Most stories do not get far without strong characters. Here before you is the first round of a grand bracket I have set up to celebrate some of the great film and television characters in our lives. In this post you will find the guidelines I used to choose, group, and seed the 64 characters and a summary of each matchup. If you can’t find many of your favorite characters here, then I either have to drastically reassess my idea of what constitutes popular entertainment, or you should start watching better movies and television.
Determining the Field
This wasn’t an exact science, but there was some method to choosing these 64 characters. I chose these characters, for lack of a more sophisticated phrase, because I like them. The reasons for my liking them are as varied as the characters themselves. It is not necessarily a list of the 64 best characters I have encountered, but generally I like a character better if they are more well-written, more complex, etc. This way, I get to set before you and ramble on about my favorite characters while allowing you to choose your own favorites and advance them in this tournament. My hoopster (cool version of hipster) tendencies are the guidelines while your own choice determines the winner.
I put down some rules in order to make the field more balanced. First, I allowed only two characters per show or movie. Otherwise a few shows and movies would dominate the field. I would love to include Jesse, Saul, and Hank from Breaking Bad, but Walt and Mike get the nod. I also limited individual actors and actresses to one nomination. The one slight exception is Liam Neeson, who is on the list for Qui-Gon Jinn and Bryan Mills and he provides the voice for Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I think that’s fair.
I did not include characters based on the overall composite of their actor. For instance, I’d love to have one of Djimon Honsou’s characters (Abu, Juba, Solomon) but none of them are strong enough on their own (and Abu and Juba especially are similar characters). The same goes for the strength of the other characters in a movie. I do not like Donnie, Walter, or The Dude from The Big Lebowski well enough to include them on the list, but the overall impression of the three of them is one of my favorite movie “characters”. I also had to specify a certain portrayal for some characters. I did not just list Jean Valjean, but rather Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean.
There are four regions. The first is the “Animated” region. Simple enough explanation. The second is the “Uncommon” region. These characters are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us. Many of them are heroes who lived lives we can’t ever really hope to understand. There’s just something special about these 16 individuals. The next group is the “Mentor, Guide, Protector” region. None of these characters are main characters. Rather, their role is to help, advise, or defend others. The final region is a little mixed, with a grouping of bad-asses, bad guys, and just overall strange characters known as “Stranger and Stronger”. As you will see, some of the characters could fit into more than one grouping quite easily. The seeding is based off of my estimation of the character’s general popularity and importance. It’s not a seeding according to my favorites.
So, without further ado, here are the 32 first-round matchups! Read, skim, whatever, just be sure to vote!
1. Homer Simpson (The Simpsons) vs 16. Tenzin (The Legend of Korra)
Two characters that could hardly be more different. Homer, the icon, provides me with laughs every time out, as his writers have utilized all sorts of humor to keep his lines refreshingly funny. In recent seasons, the general move by The Simpsons to heartfelt plots and themes have also added depth to his character. Tenzin became a great character in the second season of The Legend of Korra as we gained more insight into what it was like to be the father of a rebuilding nation while trying to live up to the legacy of his father, the avatar. We also got to see him as a parent, sibling, mentor, and a powerful airbender.
2. Shrek (Shrek, Shrek 2) vs 15. Waffle (Catscratch)
Does anyone dislike the first two Shrek movies? The humorous, crude, lovable hero came out of nowhere to become one of the more recognizable characters in animated movies. Meanwhile, Waffle, from the little-known Catscratch, was a hilarious character that never really got the chance to shine as his show did not last long enough.
3. Uncle Iroh (Avatar: The Last Airbender) vs 14. Emperor Palpatine (Robot Chicken Star Wars Special I,II,III)
Possibly the most well-loved character from one of Nickelodeon’s best and most popular shows, Uncle Iroh was a loving and patient guide to his troubled nephew as well as a funny old man. He was also a really good man who happened to be one of the most powerful firebenders in the world who earned the nickname, “The Dragon of the West”. On the other side, the irreverent claymation version of Emperor Palpatine is some of the best work done by Robot Chicken. It’s hilarious for a character Star Wars fans know as an evil, raspy, vile and depraved Sith Lord to provide laughs with Seth MacFarlane’s voice.
