worthwhile. No info is available on how much this film cost to make.
Made for about $43 million, this buddy-comedy film has pulled in around $218 million worldwide thus far. So this is another example of a low-budget film that did well, rather than a huge-budget blowout. Also, it doesn't seem to have done as well overseas, which is typical of a lot of comedies. Still, it's one of the most successful "buddy comedy" movies of all time, at this point.
Maybe this is technically a foreign film, but we're not really sure — and in any case, it was a pretty decent hit worldwide. As well as proving that a "dark fairytale" movie doesn't have to be campy or dumb. One of my favorite movies of the past few years. Thanks to Corpore-Metal for suggesting this one!
One last thought: When you look at the female superhero movies that tanked (or the unsuccessful female-led action movies generally) one thing stands out: They were horrible. We're talking Supergirl, Catwoman, Aeon Flux, Elektra, Ultraviolet, Barb Wire, Cutthroat Island, and a few others. (Jonah Hex was similarly awful, but nobody says Josh Brolin should be banned from movies.) There isn't a track record of decent female-led action movies tanking, but rather a moderate number of really terrible films that deserved to fail.
Sources: Box Office Mojo, IMDB, a few other places.