We all love movies because of characters. Without well-written, memorable characters, any film franchise is going to flop right out of the gate. Hollywood has been trying for decades to hit the mentality of the cool action character, and sometimes they’ve nailed it. These are the characters who are so slick, so engaging, so memorable that they’re instantly quotable and you find yourself wanting to be just like them. Sometimes it’s a character who can be instantly memorable and unflappably cool from the first moment you see them, sliding on screen and into your heart. Other times it’s someone who takes time to work their way up to that level.
For this list, we haven’t just looked at characters who got cooler the older they got, we’ve looked at the flip side. Sometimes a character overstays their welcome, and the results can be devastating. Whether it’s due to bold ideas that flopped, new Hollywood standards changing a character’s perception or just plain getting too long in the tooth, characters can easily lose their appeal. To that end, we’ve gathered 20 characters who are so beloved they can still get the job done, or who have lost their luster and should hang it up.
16. WORSE: INDIANA JONES
With an incredible swagger and unbreakable resolve, Indiana Jones was an excellent choice for George Lucas’ follow-up to Star Wars. Harrison Ford nailed the character’s tone, a throwback to pulp heroes of serials from a time long gone. The three original films would establish a universe in which problems were solved with quick thinking and bare-knuckle brawls, and good guys always won.
But the fourth entry would sour a lot of these memories for fans. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull saw Indy return older, his demeanor far more relaxed and the action much more over the top. A weak story with a misplaced plot surrounding aliens didn’t help either, though a fifth film has still been announced.
15. BETTER: ROCKY BALBOA
The original Rocky may be one of the greatest sports films ever made, and it’s all thanks to Sylvester Stallone’s disarmingly human performance as failing boxer Rocky Balboa. Throughout the span of the series, Rocky went up against insurmountable odds and often didn’t come out on top. But he kept trying, and it endeared him to fans for generations.
Rocky continued to be a box office draw and popular character into the mid-00’s, with Rocky Balboa being hailed as a return to form for the character and the franchise. More recently the franchise was spun into Creed, which proved Rocky still had the chops even when he wasn’t in the spotlight.
14. WORSE: LUKE SKYWALKER
The story of Luke Skywalker, the young farm boy who lost everything as the Galactic Empire marched through the universe, made Star Wars one of the grandest phenomena to ever hit the cinema. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke would become a Jedi, and the following Expanded Universe of stories would make Luke an all-powerful Jedi Master.
But movie Luke would not be afforded such luxury, ultimately being a failure. Luke, who had trained in the ways of a Jedi for a long weekend, was in over his head. He was decidedly uncool here, but the decision to make him a failure in The Last Jedi was the best one director Rian Johnson could have made.
13. BETTER: LAURIE STRODE
Laurie Strode’s debut in Halloween didn’t seem like it was going to be much at first. However, the heroine, stalked by her brother Michael Myers, proved to be one of horror’s greatest icons. Strode proved so beloved by fans that even after the character’s off-screen death, the story was re-written to explain her return.
Strode would return to the franchise with Halloween: H20, and quickly became re-established as one of horror’s greatest heroines. Strode is slated to make another comeback in the upcoming sequel Halloween, returning to franchise yet again to square off against her sadistic brother for what could be the final time.
12. WORSE: MARTIN RIGGS
The dynamic between Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh made Lethal Weapon a surprise hit, a buddy cop action flick and comedy all rolled into one. Riggs himself was a huge action icon at the time, thanks to a strong mix of quick wit and the ability to lay a hurting on anyone who crossed his path.
But Lethal Weapon proved too successful and ran long in the tooth. By Lethal Weapon 4, Riggs was re-married and expecting a child, which really neutered the character in the long run. A television reboot would bring the character to a more modern audience, but behind the scenes drama would end up harming this version of Riggs as well.
11. BETTER: JCVD
Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career was basically over, despite having a huge career in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, punctuating his career with hits like Kickboxer or Time Cop. But as the ‘90s became the mid-’90s, the machismo action blockbuster went out of style. Though he continued making films, Van Damme’s career stalled.
This would be turned around with 2008’s JCVD. The film saw Van Damme play himself, as he struggled with finding roles later in his career. JCVD re-introduced Van Damme as a tragic figure who was just trying to make ends meet. The film brought Van Damme, as an actor and character, into a new light and rebooted his career.
10. WORSE: MARTY MCFLY
Everyone in Hill Valley hated Marty McFly, but fans sure loved him. The rebellious teen was the epitome of cool in the ‘80s, and Back to the Future was one of the biggest hits of the generation. But with Back to the Future Part II, we learned that Marty’s future wasn’t the brightest.
Marty would fall into a miserable life, his body broken after a wreck and his life firmly in mediocrity, eventually losing his job after being goaded into a bad deal. This Marty’s future was depressing, to say the least, but fortunately, it may have been changed by the actions of Mary and Doc, though this was never confirmed.
9. BETTER: DARTH VADER
It’s hard to deny that Anakin Skywalker was a pretty grating, whiny character. Between the overacting, the extreme emotions and the just general, unsavory mix of lusty teen and bloodthirsty psychopath, the character did a lot of damage to Star Wars at the worst possible time in the history of the franchise.