4. Patrick Star (SpongeBob SquarePants) vs 13. Littlefoot’s Grandpa (The Land Before Time series)
Have you even watched SpongeBob? Then you know why Patrick is on the list. He’s hilarious. On the other hand you may choose Littlefoot’s Grandpa, the long-neck who adopts the young dinosaur and raises him after he loses his parents. You have to love when he duels that sharptooth in the lake.
5. Donkey (Shrek, Shrek 2) vs 12. King Julien (Madagascar)
6. Doug Funnie (Doug) vs 11. Jorgen Von Strangle (The Fairly OddParents)
Doug is kind of a dork. And that’s why we love him. The sort of quiet, sort of shy, really creative and thoughtful adolescent was a television friend to me and many others my age. Meanwhile, the super-macho militaristic leader of FairyWorld is one of those characters that can say pretty much anything and it is funny.
7. Cosmo (The Fairly OddParents) vs 10. Sheen (Jimmy Neutron)
I just have to include Cartman. I have to. I hate him because of how disturbing he and the rest of that show can be, but any time I have watched that show (which isn’t that often) he makes me laugh, sometimes bringing me to tears. Prince Zuko, on the other hand, is perhaps the best overall character from his show. You might not think as much after just watching the first season, but if you watch “Zuko Alone” and don’t come away thinking he’s one of the better characters you’ve encountered, we need to talk. I’m going to be a little biased here because I think he might need some help versus Cartman. It’s still ultimately up to you.
1. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness in the Star Wars saga) vs 16. Major Whittlesey (Ricky Schroder in The Lost Battalion)
What can I really say about Obi-Wan that you don’t already know? If you’ve watched these movies, you probably have an appreciation for the hot-headed student who defeats Darth Maul, becomes the greatest general of the Clone Wars, defeats the prodigious young Darth Vader, then becomes a creaky old sage who scares away Tusken Raiders, wins barfights, sneaks around the Death Star, and surrenders to Vader in their geriatric duel because he’s got the big picture in mind. The Lost Battalion tells the true story of Major Charles Whittlesey and he men trapped in the Argonne Forest during a battle in the midst of the First World War. His refusal to surrender and steady leadership saves the lives of many men while turning the tide in an important battle.
2. Gandalf (Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings) vs 15. Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho in 13 Assassins)
Gandalf is one of those characters that makes you feel safe. He’s also a character that not only sits around smoking his pipe and sharing words of wisdom, but goes off on adventures and kills balrogs and stuff like that. To sum up Shinzaemon, the Samurai warrior, “Backed into a corner, he won’t quit. He never gives up. He’s the type of warrior who will win in the end.”
3. Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) vs 14. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
There’s something different about old Luke. Goes to prison for a petty crime, constantly bucks the trend, inspires his fellow inmates, and refuses to let his spirit be broken. One of the most famous and memorable characters in film history for a reason. A practical enigma. Yu Shu Lien is beautiful. Really beautiful. And that’s a main reason why she’s on this list, but not in the “I think she’s really hot so I’ll include her” type of way. It’s because director Ang Lee doesn’t have to do anything special or sexy to make her beautiful. Instead, he reminds us that this graceful and lady-like woman is a martial artist whose occupation in life is war. Her life is tough, wearisome, and violent. She doesn’t even get to fall in love, as she and the man she has feelings for set aside their affections for the sake of honor.
4. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables) vs 13. Nameless (Jet Li in Hero)
Jean Valjean is one of film and theater’s greatest examples of one of the most misunderstood and important human actions: forgiveness. You probably don’t know anything about Nameless, the hero of Zhang Yimou’s film who is, you guessed it, never given a name (kind of like Clint Eastwood’s character in the “Dollars” trilogy or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill). Besides being one of film’s greatest fighters, the quiet and determined warrior makes one of the most intriguing decisions in movie history. Why did he go through all that to walk away?
5. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson in The Patriot) vs 12. Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton in The Alamo)
Benjamin Martin, a character inspired by Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox”) leads a band of guerrilla militia against the British
forces during the American Revolution. While he’d rather leave his days of war behind him, things get personal and he takes up the fight, honorably and courageously shifting the course of the war in the South. When most people think of Davy Crockett, they think of the frontier hero wearing a fur cap fighting huge grizzly bears. They maybe forget that he was a real man. In The Alamo, we see Crockett as a fairly ordinary, humble man who seems none to eager to take human lives, despite the fact that the other defenders (and the Mexican attackers) seem to think he is a legendary warrior. But a few instances of magic (the long shot, burning the cover, playing the fiddle, fighting to the end) show us a more realistic hero that is just as remarkable as the legend.
6.Will Smith (Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) vs 11. Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai)
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was great for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the humor, charisma, and coolness of the main character. Two scenes come to mind: the rant after Will’s biological father leaves again, and the very last scene in the pilot episode, when Will sits down at the piano and plays “Fur Elise”. Katsumoto commands our respect (as well as that of his men and his enemies) because of his honor, dedication, and leadership. That, and the fact that he’s a fearsome warrior. In him, we see the total disregard for one’s self in the samurai culture, but framed by the desire to defend a society and contained within a sensible and wise man.
7. Major Richard “Dick” Winters (Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers) vs 10. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming in X-Men 2)
Winters’ character is all the more remarkable because he was a real person. His heroism, selflessness, and amazing leadership made him the leader of men par excellence as well as one of the most popular characters in one of HBO’s most popular series. Any questions about his place on this list are quickly dispersed after the episode “Crossroads”. Nightcrawler, the blue guy with the tail who can teleport, first appears in the film in one of the franchise’s most thrilling scenes. We then get to know him a little better as a kind-hearted mutant with a strong religious faith. Any character who single-handedly takes out the entire secret service and recites the Lord’s Prayer is going to make this list.
8. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird) vs 9. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino)
I’ll admit that Atticus Finch is helped onto this list by the literary character, but Gregory Peck’s version is pretty strong too. The noble lawyer has remained a towering figure for many years in film and literature. I can’t really do Walt’s character justice with a summary. You have to watch that movie to understand why he’s so special. Prepare for laughs, rivets, and tears.
Mentor, Guide, Protector Region
1. Dumbledore (Richard Harris and Michael Gambon in the Harry Potter series) vs 16. Garth (Michael Caine in Secondhand Lions)
Why is Dumbledore on this list? Oh I don’t know, maybe because he’s the only one that the lord of dark magic is afraid of. Because he has a long beard. Because he runs a school of magic. Because his first name is Albus. On the other side of this elder statesman matchup, Garth is the kinder, softer of the two uncles who live out their days of retirement drinking tea, scaring off salesmen, shooting fish out of the water, and doing other ridiculous things with their unbelievable wealth gained after the years of adventuring that we find out about through Garth’s stories.
2. Aslan (Voiced by Liam Neeson in The Chronicles of Narnia) vs 15. Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man)
Again helped by his literary origin, and the fact that he represents Jesus, the movie version is really well done. Before straying away with Prince Caspian, the first Narnia movie stayed remarkably close to the book. Liam Neeson’s voice helps, too. Unfortunately, they changed one of the most important lines regarding Aslan: “Safe? Of course he’s not safe. But he’s good.” Boxing trainers tend to be likable characters, and Joe Gould is one of the best. Not only does the fiery trainer help James Braddock become a great fighter again, but he stays with him through his tough times outside the ring while struggling through the Depression.
