We’re finally seeing some of these amazing women on the big screen.
Superhero comics are hardly sexism-free these days, but there’s no denying this is a great time for female superheroes. Wonder Woman made a huge comeback this summer, Kamala Khan is one of the most popular new superheroes of the decade, and everyone seems to be obsessed with Harley Quinn—despite the Suicide Movie movie being kind of a mess.
To help you get acquainted with some of the best female superheroes, we’ve put together a list of our favorites. They run the gamut from weird vintage characters (Ma Hunkel) to modern fan-faves (America Chavez), and several of them have their own screen adaptations in the works.
The best female superheroes of all time
Why isn’t there an Ally McBeal-style legal dramedy about She-Hulk? Seriously, she’d be perfect for it. She-Hulk is an irresistibly fun character with a unique role in Marvel comics: lawyer to the superhero community. She shares her cousin Bruce Banner’s Hulk powers, but unlike him, she retains her original personality after hulking out. Her power manifests as super strength, green skin, and a confident personality, and her legal career fills an interesting niche in a universe where many heroes “solve” their problems with physical fights.
Tuxedo-wearing magician Zatanna has the capacity to be funny, weird, and deeply charming, and while she mostly exists as a team player, she definitely deserves more solo comics. She’s a stage magician with actual magical powers and acts as an entertaining foil for the seriousness of Batman.
Supergirl‘s role overlaps a lot with Superman, and that’s just fine. She represents a kind of cheerful, optimistic heroism that’s kind of rare in modern superhero media, and her ongoing TV show celebrates that legacy. It’s arguably a better adaptation of the Superman mythos than the Justice League movie franchise, benefiting from a healthy dose of family-friendly feminist themes. As for her role in the comics, Supergirl’s vintage back-catalog includes some delightfully wacky storylines, like that one comic where her horse turns into a dude and they fall in love.
17. Ma Hunkel
Golden Age Z-lister Ma Hunkel is an early superhero parody, and she’s completely awesome. She’s a sturdy middle-aged mom who dons thermal underwear and a helmet made out of a cooking pot, adopting the name “Red Tornado” to fight petty criminals in her neighborhood.
This deadly assassin exists on a knife’s edge between hero and villain, not exactly evil but hardly an altruistic role model either. Armed with her trademark sai—a pair of triple-pronged daggers—she often appears alongside Daredevil, with whom she shares a tumultuous love story. She’s one of the few female superheroes to get her own solo movie, although we prefer her depiction in Marvel’s Netflix franchise, both due to Elodie Yung’s sensitive yet menacing performance and her thoughtfully redesigned costume.
15. Negasonic Teenage Warhead
Negasonic Teenage Warhead is on this list because her name is NEGASONIC TEENAGE WARHEAD, a truly world-class superhero name. She’s goth as hell, and she’s in the Deadpool movie; that’s all you need to know.
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14. Kate Kane (Batwoman)
Batwoman has a rather ironic origin story, given her later role in the comics. She first appeared as Batman’s love-interest in the 1950s, shortly after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a book that accused Batman of homosexual propaganda. In recent years she was rewritten to be gay herself, a controversial decision that led to some problems of its own. While her comic’s creators wanted her to marry her girlfriend, DC Comics nixed the decision by saying heroes “shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” a dubious statement that sounds pretty ridiculous in the context of, say, Superman. Despite all this, she’s undoubtedly the most high-profile lesbian superhero around, with a key role in the Bat-family.
13. Squirrel Girl
Squirrel Girl is officially the most powerful character in the Marvel universe, and unofficially one of the most fun. Born with squirrel-related powers, Doreen Green has a giant, bushy tail and can communicate with squirrels. Her recent solo comics are a cult favorite due to their genre-savvy humor, and she’s about to star in a an ensemble TV sitcom called New Warriors.
This one’s a deep cut from the very early days of superhero comics, but we’d love to see some kind of modern reboot. Fantomah is a jungle ghost superhero whose face turns into a skull when she uses her super-strength. What’s not to love?
11. Ayo and Aneka
These fearsome freedom-fighters met and fell in love as members of the Dora Milaje, the all-female squad of highly trained warriors who guard the king of Wakanda. They act as antagonists in the current Black Panther series, but they’re definitely not the bad guys. It’s a complex story that positions them as vigilante heroes, protecting civilians during a time of political upheaval. And while they aren’t technically acknowledged as superheroes, they definitely qualify due to their heroic role, distinctive costumes, and nickname: the Midnight Angels. It’s just too bad their solo series, World of Wakanda, was canceled in 2017.
10. America Chavez (Miss America)
America Chavez had a slightly awkward start in a limited series called Vengeance, portrayed in a ludicrously skimpy costume. Her real breakthrough happened in the cult favorite 2013 Young Avengers comics, where she got a cosplay-friendly makeover from artist Jamie McKelvie. She has a bunch of superpowers: strength, flight, interdimensional travel, and the power to punch something and make it dissolve into stars. This made her one of the heavy-hitters of the Young Avengers team, and this year she finally got a long-awaited solo series.
