Top 20 Most Heroic Characters of All Time
Protagonists are a dime a dozen, but these are the ones that truly inspire. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 Most Heroic Characters of All Time.
For this list, we’ll be looking at heroes from across all forms of popular media, including film, television, video games, comic books and more. We’re not necessarily ranking characters by popularity, but rather to what degree they embody the definition of heroism in its many forms. That being said, the cultural impact of these heroes is obviously a factor.
“Dragon Ball” Franchise (1984-)
The worlds of anime and manga have given us numerous remarkable heroes over the years, but few have made a more lasting impression than this Saiyan with a heart of gold. Goku (or Kakarot, as his fellow Saiyans call him), was sent to planet Earth as a baby. Unlike a certain superhero with a similar origin story, however, Goku was meant to eradicate humanity. In the ultimate argument for nurture over nature, this violent and destructive child was shaped into the kind, excitable and optimistic hero we know and love today. Goku has saved earth, alien planets and entire realities. He’s a warrior without equal, but what makes him a standout hero is his selflessness and his incredible capacity for forgiveness. He sees the good in everyone.
#19: Monkey D. Luffy
“One Piece” Franchise (1997-)
Don’t let his humble appearance or silly name fool you; "Straw Hat Luffy" is one of the greatest heroes to ever grace the pages of manga, or be brought to life in an anime series. The protagonist of “One Piece”, Luffy leads the Straw Hat Pirates as their captain, and dreams of becoming the next King of the Pirates. We know what you’re thinking; since when are pirates heroes? But Luffy is cut from a different cloth. Lighthearted and cheerful, Monkey uses his influence and power to help and defend the island people he meets along his journey. Fearless, hardworking, loyal, and incredibly likeable, Luffy might dismiss the concept of heroism, but he embodies it nonetheless.
#18: Frodo Baggins
“The Lord of the Rings” franchise (1954-)
J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic high-fantasy world is packed to the brim with heroes of all shapes and sizes. Next to the other characters who make up the fellowship, the hobbits seem clearly ill-suited to the task. As Frodo Baggins proves however, heroes aren’t defined by their skill with a bow, axe or sword, but rather the strength of their conviction. The ring bearer might be small but he’s got courage, a big heart and the moral fortitude to do what’s right even when it seems impossible. The one ring is an object of incomprehensible power, the sort of power that invariably corrupts those who would seek to wield it, but not Frodo. Of course, he couldn’t have done it without the heroic support of Sam and Gandalf.
#17: James Bond
“007” Franchise (1953-)
You don’t need to be perfect to be a hero. In fact, “hubris” which has been a major part of the hero’s journey dating back to Ancient Greece, is defined as excessive pride or dangerous self-confidence—two descriptors that perfectly fit the illustrious James Bond. A cocky and uncompromising womanizer, Agent 007 is a man with many flaws, but also just as many (if not more) qualities that make him an iconic hero. He’s solitary and avoids forming attachments because they inevitably inhibit his ability to do his job. He sacrifices a personal life in the name of saving the world. Courageous, brilliant, cunning, cool under fire (or torture), he never hesitates to risk life and limb for the greater good. What could be more heroic than that?
#16: Robin Hood
Various (13th/14th Century-)
An iconic English folk hero, Robin Hood requires no introduction. He’s been adapted into works of literature, film, television, video games and more. What makes Robin Hood so remarkable however, is that he’s achieved unquestionable hero status despite him being an outlaw. As the story always goes, he steals from the rich to give to the poor. This makes him a criminal, but a criminal that, from a young age, kids are taught to look up to and respect. Sure he’s often depicted as cocky, headstrong and reckless—the sort of man who revels in his outlaw status—but he’s fundamentally guided by a sense of right and wrong. He teaches us that unjust laws and corrupt authority figures should be challenged.
“One Punch Man” franchise (2009-)
Before we talk about the titular hero of this popular webcomic, anime and manga, we want to give some love to Mumen Rider. A C-Class superhero, Satoru has no special abilities, but that never stops him from throwing himself into danger when duty calls. That’s the sort of heroism you can’t help but admire! That being said, Saitama is the star of One-Punch Man, and he earns his leading man status, both with his strength and his distinct brand of heroism. Because of his colossal power, Saitama gets no real joy or thrill from his superheroics. Despite all of this, he remains extremely humble, often letting his fellow capes take the credit. As heroes go, he’s totally unique.