3. Gimli (John Rhys-Davies in The Lord of the Rings) vs 14. Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker)
I had a tough time coming up with my second favorite character in Lord of the Rings (following Gandalf). I chose Gimli because of his great quotes, his fierce loyalty, his friendship with Legolas, and the fact that he slays orcs and uruks by the dozen with his dwarven fury. Sanborn is my favorite of the three main characters in The Hurt Locker because of the way his no-nonsense way of working compliments and clashes with his maverick bomb squad leader, whom he respects and resents at the same time. That and the fact that he still has a sense of humor, is good at his job, wins a sniper duel, and because of his tearful “I want a son” monologue.
4. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall in The Godfather) vs 13. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom)
The adopted son of the Godfather, the family lawyer, and consigliore, Tom Hagen remains the voice of reason and one of the only people Michael can trust. He gets things done the Sicilian way, despite being Irish-German. Scout Master Ward leads a troop of Khaki Scouts and takes responsibility for the desertion of the main character. He takes his job very seriously and shows true care for his kids. Despite his perceived failures, he redeems himself in the dramatic third act of that marvelously goofy and well done film.
5. Uncle Phil (James Avery in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) vs 12. Queenan (Martin Sheen in The Departed)
Although the show was driven by Will’s relationship with his cousin, Carlton, Uncle Phil is the better character as he plays the role of a father figure to his nephew. Providing us with plenty of laughs as he constantly bumps heads with Will, Uncle Phil is one of television’s most loved patriarchs. RIP James Avery. I had to pick someone from The Departed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is close but lacks admirable traits, Matt Damon’s is smarmy scum, Nicholson’s is far too vile, and Whalberg’s sometimes needs to just SHUT UP. Queenan gets the nod because of his steady but urgent leadership of the mole operation and because he’s probably the only good guy out of all the main characters.
6. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting) vs 11. Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany in Master and Commander)
The first time you see Sean, you’re like, “Oh, Robin Williams is in the movie. He’s a psychiatrist. And he has a beard.” Then in his first dialogue with Will there’s the “I will f–king end you” confrontation and you’re like, “What was that all about?” And then shortly after there’s the famous speech on the bench in the park and you think “Woah. This just got real.” Similarly, as Master and Commander progresses, we learn more and more about the doctor, Stephen. At first he’s “just” a skilled surgeon who serves as friend and adviser to Captain Aubrey. It turns out he’s also an avid zoologist whose been known to stare at an empty bird’s nest for hours and a skilled cello player. He removes a bullet from just below his ribcage by looking into a mirror. And then we find out he’s quite the skilled swordsman as well.
7. Dr. King Schultz (Chistoph Waltz in Django Unchained) vs 10. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby)
Another one of Waltz’s characters, Hans Landa, is on this list. After watching Django Unchained the first time, I basically felt that Schultz and Landa were the same character, just with different levels of morality. After watching Django a second time (and of course after numerous viewings of Basterds) Schultz became much more his own character, and not just the good-guy version of Landa placed in the Antebellum South. The dentist-turned-bounty-hunter sets the moral standard for the film while maintaining the coolest gun in the south. And I think the Academy agrees with me, believing Schultz to be such a strong character, unique in his own right, and well acted that they gave Waltz the same award that he received for his portrayal of Landa. Frankie Dunn and Walt Kowalski are in the same boat as Schultz and Landa, as they are both ornery Eastwood characters with many similar personality traits. But that turns out to be perfectly fine, as both characters are all-time greats. Dunn gives Maggie the training she needs to be a great fighter, but more importantly, he gives her the love she needs as a person.
8. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) vs 9. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech)
Star Wars fans didn’t really have a clear picture of what a Jedi Knight was until Qui-Gonn. He showed what they looked like, what their missions were like, how they acted, and how they thought. Qui-Gonn also is a boss, even going so far as to go against the will of the Jedi Council in his efforts to train Anakin. While most people probably think of Colin Firth’s outstanding portrayal of King George the Sixth when remembering The King’s Speech, Geoffrey Rush’s character and his interactions with the king are really what make that movie. The eccentric therapists unorthodox methods and unfailing loyalty make him one of the greatest mentors in film history.
