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Top 30 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time

Top 30 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Andy Hammersmith
These movie characters ARE cinema. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the most iconic, entertaining, and/or compelling characters in live-action films. Our countdown of the greatest movie characters of all time includes Captain Jack Sparrow, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, Mary Poppins, The Joker, Darth Vader, and more!

Top 30 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the most iconic, entertaining, and/or compelling characters in live-action films.

#30: Tony Montana
“Scarface” (1983)

Powered by the energy of Al Pacino, Tony Montana injects nonstop energy into this remake. He’s the ambitious anti-hero who can’t help himself. During his journey to the top, Montana also has a few choice quotes to entertain viewers. Pacino’s accent is just one of the many captivating elements of this character. The drug lord becomes so over-the-top that he’s yelling, swearing, and/or doing drugs in most scenes. He doesn’t go quietly into the night either, fending off assassins in the violent finale. The greedy businessman could be considered the most memorable trainwreck of his kind. He burns bright throughout this insane movie, never slowing down as he excites and shocks audiences.

#29: Captain Jack Sparrow
“Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise (2003-)

This swashbuckling hero is known for his particular brand of humor - known as a combo of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and several Looney Tunes characters. As the face of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Jack Sparrow is a trickster who always has a fun scheme up his sleeve. His oddball personality is a highlight throughout a series of wild and improbable adventures. Sparrow’s charms shine through at every turn, never letting a bad day ruin his mood. He’s a pirate crossed with a rockstar that’s anything like a bland action hero. This bold character gives viewers a reason to smile in each entry.

#28: Harry Potter
“Harry Potter” franchise (2001-11)

Destined for greatness, this young wizard starts as a humble child. He then journeys to Hogwarts and learns to harness his abilities. Along with being heroic, Potter is especially loyal to the people around him. He’s as renowned for magic as he is for being a great friend. With the help of his allies, the hero finally destroys the villain Voldemort. You could call him basic or too nice, but that would be a disservice to the rich material surrounding him. Sometimes it pays to be a good person and have a genuine personality in the face of evil.

#27: Beatrix Kiddo a.k.a. The Bride
“Kill Bill” franchise (2003-04)

Beatrix Kiddo thinks she can live a normal life, but then she’s betrayed by her assassin colleagues. The Bride spends the rest of the series dishing out revenge. As a consummate badass, the heroine easily cuts her way through dozens of enemies. Her lightning reflexes are only matched by her sword skills. She can even find her way out of a coffin, showing that she’s the ultimate escape artist. Uma Thurman brings out the iconic character’s physicality and a rich interior. Quentin Tarantino’s films throw all kinds of obstacles at her, but she always proves to be talented and resilient enough to survive.

#26: Jules Winnfield
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Jules Winnfield stands tall among Quentin Tarantino’s canon of characters. The role blends humor, violence, and philosophy into one memorable hitman. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance might be the crown jewel in the movie, bringing down the house with his biblical speeches. The character’s change of heart gives the film an added layer of emotional depth. He contemplates his future, becoming a changed man in the entertaining finale. Winnfield takes control during the diner robbery and dishes out some wisdom in an incredible moment. Jackson’s acting makes Tarantino’s dialogue sing, creating a match made in cinematic heaven.

#25: Wolverine
“X-Men” franchise (2000-)

Of all the members of the “X-Men,” Wolverine brings a bad-boy energy to the team. Hugh Jackman portrays the character as a multi-dimensional mutant. He’s striving to be the hero that his allies need him to be. Often without a filter, Logan is always himself. In the original films, Wolverine transforms from a drifter to a hero. You could argue that his finest hour comes in “Logan” when he’s facing his own mortality. He’s an endless source of fascination and contradictions, symbolizing the many real-world issues that the franchise explores. Jackman’s take on the role doesn’t shy away from his faults, making him a lovable and abrasive figure.

#24: Colonel Hans Landa
“Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

In the opening sequence of this war film, Hans Landa makes his evil presence known. The villain slowly reveals his ruthless methods of getting information. Through all of his awful traits, the Nazi officer finds a way to be charming. Quentin Tarantino even gives the antagonist a dark humor that keeps audiences guessing. Playing into the character’s complexity, actor Christoph Waltz plays the iconic part with some genuine gravitas. His Oscar-winning performance is terrifying, funny, and arguably the best part of “Inglourious Basterds.” You both love to hate him and can’t wait for his next scene.