#14: Barry Allen [aka the Flash]
Since the character was first introduced in 1940, a number of people have donned the mantle of the Flash. In fact, Barry Allen wasn’t even the first; that honor goes to Jay Garrick. But while each version of the Flash has brought something special to the role, Barry Allen best embodies the traditional values of heroism. Self-sacrificing, lighthearted, compassionate, kind and considerate—he’s a real old school hero. When lightning struck Barry Allen in his lab at the Central City Police Department, he gained superhuman speed and reflexes. Ever since then, he’s used these powers to defend Central City and the world. Most notably, during the comic book event “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” he seemingly sacrificed himself to stop the Anti-Monitor.
#13: The Doctor
“Doctor Who” (1963-89; 1996; 2005-)
The titular character at the center of this long-running series is a complicated creature. Then again, what else would you expect from a millennia-old extraterrestrial Time Lord who has lived multiple lives via regeneration? Yeah...the Doctor can often feel out of touch, prone to taking a “big picture” perspective and yet, at the same time, also being known to be quite selfish. But every hero has their flaws, and (in the grand scheme of things) the good that the Doctor has done far outweighs the bad. While this quirky character has saved the day more times than we can count, arguably the most heroic thing is that the Doctor has given geeks everywhere a hero to call their own.
“Mulan” franchise (1998-)
Disney has given us countless unforgettable heroes to look up to over the years, pulling from the folklore and legends of cultures around the world, as well as creating original characters. But when looking at the various examples from the Disney library, even against steep competition, Mulan stands out as the single most inspiring hero to date. Mulan’s story takes place during the Han Dynasty when China is threatened by invasion. Mulan not only wants to defend her country, but also spare her ageing father from going to battle where he will surely perish. Everything she does is selfless. Mulan is also empowering, proving herself to be an intelligent, courageous and capable hero, flying in the face of the gendered assumptions of the time.
“The Legend of Zelda” Franchise (1986-)
As far as video game characters go, it doesn’t get much more heroic than this. Link has starred in well over a dozen games and that’s not counting spin-offs and remakes. And though he’s a boy/young man of few words, his actions speak for themselves. No matter what timeline he appears in and regardless of his age, Link is invariably tasked with facing seemingly insurmountable evil. No one he loves has been kidnapped; he’s not looking to avenge a fallen friend or family member...he embarks on the journey and faces certain death simply because it's the right thing to do. Oh, and on top of everything else, he always helps people out along the way. That’s heroism, plain and simple.
#10: Harry Potter
“Harry Potter” Franchise (1997-)
There are a few literary figures that have made a more significant impact on the lives of readers than The Boy Who Lived. Harry Potter is the only person to have survived a Killing Curse from the wand of Lord Voldemort. As such, it might sound odd to call him average, but in many ways, he is! He doesn’t excel in most school subjects, he’s not a brilliant intellect, nor is he especially gifted at magic. And yet, throughout his teens, Harry repeatedly faces and overcomes odds well beyond his years. He’s always outmatched, but his bravery leads him to do great things, stand up in the face of injustices big and small, save the life of friends and peers, and eventually defeat the dark lord.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” Franchise (2005-)
When fate called on this young man to restore peace to his divided world, he ultimately embraced the challenge and went on to become a legend, symbol and hero. Part of what makes Anng’s story so inspirational however, is that he initially fled from this responsibility. Only after being frozen in ice for 100 years does he finally begin to fulfill his destiny. All throughout his journey, it's clear that Aang is a reluctant hero; he is after all, just a kid. Naturally fun-loving, kind and free-spirited, he wants to enjoy life. For all his lightheartedness however, he carries guilt about his past, and when the moment comes, he proves himself to be the hero that the world needs.
#8: Wonder Woman
Until the release of her blockbuster live action film in 2017, Wonder Woman’s pop culture prominence had fallen on hard times. To be clear, comic book lovers and TV fans always held the character in the highest regard, but despite being a household name with the masses, she felt far more dated than her fellow members of the DC trinity. Thanks to Gal Gadot’s performance and the direction of Patty Jenkins, however, Wonder Woman once again gets the widespread attention and respect she’s always deserved. The Amazonian warrior princess is a master combatant, with awe-inspiring power. She’s also a natural, no-nonsense sort of leader who, even when navigating impossibly complex situations, never loses her capacity for compassion. Wonder Woman is truly a one-of-a-kind superhero.