Stranger and Stronger Region
1. Walter White (Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad) vs 16. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others)
I don’t want to sell Walter White short and I don’t want to give away spoilers to people who still might want to watch this show (I have done pretty well with spoilers thus far though, right?). I guess I don’t think I need to give him much help to advance in this tournament (my guess is he makes it pretty far). Wiesler is a leading agent of the German secret police in 1984 East Berlin. His cool conduction of his spying operation, the look we get into his sad life, and the decision he ultimately makes make him a great character and helped make this film win Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Academy Awards.
2. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland in 24) vs 15. Darryl Philbin (Craig Robinson in The Office)
Well anyone who saves the United States time and again by managing to do a ridiculous amount of stuff in a single day should make this list. If you’ve seen the show you know why he’s here. He even saves the nation when the nation is trying to capture him. Darryl is one of the two characters from The Office on this list (I like pretty much all of them). The other one is obvious to other fans of the show, and for me Darryl makes it because of his mix of humor, depth, and lack of awkward situation creating. He remains a goofy member of the office while being one of the few people there who actually is quite good at their job.
3. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson in Taken) vs 14. Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo in The Godfather Part II)
Bryan is a retired field agent who blasts his way through a human-trafficking organization in an effort to save his kidnapped daughter. His phone call speech instantly made him a movie legend. There were a lot of characters from the Godfather movies that I wanted to include, but Pentangeli joins Tom Hagen on the list for reasons that I can’t really explain. They way he runs his family, his loyalty, his insistence on leading his family the way he sees best, and his overall likability. I can’t really explain why I like the hoarse-voiced Sicilian so much.
4. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad) vs 13. Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale)
Hitman, delivery man, investigator, spy, grandfather. The ex-Philadelphia cop’s cool demeanor throughout the dangerous events of the series make him one of the show’s most popular characters, as well as one of the most terrifying. Paul Bettany makes the list a second time with his portrayal of Geoffrey Chaucer (yes, like the famous Medieval author). In the film, Chaucer takes time to be a herald for a peasant faking the life of a knight in order to compete in jousting tournaments. Such a smart character in such a smart film. Humorous as well.
5. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci in Goodfellas) vs 12. Victoria (Helen Mirren in Red and Red 2)
Dangerous. Above all else, the volatile and violent man of the mob is dangerous. There’s not much you need to know other than that. If he didn’t create such a feeling of danger, the “Funny how?” dialogue wouldn’t be so tense and so famous. Victoria, in her proper English lady condescension, comes out of “retirement” to take out a bunch of bad guys. You have to love when she shoots at two cars out of two windows in a drifting car at once.
6. Captain Ronald Spiers (Matthew Settle in Band of Brothers) vs 11. Marvin (John Malkovich in Red and Red 2)
Spiers becomes infamous after rumors spread of him executing German POW’s (rumors that he doesn’t rush to put down). He becomes a legend after taking command of Easy Company and heroically leading them to victory in the Battle of Foye. The “roughest, toughest, meanest son of a bitch around”. Marvin is hilarious. And a highly skilled field agent. Mostly hilarious.
7. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds) vs 10. Creed Bratton (Creed Bratton in The Office)
The master detective takes part in numerous ingenious dialogues as he brilliantly pursues his targets. And then, just when you think he’s such a diabolical brain-washed Nazi….. “fate extends its hand”. He’s still evil. Creed is my favorite character from The Office, and one of the most popular among fans, even though he almost never affected the plot and usually only had one or two lines per episode. He’s my favorite because those lines were always gold. The moment he starts talking you begin to smile, and you’re sure to be laughing by the end of the line. He also ends the show perfectly.
8. Eli (Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli) vs 9. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving in the Matrix trilogy)
Eli is on a determined mission to travel west while protecting his sacred book, surviving on his own and fighting off evil people living in the post-apocolyptic United States. And all while…. well, maybe possibly lacking one of the five senses. Meanwhile, the all-business computer program that continuously hunts Neo and his comrades while steadily taking over the Matrix engages in kung fu fights and gives a few monologues that waver between a cold computer and a real, emotional human being.