#23: Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski
“The Big Lebowski” (1998)

Marching to the beat of his own drum, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski is a singular entity unto himself. He has among the most laidback vibes of any hero ever. Brought to life by Jeff Bridges, this character finds himself stuck in a complex mystery that never ends. He is an unlikely candidate for the job, but that makes him all the more perfect. His entire personality brings out a natural humor and an unexpected philosophy to everything. We get to watch him fumble his way through the investigation, worrying about things like his favorite rug. He’s the kind of guy that you want to hang out with long after the movie ends.

#22: Gandalf
“The Lord of the Rings” franchise (2001-)

Gandalf is among the wisest characters in all of “The Lord of the Rings.” Played by Ian McKellen, the wizard is also one of the strongest allies in the series. McKellen plays the magical man with equal amounts of heart and soul. Each time he speaks, he demands that you listen. His change from gray to white also sets up his triumphant return. In a franchise full of eclectic roles, this one stands out as an example of true power and goodness. He saves the day more than once, giving the series several of its most important moments.

#21: Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man
MCU (2008-)

In 2008, Marvel films took on a new life courtesy of Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. brought the character to life with a transformative performance. He gives Tony Stark a healthy attitude and humor, turning him into one of the funniest superheroes of recent times. His attempt to keep his allies together proves to be among the most valiant efforts of the franchise. In his final moments, Stark reminds everyone of the hero beneath the armor. Iron Man stands as one of the most essential and entertaining stories throughout the series. He wasn’t the first Avenger, but he did lay the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

#20: The Terminator
“The Terminator” franchise (1984-)

Arnold Schwarzenegger was a rather inexperienced actor at the time of “The Terminator,” yet his cold and emotionless performance helped create one of the most iconic characters in movie history. What makes the Terminator such a great character, aside from Schwarzenegger’s literally robotic performance, is his wonderful character arc. It was a move of inspired genius to turn the malicious Terminator into a hero, and “T2” is just as well remembered for its touching writing and character development as it is for the groundbreaking action. No matter what you think of the later movies, the first two “Terminator” films will always be classics, a reputation that is undoubtedly aided by its fascinating titular character.

#19: Forrest Gump
“Forrest Gump” (1994)

Is there anything this man didn’t - or couldn’t -do? Forrest Gump is the titular character of this critically and financially successful comedy drama, which is also based on the Winston Groom novel of the same name. The film adaptation follows him as he encounters various highly important figures and events throughout American history, all without the knowledge of their immense importance in time. Despite his strong naiveté regarding many aspects of life, his forward-looking attitude gave us all determination to fight ahead, and left us all in tears. And thanks to an Academy Award-winning performance by Tom Hanks, Forrest will go down in history as one of the sweetest and most well-meaning characters in cinema.

#18: Scarlett O’Hara
“Gone with the Wind” (1939)

Actress Vivien Leigh was ranked as the 16th greatest female movie star by the American Film Institute in 1999. She earned two Academy Awards throughout her lifetime - one as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the other as Scarlett O’Hara in the epic to end all epics - “Gone with the Wind.” Author Margaret Mitchell believes that her novel is about survival in turbulent times, and Scarlett embodies that theme in various interesting ways. She goes from spoiled, pampered girl to strong, independent businesswoman, which itself is a major deviation from the other southern belles of the time and the story. Perhaps the story is arguing that there are no gendered “standards,” and in that way, it was truly ahead of its time.

#17: The Man with No Name
“Dollars Trilogy” (1964-66)

Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” are revolutionary Spaghetti Westerns, and while “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More” aren’t as well-remembered today, everyone knows and loves “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” At the heart of each movie is the unnamed antihero played wonderfully by screen legend Clint Eastwood. The Man doesn’t have much of a personality, nor does he really speak all that much. But it’s a testament to Eastwood’s screen presence and charisma that the character has remained so beloved throughout the decades. He’s the type of rugged, no-nonsense antihero that many Westerns came to adopt, and he somehow managed to make ponchos look badass. Throw one on today and you will undoubtedly be called Clint Eastwood by someone.

#16: John McClane
“Die Hard” franchise (1988-)

Historical and genre context are important when considering the impact of movie characters, and they’re very important when analyzing John McClane. At the time, action movies were over-the-top bombastic spectacles starring shirtless, impeccably-chiseled men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In comes Bruce Willis as John McClane. It’s fitting that Hans Gruber calls him “just another American,” because that’s exactly what he is. He isn’t an “action star” - he’s normally built, balding, and he’s got a lot of personal problems. He doesn’t even want to be a hero - he just becomes one because no one else will. Here was a heroic action movie star that the everyday man could relate to.

