Top 5 Movie Protagonists

Now that I have listed my “Top 5 Game Protagonists” it is time I did the same for the characters of the big screen.
Genres evolve, directors come and go, franchises are rebooted, but some characters withstand the tests of time. These characters survive for different reasons to different people and you’ll rarely hear people having identical favorites despite certain characters being seen as ‘universal classics’. The following are only some of the characters that make you laugh, cry, think, engage audiences, and make you remember them long after the credits have rolled.

These are my own ‘Top 5 Movie Protagonists’, the men and women that have come to remind me why I love film so much.

5. Ellen Ripley (Aliens, 1986)
You probably saw this one coming a mile off, for good reason too. Sigourney Weaver’s Rambo-ette has to be one of the most memorable characters not only in sci-fi action movies but in cinema as a whole. This was the character that really challenged gender roles in movies; she wasn’t playing second fiddle to a male lead, she certainly wasn’t a damsel in distress and certainly did not appear implausible.
What made her work in my eyes was that she did not come across as a character who was the “Fantasy Version” of a heroine. What I mean by that is this: When you look at more recent movies such as “Aeon Flux” and “Resident Evil” you see heroines as over-the-top ‘imagined’ characters doing unbelievable physical feats – It might look awesome but it often sacrifices character credentials in the process. “Aliens” showed us an Ellen Ripley grounded in reality, traumatized by the events of her encounter with the Xenomorph. She’s driven to her lowest low but hauls herself back up and faces her problems head on. When interacting with the memorable cast of “Aliens” she’s forceful, aggressive, cold and warm, smart, maternal (expertly depicted), angry, empathetic to others, and determined to be a heroine. Around the Xenomorphs however she goes into ‘Lioness’ mode, changing a ruthless killing machine who becomes better at it than the marines who teach her how to be one. Having such great female character qualities, dealing with her own problems while sticking her neck out for others, and for becoming such an iconic figure that actresses even today have trouble matching – Ellen Ripley ends up on most people’s lists.
4. Spock (Star Trek, 2009)
From one Sci-Fi icon to another: Zachary Quinto’s take on the everyone’s favorite Vulcan inevitably draws comparison to Leonard Nemoy’s own. To me however that’s a compliment because Quinto absolutely nailed his performance in which he paid tribute to Nemoy whilst still leaving his own distinctive mark on the character. Before the release of J.J Abrams “Star Trek” fans and critics alike were pondering the implications of having a new actor in such a legendary role: Would he be good? Would he be bad? Would he acknowledge Nemoy while not becoming a carbon copy?
Doubts were quickly dashed when audiences were reintroduced to Mr Spock. Quinto portrayed a man at odds with his mixed Human and Vulcan parentage, a man who keeps up a wall of logic to hide his insecurities and volatile temperament. Before this people had only seen the logical and shrewd Spock on the big screen so this version really left an impression on people. Here, Spock was as likely to sit down for an intellectual debate as he was to suddenly snap under pressure and get stuck into a brawl – He was unpredictable and enthralling to watch. Quinto has the time of his life in this role, delivering his dialogue with an icy demeanor and sometimes with searing venom (The scene where Spock lays the verbal smack down on the Vulcan Science Academy still makes me grin).
The highlight of 2009’s Star Trek to me was seeing how the polar-opposites of Kirk and Spock collided, how they settled their differences, how the two men learned from each other and how they became inseparable friends through adversity. Chris Pine’s stellar version of Jim Kirk deserves special mention for this but the scene-stealer for me was Zachary Quinto: The rightful successor to Leonard Nemoy’s legend.
3. Peter Parker (The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012)
I did not spend enough time during my Amazing Spider-Man review discussing how incredible Andrew Garfield was as the web-slinger and it seems I’m not alone with my praises. To me this character has become a focal point of the ‘Now & Then’: A means of people seeing how both society and the superhero genre has evolved over the past decade. In 2002 Toby Maguire presented Peter Parker as the penultimate nerd complete with awkward mannerisms and giant spectacles. Fast forward to 2012 and society’s perception of all things ‘nerdy’ has changed thanks to the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Andrew Garfield’s take on the adolescent hero kept this in mind and gave audiences a more realistic and relatable protagonist. It was a revelation to me seeing a superhero film that focused more on relationships than sprawling set-pieces and CGI, it was another thing entirely when the relationships were actually believable. Garfield showed us 17 year old guy who has had a rough life. Here, Parker has abandonment issues and has problems conveying his feelings, he genuinely cares about those close to him but retreats into his shell when faced with establishing new relationships. In stark contrast to his previous incarnation we see how Parker’s confidence shoots up after receiving super-powers (being able to break people in half all of a sudden WILL do that, that’s just being realistic) and it’s inspiring to see how he starts to heal his emotional wounds through these new experiences. This new and improved Spider-Man feels more realistic, both in motivation and premise. Whereas in the original Sam Raimi trilogy Parker became a goodie-too-shoes superhero under the premise “Ah! Uncle Ben told me to be responsible and that’s what I’ll do!”, this time around the whole concept of ‘responsibility’ hasn’t quite sunk in yet because Peter is having too much fun with his powers to really care (given that he is an adolescent that’s being realistic). Instead he learns his lessons through his own experiences and merits, which makes the character feel more genuine. I was thrilled to see the back of the over-the-top ‘campy’ protagonist who became a parody of himself and embraced the gritty realistic adolescent hero completely, it was such an improvement and spoke volumes about how society’s perceptions have changed.