9. Black Widow
Natasha Romanov (or Romanoff, or Romanova, depending on the comics writer’s familiarity with Russian naming mechanisms) is an enigma, a black-clad Soviet spy whose Cold War storylines sometimes overlap with the Winter Soldier. Her roles range from femme fatale to pragmatic S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, operating with opaque motives and using psychological manipulation to handle her enemies. Unlike most comic book heroes, who remain within the same static age range for decades, Black Widow has a canonical explanation for her eternally youthful appearance. In some versions of her story, she benefits from bioengineering that slowed the aging process—meaning she could actually be in her 60s or 70s. This doesn’t seem to be the case in the MCU, but who knows? They haven’t made a Black Widow movie yet, so her backstory is kind of a mystery.
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8. Barbara Gordon (Batgirl/Oracle)
Looking at the DC contributions to this list, the Bat-family’s impact is impossible to ignore. Barbara Gordon is one of the most influential examples, as the daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon and protégé to Bruce Wayne. She was the original Batgirl, changing her callsign to Oracle after the Joker infamously broke her spine in The Killing Joke. It’s a dark and controversial moment in Batman canon, but it led to a unique recovery arc for Barbara, as she forged a new role for herself as the information center of Batman’s team. Since she’s one of the only well-known superheroes to use a wheelchair, fans weren’t pleased when DC rebooted her to her pre-Killing Joke state as Batgirl in 2011.
7. Jean Grey
Jean Grey arrived on the original X-Men team in 1963, and since then she’s gone through a rollercoaster of plot twists and transformations. Introduced as a teenager with telepathic and telekinetic powers, she’s one of the most powerful mutants in Marvel canon, and she plays a central role in decades of iconic X-Men storylines. Along with ongoing friendships with Storm and Charles Xavier, and romances with Cyclops and (kind of) Wolverine, she starred in one of the most influential X-Men storylines: the Dark Phoenix Saga, which is being adapted into a movie starring Sophie Turner.
6. Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel)
Kamala Khan is one of the biggest breakout superheroes of the 21st century, following in the footsteps of teen heroes like Kitty Pryde and Peter Parker. She’s a lovable, dorky kid who just wants to do the right thing, but finds it hard to juggle her newfound shapeshifting powers with her obligations to friends, family, and school. Her comics blend classic superhero themes with a contemporary tone, and they’ve been widely praised for bringing a Muslim hero into the mainstream.
5. Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers used to be known as Miss Marvel, holding the title before Kamala Khan took over. While Danvers played a background role in Marvel team comics since the 1970s, her popularity exploded when writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Dexter Roy rebooted her as Captain Marvel in 2012. Her sporty jumpsuit is now a cosplay staple, and her fans are known as the Carol Corps. Her actual powers are pretty conservative—super-strength, flight, and energy projection—but her real strength lies in the quality of her solo comics. Captain Marvel arrived at a time when fans were crying out for a simple, high-quality superhero book about an admirable female hero, and DeConnick and her collaborators delivered. Danvers is now on Marvel’s A-list, featuring heavily in recent crossover events (for better or worse), and soon to appear in a movie franchise starring Brie Larson.
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4. Harley Quinn
Devised as a side-character in Batman: The Animated Series, no one could have predicted that Harley Quinn would become one of DC’s most recognizable characters. As a quirky sidekick and lover to the Joker, she’s a controversial character whose role means different things to different people. To some she’s just a sexy pin-up; to others she’s a sensitive portrayal of mental illness and survival in an abusive relationship. Her star power is such that when Suicide Squad came out last year, she became the main selling point of an otherwise disappointing movie. She’s basically DC’s Deadpool: a queer and unpredictable antihero with a weird sense of humor and a dark past.
Ororo Munroe is a queen, a weather goddess, and a mutant leader. She’s also unequivocally cool, from her punk look in the ’80s to her badass lightning powers. While Storm doesn’t have as many solo comics as she should (and wasn’t treated very well by the movie franchise), she remains one of the most beloved X-Men characters. Along with all her adventures as a member and leader of X-Men teams, she also has an epic romance with Black Panther, the superhero king of Wakanda.
While Marvel leads the field in terms of mainstream superheroines, DC wins in the category of female villains. Catwoman and Harley Quinn both enjoy worldwide popularity as engaging, morally ambiguous characters with a wide range of canonical interpretations. Originating as a burglar, Catwoman is one of Batman’s most well-known antagonists—as well as being a sometimes love-interest.
Superhero comics being what they are, almost every superheroine wears a skin-tight costume and frequently gets drawn in weirdly sexualized poses. However, Catwoman is one of the few characters for whom performative sexuality is a legitimate aspect of her role. This sometimes leads to insultingly exploitative depictions (shout out to the Halle Berry movie), but plenty of creators get the balance right. Michelle Pfeiffer and Eartha Kitt created iconic depiction onscreen, and Catwoman maintains a timeless appeal as a woman who takes what she wants and doesn’t care what other people think.
1. Wonder Woman
The A-list of the A-list. A literal goddess. A feminist icon, to the extent that when her solo movie came out in 2017, people debated whether it somehow “failed” because she couldn’t represent every feminist viewpoint on Earth. (She obviously can’t, but that’s kind of the point.) Created in 1941 as a combination of utopian hero and fetish character, her long career covers everything from Greek mythology to political allegory to conventional superhero team adventures with the Justice League. She’s also canonically queer—something it took DC Comics several decades to admit out loud.