Thankfully, he becomes Darth Vader, and the later years of Anakin’s life more than make up for it. The character has also been salvaged by his increased presence in the new era of Star Wars, with cameos in films like Rogue One and the slavish devotion from his grandson, Kylo Ren.
8. BETTER: JACK SPARROW
Jack Sparrow was already pretty cool when he was first introduced. The mysterious captain of the Black Pearl had a definite rock star swagger to him, and it instantly endeared him to viewers. It is inarguable that without the charismatic Sparrow helming the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl would have been a failure right out of the gate.
Sparrow would continue to endear himself to fans through countless adventures, facing Davy Jones and his own death, all alongside the crew of the Black Pearl and on the run from countless enemies and monsters. The franchise may have lost a lot of its drawing power in recent years, but Jack Sparrow remains cinema’s coolest pirate.
7. WORSE: ELLEN RIPLEY
Make absolutely no mistake: Alien is one of the best and most influential horror films ever made, and Ellen Ripley is the premiere horror film heroine. In Alien and its wildly successful follow-up Aliens, Ellen Ripley is not someone you want to mess with. She’s the definitive tough heroine, and Hollywood needs more Ellen Ripleys in its films.
But the character gets a hell of a sad end. Alien 3 didn’t necessarily ruin Ripley — stranding her on a desert planet and killing her — but Alien Resurrection, which saw Ripley resurrected as a Xenomorph/Human hybrid and uncharacteristically depressed proved too much for fans, in what was likely the final Ripley outing that will ever be produced.
6. BETTER: SPOCK
Among the coolest space-faring adventures out there was Star Trek‘s Mister Spock. Leonard Nimoy played the strange and alien Spock even before William Shatner’s Kirk became a part of the franchise, and continued as the role into the far-flung future, portraying the character up until the ‘90s on film in Star Trek VI, as well as guest-starring on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Nimoy’s Spock would only become more notable as he grew older, becoming the lone member of the original Star Trek timeline to exist into 2009’s Kelvin Timeline with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Ambassador Spock would finally pass away in this timeline, in one of Star Trek’s most understated and poignant deaths to be depicted.
5. BETTER: CHARLES XAVIER
Charles Xavier was already a pretty cool guy in his younger years, as portrayed in the recent wave of X-Men films by Scottish actor James McAvoy. McAvoy’s Xavier has the same quiet intensity, slowly evolving into the version we came to love, as brought to life by Patrick Stewart in 2000’s X-Men.
Stewart’s turn as Xavier is one of the most obvious castings ever, and he was a clear fan favorite for at least a decade prior. Xavier would go on to be one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, and his final outing in Logan proved to be just as memorable and emotionally wrenching as co-star Hugh Jackman’s.
4. WORSE: THE TERMINATOR
It’s hard to believe that anyone was ever in the running to play The Terminator other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. A relative unknown when the film released, his portrayal of the murderous killer from the future was a revelation, and his return in Terminator 2: Judgement Day changed the course of film history.
But that was ultimately the peak. An appearance in Terminator 3 wasn’t the worst and the cameo in Terminator: Salvation was pretty one-note. But Terminator Genisys, a series reboot intended to kick off a new trilogy, may have killed the franchise. Playing up the age of the Terminator and contrasting it with a sense of humor and numerous mysteries, fans quickly checked out and the new trilogy was terminated.
3. BETTER: HAN SOLO
Han Solo was always cool. From the moment you first saw him in a dive bar on Tatooine up to the defeat of the Empire at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, everyone wanted to be Han Solo when they were growing up. He wasn’t always the nicest guy in the world, but he stood up for what he believed in.
With the return of the Star Wars sequels under Disney, it was inevitable that Han would return. Ford, having already had a disappointing outing as Indiana Jones a few years prior, managed to redeem himself with his return to the universe of Star Wars, as the scrappy Solo turned out to be one of The Force Awakens’ highlights.
2. WORSE: JOHN MCCLANE
Bruce Willis really made the role of John McClane his own, which is wild when you consider it was supposed to go to Frank Sinatra. After Sinatra turned down the role and Schwarzenegger refused to film it as a sequel to Commando, Willis took the part and became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
McClane was an everyday guy while still being the epitome of cool, and by Die Hard With A Vengeance, he was a cultural institution. But the franchise attempted to keep its edge and it didn’t work. Live Free or Die Hard from 2007, with a PG-13 rating, gave over-the-top action and toned down violence, and was poorly received, and 2013’s A Good Day To Die Hard outright flopped.
1. BETTER: LOGAN
Logan may be the definitive member of this list. After actor Dougray Scott had to drop from the production due to scheduling conflicts, X-Men saw the introduction of a then 32-year-old, baby-faced Hugh Jackman. Jackman was an unknown actor at the time, only having appeared in a few small roles.
Wolverine catapulted him to the top of the game, but many fans saw Jackman as too young for the role. Fortunately for everyone, he stuck with the part. By the time of The Wolverine, Jackman looked the part of the grizzled, embattled Wolverine, and the character got a much needed shot in the arm with Logan, a swan song that ended the character on the highest of high notes.
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