#7: Iron Man
We’re going to be honest with you. If we were sticking to the comics, Iron Man likely wouldn’t have made the list. Tony Stark has always been characterized as brilliant and charismatic across all media, but when Robert Downey Jr. brought him to life in the MCU, he gave the hero something he’s often lacked—a heart. With their comparable recent successes, we were tempted to include Thor or Black Panther here, but Tony Stark’s 11 year MCU arc makes for one of the most heroic journeys ever committed to film. Sure he’s cocky and he makes mistakes, but he never fails to learn from them. And when the world is in need of a hero, he’s willing to put everything on the line to save the day.
“Mario” Franchise (1981-)
There is no video game character more recognizable or influential than this high-jumping plumber. Now, in keeping with our criteria, his popularity by no means entitles him to the top spot in terms of video game heroes; that’s something he earns by never failing to step up when duty calls. His quest to foil the machinations of the evil Bowser have carried him through countless strange environments, including outer space and other dimensions. But no matter how dangerous the obstacles become, he boldly charges forwarding “wahoo-ing” the whole time. What makes Mario such a standout hero is not only the variety of adventures that he’s had, but the fact that— jumping ability, upgrades and gadgets aside—he’s just an unassuming plumber rising to the occasion.
#5: Obi-Wan Kenobi
“Star Wars” Franchise (1977-)
Luke Skywalker is and always will be the central hero of the “Star Wars” franchise. His evolution from naive young farm boy to legendary Jedi master is a perfect example of the hero’s journey—complete with some darkness along the way. But when looking at the franchise as a whole, and ranking the various characters in terms of their heroism, we have to give the title to Obi-Wan Kenobi. He strikes a perfect balance of good intentions, honor and the willingness to act when faced with evil. Even when he was pushed to the brink when serving as a general in the Clone Wars, he was never tempted by the dark side. And in the end, he willingly gave his life to secure the future of the galaxy.
We know you’ve heard it a thousand times before, but “with great power comes great responsibility. The fact that this variation on a line from the comics has come to be known as the “Peter Parker Principle” is a testament to just how influential of a hero Spider-Man really is. When Peter first got his abilities, he wasn’t about social responsibility. After losing his Uncle Ben, however, Peter became the hero we know, love, and look up to today. It’s worth remembering that for much of his early career, Spider-Man was just a high school kid risking his life fighting superpowered criminals—many of them killers. But no matter how many beatings he’s taken or hardships he’s faced over the years, he always puts the mask back on.
#3: Captain America
If you’re looking for a yardstick by which to measure yourself, you couldn’t ask for better than Captain America. Yes, he’s a patriotic symbol of the United States, and with the various superhuman augmentations given to him as a result of the Super Soldier serum, it’s easy for him to play the hero. But what makes Steve Rogers so remarkable is how he chooses to use that power. He never loses control. He never wields his strength or influence for personal gain. Captain America might be old-fashioned, but he genuinely lives by the values that he preaches, even when no one is watching. Best of all? He was every bit as noble and brave even when he wasn’t super-enhanced.
The Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the World’ Greatest Detective... call him whatever you want so long as you recognize that, as far as non-powered heroes go, he’s the best there is. Sure, he has trouble trusting others, he keeps secrets and his methods can be just a bit brutal at times, but at the end of the day, everything that he does is for the greater good. All heroes have to make sacrifices in the name of justice, but few commit themselves so entirely to the cause. Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, he’s just a mortal man—albeit a huge bank account and brilliant mind—pushing himself to the limit. And though he can be terrifying, he is a fierce defender of the innocent who refuses to leave a victim behind.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Transformers” Franchise (1984-)
“My Hero Academia” Franchise (2014-)
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)
“Game of Thrones” (2011-19)
#1: Stan Lee!
He’s the godfather of the modern superhero comic and for the role he played in giving us so many relatable heroes, we wanted to give him a special place on this list. Now on to our real top entry!
A hero wholly committed to truth and justice, Superman is morality personified. Looked up to by countless people (both within the DC universe and the real world), he is a beacon of hope; there’s arguably no better fictional role model out there. And to think, he’s not even human! Born on the dying planet Krypton, Superman was sent to earth as an infant by his parents, where he received a small town upbringing in Kansas. Yes, his near invulnerability and colossal powers means that his life is rarely on the line, but his superheroics nonetheless often come with great personal expense - psychologically, emotionally and in terms of his personal relationships. Superman reminds us that you can and should always do the right thing, even when it hurts.