Peter Parker’s journey of discovery as a man and as Spider-Man was engaging and he ended up being the one toppling Tony Stark as my favorite comic book hero, for this he’s on my list.
2. Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings, 2001 – 2003)
Ever feel that Sam should have been given the Ring of Power to carry all the way to Mount Doom? I certainly did, he’s leaps and bounds stronger than Frodo in both body and spirit. Frodo’s only claims to carry the ring is he is friends with Gandalf and that his uncle Bilbo found the ring to begin with. On the other hand Sam shows countless times that he is physically up to the task despite being a Hobbit, and that he has the emotional fortitude to see things through to the end. Time after time Frodo is saved from certain death by Sam, again and again Sam picks his best friend up both emotionally and physically (By the end of the trilogy he’s literally carrying Frodo over the finish line) all the while never doubting others or abandoning the quest – He really is the ultimate best-friend. I regard Sam as the true hero of Tolkien & Peter Jackson’s epic for these reasons and more. The quest only succeeds because of Sam, who constantly saves Frodo (The Dead Marshes, Osgiliath, Shelob, Cirith Ungol, and on Mount Doom) and is one of the two people to ever surrender the ring of power voluntarily (The other person being Aragorn, who was unlucky not to be on this list).
Sam’s only moments of emotional weakness come when he is turned away by Frodo for false reasons and when the duo are faced with certain death on Mount Doom and speculate what their future lives might have been. Even then in those situations Sam turns around and promptly saves Frodo’s life yet again, and makes his ‘ideal future’ his reality when he returns to the Shire.
The ultimate friend with a fierce, compassionate, and steadfast constitution: Samwise Gamgee you deserve all the recognition you get.
1. John McClane (Die Hard Series, 1988 – Present)
The undisputed champion of the working class action hero, this is a guy you seriously don’t want to cross. What makes this protagonist so interesting is that in addition to looking the part of an action movie star he also brings hitherto-unsuspected emotional depth and dimensions to the entire genre that up until 1988 had been absent from Hollywood’s big-names like John Rambo and Arnie’. Think about it: before the advent of “Die Hard” in 1988 audiences were used to seeing muscular 2d cut-outs of characters in action movies. These were heroes that were larger than life but still somehow impossible to shoot, still audiences lapped it up because they didn’t know any better. The “Better” came knocking with Bruce Willis’ hard-as-nails, no-bullshit, wisecracking NYPD cop who became the blueprint for the modern-day action hero. What makes him work so well as a protagonist is that unlike his action hero bretheren he is not invincible, Bruce Willis surprised audiences by showing a hero you’re not sure will actually survive to the credits. He’s one guy armed with a service pistol against 20 highly motivated and heavily armed terrorists with even more hostages locked in a skyscraper, and to make matters worse one of the hostages is his estranged wife. The odds are severely stacked against McClane but the way he comes out on top is surprisingly plausible, this scenario was so groundbreaking it coined it’s own term the “Die Hard Scenario”. Throughout his battles McClane picks up ungodly amounts of injuries but keeps dragging himself forward, a far-cry from his bullet-proof predecessors.
Besides being so likeable and pragmatic another reason McClane earns this #1 spot is because of the emotions he shows under pressure, another thing that distinguishes himself from the competition and makes him more human. The previous year “Predator” came out with one of the silliest but I feel relevant quotes about action heroes “I ain’t got time to bleed”, in “Die Hard” the hero does have time to bleed and he frequently does. A scene that I thought embodied this comes late in the movie where McClane, hiding in a bathroom in the dark despairs at his wounds and tries desperately to patch himself up whilst being consoled and encouraged by an officer on the ground through a radio. He tells the officer to find his wife and tell her he says he’s sorry for what he did to her, effectively trying to make his peace with everyone as he knows there is a very good chance he’s going to die – It’s a powerful scene made more meaningful because of it’s greater context.
The quint-essential protagonist that countless others have since tried and failed to emulate, John McClane snatches the top spot!
What are your own favorite movie protagonists? Did any of my own choices surprise you?

One comment

  1. Great choices! I agree with you on Aliens especially, and I really liked Quinto as Spock. Good pick with Samwise in LOTR, too. I would have gone with Aragorn, who’s sort of an obvious pick, but I think you’re totally right that Sam deserves lots of recognition. I think he’s often overlooked!

    If I had to choose one for the top 5, I’d probably go with Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker. His performance is one of my favorites, and I love those three Spidey films. Still, I thought Andrew Garfield did a good job too, and Peter Parker/Spiderman is a really engaging character in general… though I still have to go with Batman as my favorite superhero. =)

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