#15: Freddy Krueger
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise (1984-)

There have been many great slashers throughout the years, including Freddy’s personal rival, Jason Voorhees. But Freddy is arguably the meanest of the bunch. Much of his legacy comes down to his sardonic personality. Unlike other slashers, Freddy talks, and he loves to talk. But his reputation also stems from just how… gross he is. Not only physically, but spiritually. He openly mocks his victims, he does nasty things like cutting off his own fingers, and he gleefully murdered children as a human. Of course, part of what makes Freddy so scary is that there is literally no escaping him. You will fall asleep eventually, and when you do, Freddy will be there waiting.

#14: Mary Poppins
“Mary Poppins” (1964)

Julie Andrews won her only Academy Award for portraying Mary Poppins, the titular character of this fantastically unique and imaginative Disney film. Poppins is a magical nanny who teaches the Banks children valuable life lessons through magic and glorious song and dance. Her personality is utterly magnetic, utilizing music, a sharp wit, and a gentle, nurturing approach to reach the children. Who amongst us hasn’t thought of “A Spoonful of Sugar” whenever we’re taking nasty medicine? She has become an iconic part of our collective pop culture consciousness, being referenced from the 2012 London Olympics to “Gilligan’s Island” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Everyone loves their cool nanny, but Mary Poppins is the coolest of them all.

#13: Travis Bickle
“Taxi Driver” (1976)

2019’s “Joker” was often compared to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and that’s in large part due to the similarities between Arthur Fleck and Travis Bickle. Travis spoke to a generation of lost, disillusioned, and mentally troubled men returning from Vietnam. He returns to find a filthy city, both physically and metaphorically. It’s filled with thieves, pimps, and 12-year-old prostitutes - societal aspects that eventually lead to Travis’s mental decline. His experiences, the long hours, and the loneliness all cause Travis to snap, and he becomes hell-bent on “cleansing” society of its so-called “filth.” He’s one of cinema’s scariest villains because he’s so relatable and grounded. Perhaps the movie is arguing that many people are living vicariously on the edge of madness.

#12: Dorothy Gale
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

“There’s no place like home” - so said this character on the silver screen over 70 years ago, and her charm and sweetness have remained with movie-goers ever since. Released in 1939, this movie was notable for its use of the relatively new Technicolor process, and the character of Dorothy certainly helped usher in the color revolution in film. From her ruby shoes to her trademark blue and white gingham dress, this heroine also helped bring in a new era of filmmaking: as a fiercely brave character that is not afraid to take charge and stand up for herself, she proved herself a strong female role model for generations to come.

#11: Ellen Ripley
“Alien” franchise (1979-)

When it comes to horror movie protagonists, few are as iconic as Ellen Ripley. Ripley is not only one of the most badass characters of all time, but also one of the most important. Loads of academic articles have been written regarding her impact on film and her role as a strong female protagonist in an otherwise male-dominated genre. The role also earned Weaver significant critical acclaim. Her performance in “Aliens” made her just the second leading actress in horror movie history to be nominated for an Academy Award, behind only Ellen Burstyn for “The Exorcist.” It’s telling that the Academy decided to forgo their aversion to “genre films” like horror and science fiction to honor Weaver’s work as the heroic and groundbreaking Ellen Ripley.

#10: The Tramp
Various (1914-36)

A legendary character, and insanely popular during the silent film era, The Tramp was extraordinarily played by Charlie Chaplin for decades - all without speaking a word. Chaplin’s natural grace and body language, as well as his facial expressions, induced everything from belly laughs to tears of sorrow. Portrayed as a vagrant, The Tramp acts like a gentleman despite his social status, and also conjured not only strong emotions, but also intense social commentary. A vastly complex character that said so much without saying anything at all, The Little Tramp will be remembered as one of cinema’s highest achievements.

#9: Hannibal Lecter
“Hannibal Lecter” franchise (1986-)

You might not expect a cannibalistic serial killer to ever be acclaimed and respected, but Hannibal Lecter is just so mesmerizing that audiences can’t help but love – or at least be intrigued by - him. Most notably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins on the big screen, Hannibal is the creepy and calculating murderer who helps the FBI go after more important madmen currently on the loose. Originally portrayed as an antagonist with limited screen time, Hannibal ultimately won over audiences to become a fan favorite. He is so good at being bad that he was voted the #1 villain of all time by the American Film Institute.

