With 2010 looming, Empire, the best movie magazine in the world, has just released their Icons Of The Decade issue. This is a list of the ten movie characters that have loomed largest in the consciousness of film fans since the year 2000. Empire also included the next ten runner-up characters in their feature. It’s not really a list to be debated, as it was voted on by Empire readers – the voice of the people has been heard and counted and so it’s not worth arguing. I do think it’s very interesting to look at, though, because it really crystallizes the major trends of the past ten years.
Let’s take a quick look at that list (which is in no particular order):
James Bond (Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace)
Jason Bourne (The Bourne Trilogy)
The Bride (Kill Bill)
Wolverine (X-Men 1, 2, 3, and Dogshit Spinoff)
Aragorn (Lord Of The Rings)
Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates Of The Caribbean)
Harry Potter (Harry Potter & The Endless Sequels)
The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Shaun Riley (Shaun Of The Dead)
Now, this list may say as much for Empire’s readership as anything else, but I think it’s more telling than only that: I bet if you took a poll of the ten most popular (and financially successful) movies of the decade, it would break down along very similar lines.
Here are the trends I noticed: Nine out of those ten characters are men, ten out of ten are Caucasian. (Six out of ten have British accents even!) All ten characters come from movies that could generally be corralled within the action genre, and with the possible exception of the Harry Potter movies, all of those movies are aimed squarely to appeal at young men. Most fascinating (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) is that seven out of ten characters originated in other media, usually popular novels or comic books. Of the remaining three, two of them could not ever have existed without the inspiration of previous movies. (Those two are Shaun and The Bride – Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright are talented, creative, and beloved directors, but I think they’d be among the first to admit that they’re pastiche artists more than absolute innovators.) Maximus from Gladiator is the closest on this list to being a character created expressly for film, and even that character was based off of a hodgepodge of historical research.
Rather than refuting this trend, the runner-up list continues it. Again in no specific order:
Darth Vader (the baby-faced version from the Star Wars prequels)
Gollum (Lord Of The Rings)
Donna Sheridan (Mamma Mia)
Ron Burgundy (Anchorman)
Peter Parker (Spider-Man)
Donnie Darko (Donnie Darko)
Edward Cullen (Twilight)
Ron Burgundy is actually the most refreshing name on this list, believe it or don’t. While Donnie Darko is at least an original character, I’m not sure he’s particularly iconic. (Frank The Bunny is that movie’s most iconic figure. Swayze is its second. Donnie is the third most memorable image in his own movie.) Every other character here owes their existence to comic books, novels, children’s books, or musicals. A couple of them even had me asking “WHO?” (Empire did not list the movie title on every entry.) Here’s what I learned:
Donna Sheridan is the character Meryl Streep played in Mamma Mia – while it’s encouraging to see a female character without superpowers on a popularity list, she’s not in the least bit iconic. This placing has a lot to do with the massive success of Mamma Mia in the United Kingdom; I doubt this character would rate so highly in the States.
Edward Cullen is the sulky vampire from Twilight. I guess he could be considered an icon but I liked this character much better back when he was named “Angel” and he didn’t sit on dicks.
Let’s forge a quick but definitive definition of the word “icon” as it relates to film characters: An iconic character is immediately recognizable, to the point where they can serve as a symbol of the film in which they appear, even as they are still effective as a believable and exciting component of that film. An iconic character has depth and memorable dialogue and a unique look, of equal importance. To the point: A film icon is a memorable character with an unforgettable visual design. Indiana Jones is an icon. Godzilla is an icon. Darth Vader is an icon (but not when played by Hayden Christensen.)
Again, I’m not writing this article to attack the Empire list – I’d like to think I’m beyond tilting at windmills by battling overseas magazine features, and besides, I’d have to agree with many of those choices in the first place. My point of interest here is the fact that fourteen out of the twenty most popular film characters of our nearly-past decade were not created FOR film. Film history is full of iconic figures, from King Kong, to Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca, to Rita Hayworth in Gilda, to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s Westerns, to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, and so on. These days, television is more routinely creating the memorable icons (Buffy Summers, Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Omar Little, Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin, Sydney Bristow, Benjamin Linus, Dwight Schrute, Tyrone Biggums, and so on). But movies used to make the icons. Recently, movies are mostly being made around pre-existing icons. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a negative development, but the question is certainly worth considering: Do we have movies nowadays that are yielding iconic figures not because of the power of the franchise, but because of the power of the MOVIES?
In my opinion, the answer is yes – although the characters I’m thinking about may not be the most popular choices. (Does an icon have to be the most popular character around? Another good question.) What does bother me is how much trouble I’m having coming up with diversity for my choices in terms of gender and ethnicity. As a humongous fan of monster movies, I’m also dismayed at the paucity of iconic new creatures and beasts. Otherwise, I have a few suggestions and let’s get right to ‘em (no particular order):
Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) – This one’s a no-brainer. This guy is the boogeyman. He’s the angry poltergeist of the 20th century. No character before or since has looked, sounded, or acted quite like this rotten bastard. Daniel Day-Lewis also portrayed another remarkable villain, Bill The Butcher, in Gangs Of New York. Both characters would eat the hearts of every other character mentioned in this article if given the chance.
Vincent (Collateral) – The tide of public opinion may have turned on Tom Cruise, but no one can take away from what he and Michael Mann created with this character, an unstoppable force, a creature of perpetual motion, a literal killing machine. Vincent is pure determination, free of sentiment. Great villain.