#8: The Joker
“The Dark Knight” (2008)

Villains are often “showier” and meatier roles than that of the heroes, and that is certainly the case with “The Dark Knight.” While Batman will forever remain an iconic character, everyone honors Heath Ledger’s Joker as one of the finest villains in cinematic history. Christopher Nolan and his team of filmmakers helped elevate “The Dark Knight” above the typical superhero trappings, offering up rich social commentary on the war on terror and themes regarding lawlessness, anarchy, and moral foundation - all of which the Joker horrifically embodies. Future iterations will always be compared to Ledger’s. It’s a wonderfully unhinged, fantastically entertaining performance that changed a classic character forever.

#7: Norman Bates
“Psycho” (1960)

“Psycho”’s main antagonist, Norman Bates, was loosely inspired by real-life murderer Ed Gein, so you know he’s going to be trouble. A deeply disturbed individual, Bates suffered extreme emotional abuse as a child at the hands of his mother, which later caused him to kill innocent people, especially women he’s attracted to. Not only does he dress in his mother’s clothing, he also repeatedly stabs and murders the patrons of his motel, all while talking to his deceased mother, Norma - whose corpse he keeps in the basement! If that doesn’t make Norman one of the most troubling and unsettling characters in cinema history – as well as one of the most memorable – then we don’t know what does.

#6: Charles Foster Kane
“Citizen Kane” (1941)

“Rosebud.” Spouting one of the most famous lines in cinema history, and the main character of what is generally considered one of the greatest – if not THE greatest - film of all time, Charles Foster Kane can safely be regarded as one of cinema’s finest characters. Created and portrayed by Orson Welles, earning him an Oscar nomination, Kane is the rich and esteemed owner of The New York Inquirer. Though he’s portrayed as insanely powerful with a megalomaniacal ego, he is also deeply flawed and human, which makes him relatable and sympathetic as well as unforgettable throughout the ages.

#5: Rocky Balboa
“Rocky” franchise (1976-)

Who knew that a little movie made for around $1 million would spawn a franchise spanning over four decades? While Rambo is certainly Sylvester’s most badass role, Rocky is arguably his best. Maybe what makes Rocky so timeless and consistently popular are his pure ideals. He embodies everyday heroism - he believes in himself when no one else does, he stands up for what is right, he works hard to accomplish his goals, and he pushes on despite the spiritual and physical pain. These are universal themes that helped the “Rocky” franchise span countries and generations, and they made Rocky Balboa into a beloved cinematic icon. Those and his Greek God physique.

#4: Indiana Jones
“Indiana Jones” franchise (1981-)

Star of several movies and featured in multiple Disney attractions, Indiana Jones first became insanely popular over 30 years ago, but he continues to be revered today. Created by George Lucas, who was inspired by action heroes of the 1930s, Jones has been expertly portrayed by Harrison Ford throughout the years. Known for his trademark style, including his fedora and whip, Indy is especially famous for his ability to survive many perilous encounters, his biting sense of humor, and his extreme intelligence. Unsurprisingly, Jones has already gone down in history as a true cinematic star and there he will remain, alongside Ford’s other cinematic icon Han Solo.

#3: Vito Corleone
“The Godfather” (1972) & “The Godfather Part II” (1974)

Portrayed by Marlon Brando in the original and Robert De Niro in the second film, this character truly got lucky since he was portrayed by two of the greatest actors of all time. As head of the Corleone crime family, Vito is a deeply complex character. While his job involves death on a daily basis, he is also very human, as he cares for his family and tries to do right by them, especially his son Michael - who, may we mention, is another fantastic and timeless character. A deeply flawed, yet violent man, Vito is one powerful crime boss, and one truly iconic character for the ages.

#2: Darth Vader
“Star Wars” franchise (1977-)

The “Star Wars” saga boasts many iconic characters, including the legendary Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but it is Vader himself who gets our vote. Portrayed as a one-dimensional but cruel villain in the first film, Vader becomes progressively more complex and “gray” as the film series continues, amassing great acclaim along the way. He is one of the most fearful yet complex villains in cinema history, and the plot twist delivered by him in the original trilogy is one of the best in cinema. With his all-black attire, haunting voice and dedication to the dark side, Darth Vader’s cultural impact is astronomical, and his status as the greatest cinema character more than secured.

#1: James Bond
“James Bond” franchise (1962-)

You know his name, you know his number. Agent 007 has been on screen for over fifty years, and his spy film series has become one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. So far portrayed by six different actors under Eon Productions, James Bond has continually shown us exotic locales, beautiful women, and exciting action. Known as one of the deadliest and most charming men in cinema, always accompanied by handy gadgets and clever one-liners, the character of Bond and his films are known all over the world. Without a doubt, 007 has been ingrained into pop culture and is certainly here to stay.

Did we forget another memorable movie character? Let us know in the comments below.