Barry Egan (Punch-Drunk Love) – Paul Thomas Anderson created another iconic character earlier in the decade, and he did it using Adam Sandler of all people, with the sad clown Barry Egan. Barry Egan is bottled-up frustration contained in a bright blue suit, all emotion and promise just searching for a direction. Essential.
Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men) – Another no-brainer. Javier Bardem and the Coen Brothers dreamed up this weird-looking ghoul, one of the most memorable bad guys ever to haunt a pulp-crime movie.
Wall*E (Wall*E) – You could probably put any of the Pixar lead characters on this list; Marlin (Finding Nemo), Remy The Rat (Rataouille), Bob Parr (The Incredibles), and so on. I just happen to favor Wall*E because he’s the most unlikely, the most difficult to make as charming as he is, and therefore the most impressive feat of iconography. His love interest, EVE, deserves equal consideration.
Andy Stitzer (The 40 Year Old Virgin) – As important for what he represents (the eventual dominance of 2000s film comedy by Judd Apatow) as for how he looks (bright yellow shirt, friendly smile, vaguely lost expression suggesting that something is lacking). The New York Times agrees.
Theo Faron (Children Of Men) – Not much more than Clive Owen in a trenchcoat and a bleak scowl, but this is the lead character in what is hands-down one of the greatest films of the decade. The movie doesn’t work without this character to ground us in the world it creates, and while I hate the phrase “emotional journey,” better words could not be chosen for the experience of watching this character change throughout the course of the movie. This character and this movie do nothing less than lead their audience back to hope.
Randy The Ram Robinson (The Wrestler) – I think this is another no-brainer. Mickey Rourke’s return to greatness in the most ideal vehicle. I’m sure this character is great enough as written on the page, but on screen, he’s transcendent.
Latika (Slumdog Millionaire) – Her face sold the movie worldwide. Her face is what makes you believe the movie. Who knows if we’ll be watching Freida Pinto in movies ten years from now, but as I said once before, there’s plenty to be said for a woman who is described as the most beautiful woman in the world and when she finally shows up, no one disagrees. I think this is more than a pretty face; there’s a soul present in this portrayal that again, makes the movie as effective as it is.
Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino) – [Obviously 2008 was a good movie year for me.] This isn’t Clint Eastwood’s most iconic role or probably even his best. But it may be his last, and it’s a solid one, and it’s Clint with a shotgun and a grimace, so of course it’s iconic.
And here are some runner-up suggestions…
Frank Costello (The Departed) – Screenwriter William Monahan based this character on Boston’s most wanted, Whitey Bulger, and Jack Nicholson brought him to skeezy, bastardy, dildo-wielding, racist life. Iconic for the quotability alone. “No ticky, no laundry!”
Alonzo Harris (Training Day) – Denzel got his Oscar for this role. He’s been iconic all over the damn place, but controversy aside, this really is one of his better, more visually arresting, more surprising roles.
Charlie & Donald Kaufman (Adaptation) – Nic Cage’s best role of the decade. Unrecognizable. Brilliant. Brian Cox as screenwriting legistlator Robert McKee is pretty memorable too.
Nancy Callahan (Sin City) – More an image than a character, but is there any straight male who wasn’t drawn to this movie after seeing Jessica Alba on this movie’s poster? Has a contemporary ever looked better in black-and-white?
Maggie Fitzgerald (Million Dollar Baby) –She’s not the warmest, most relatable character, but she is striking and memorable. I’m sorry, I’d push this character harder as an icon if I liked Hilary Swank better. It’s not fair, I still have Alba on the brain.
El Chivo (Amores Perros) – This is the old guy who rescues the dogs and has an increasingly interesting backstory. Arguably the most memorable character in a stellar movie; certainly the most visually compelling. Rent the movie and see if it jogs your memory.
Harry (In Bruges) – I still won’t ruin which actor plays the villain in this great, great movie, the often-mentioned meany who doesn’t show up until the third act. But he’s the most quotable character in a movie full of them, and his twisted code of honor is unforgettable.
Rita (Mulholland Drive) – Specifically designed to be iconic (she’s named after & made to resemble Rita Hayworth), Laura Harring in this movie is like a beckoning siren in a dark sea of horror and depression. Creepy movie, but it’s David Lynch so you knew that already.
June Carter (Walk The Line) – I doubt many people would agree with me, but Reese Witherspoon did get an Oscar for the role, and I don’t think the movie would have worked at all without her. She’s playing the grounding influence, the reason to clean up and do right, the reason to stay, not stray. I’ve always thought Reese Witherspoon was perfectly cute, but in this movie she was something uniquely special. To paraphrase a different movie, she’s the kind of woman who makes you want to be a better man.
Montgomery Brogan (25th Hour) – Some people have major issues with this movie. To me, it’s a touchstone. I just relate. As with many Spike Lee movies, there are moments included here that belong in a different movie thematically. But so much of what is here is so brilliant, and one of those things is Edward Norton’s turn as the main character. Give it another chance, if you haven’t in a while.
The Jaguar Shark (The Life Aquatic) – This is the almost-literal Great White Whale that Bill Murray’s character is dedicated to hunting. It sounds so fantastical and unlikely, so mythological, that you begin to doubt it even exists. But eventually, he does find this shark, and that moment is, I think, worthy of all the build-up. It’s weird, spooky, and strangely awesome.
So what do you guys think? I’d be eager to hear suggestions, assuming anyone’s interested in continuing the dialogue. Do you have any personal favorites that belong with the cinematic icons of the Zero Decade?