For the last three decades, the 80s have had a stranglehold on all things pop culture. It’s gobbled up nostalgia like so much Pac-Man and for good reason. It might be the last decade to actually have a distinct personality. From the memorable (albeit pretty terrible) clothing, to the groundbreaking music and iconic video games, the 80s had it all but no piece of entertainment left a bigger impact on pop culture than movies. It was the decade that gave birth to the modern blockbuster, introduced us to the last great auteurs and was arguably the last time studios took chances. It was a glorious time that produced a ton of classics and within those classics, iconic characters that have stood the test of time. So put on your leg warmers or best Michael Jackson outfit, it’s time to countdown the best characters the decade had to offer.
This is the 100 Greatest 80’s Characters Of All Time.
10. Elliot (Henry Thomas) | E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The first time I watched E.T., Henry Thomas annoyed the hell out of me. Elliot was acting like a brat begging for attention at the movie’s start. I thought to myself, “If I have to sit through two hours with this kid I’m not going to be happy.” Luckily, Thomas turned it around. He’s quite good at naturally conveying emotions like fear, shock, trauma, and sadness. I shouldn’t have been surprised though since Thomas landed the role of Elliot after producing convincing tears during an improvised audition session. Those tears are what gets us invested in Elliot and E.T.’s story. Our hearts ache seeing Elliot absolutely wrecked at E.T.’s demise. Elliot has already lost his father due to divorce, and watching him cry over losing E.T. is just as painful. There hasn’t quite been a friendship like Elliot and E.T.’s on-screen since 1982 and I doubt there will be one again. (Unless you count Mac & Me, of course.)
09. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) | A Nightmare on Elm Street series (1984-1989)
For at least five years, Freddy Kruger was a rock star. He skyrocketed past horror icon status to become an omnipresent figure in pop culture. Everywhere you looked, he would somehow appear. He had tons of merchandise, a television show, a book series, a comic series, bubblegum and even a rap song. His fame was almost immediate and equally inexplicable considering he’s a child killer but that’s a testament to his Craven’s designs and Englund’s performance, that it was never an issue.
I think a huge chunk of his appeal stems from the fact that, compared with his rivals in horror film serial murder, he’s cut from a different cloth. Unlike Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Vorhees, he doesn’t hide behind a mask and he isn’t a mute. He has actual personality. He’ll leave you in stitches before he leaves you in pieces.
08. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) | Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
This might be a controversial statement but I think Marion is the single best character Lucasfilm owns. Star Wars has nothing but iconic characters (so many in fact, that we decided to cut five out of this list) but most of them are based on clichéd archetypes. They might be the best versions of those clichés but they’re still clichés nonetheless and while Indiana Jones is amazing, he too, is inspired by numerous sources. Marion could be Lucas’ sole original creation.
She’s a damsel in distress that never feels distressed, a female sidekick that isn’t annoying and can hold her own and she even has a super power: she can drink anyone under the table. Without her inclusion, this film would still be great and would still be a fantastic update of those old serials but since she is in it and since the character is as wonderfully written as it is and because Karen Allen is throwing thousand watt energy at it, the film is elevated past its influences and becomes high art.
07. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) | Aliens (1986)
The role that made a star out of Sigourney Weaver and helped redefine what an action hero is, almost never happened. In the original script, Ripley was a man but thank god Ridley Scott decided to hire an actress, because that slight addition unintentionally changes cinema forever. Honestly, would we still be talking about or even giving a shit about this character if it was a man?
Warrant Officer of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley is not only the most capable member of the ship, she’s the most capable protagonist in all of horror. She doesn’t survive the first film due to narrative convenience or dumb luck. She survives because she’s smart and with the exception of her trying to save that goddamn cat, she never makes a wrong decision. She’s sidesteps every final girl cliché to the point where you don’t even think of her as a final girl.
You think of her as a survivor and a badass. And that’s just the first film. Aliens takes everything great about the character and further expands upon it. More of an action film than its predecessor, Aliens turns an already strong character into an indomitable force of nature. Her one-on-one fight with the xenomorph queen is still an all time “fuck yeah!” moment.
06. John McClane (Bruce Willis) | Die Hard (1988)
While Schwarzenegger and Stallone were busy duking it out in a testosterone fueled grudge match to see who would dominate the box office more, a new challenger arrived to take their throne. If they weren’t too busy eating steroids and pumping iron, they might’ve noticed the threat or maybe since he came in the form of the guy from Moonlighting, they wouldn’t have cared. Because if they did recognize Bruce Willis as a credible threat, they might have been able to stop what was going to happen.
Hulking masses of animated meat shooting big guns and karate punching everyone in the face is a trend that will never die but after the release of Die Hard, there was a sea change. John McClane was the birth of the everyman as action star. McClane is just a regular cop who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. And because of this, he has to out wit and out maneuver the terrorists who are trying to kill him. He’s not a guns a-blazing badass, he’s just a dude trying to survive and that simple change to the formula, changed Hollywood forever.
05. Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) | Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
John McClane’s contributions to cinema are undeniable. That character definitely changed the portrayal of action heroes from that point forward but it could be argued that without Axel Foley unlocking the door, McClane never would’ve been able to smash it down in the first place. A smart mouthed, wise cracking cop from Detroit taking Beverly Hills by storm might not sound as impressive as a cop taking on an entire office building of terrorists by himself but it’s not the size of the stakes that matter, it’s the humor.
The two films are nothing alike (McClane spends three minutes pulling glass out of his bloody feet and Foley spends three minutes putting a banana in a guy’s tailpipe) and even the jokes therein aren’t that similar but the fact that both do include actual jokes, not just one liners, is extremely important.
I’m not sure if the James Bond series created the after murder one liner or just popularized it but either way, it became a staple because of those films. Beverly Hills Cop was the first to string those one liners together to form actual dialogue. The film blends comedy and action together that was unprecedented for the time. It’s still one of the best examples of the genre and was a huge influence on all that came after. Without Axel Foley, there is no John McClane, period.
04. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) | The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi (1980-1983)
Harrison Ford was all over the eighties, but there were two roles that cemented his status as an icon of that decade. The first was Han Solo, the fast talking smuggler that helped Luke and Obi-Wan back in Star Wars. Although initially portrayed as a loner, the two sequels closing out the Original Trilogy saw Han go from a cynical loner to someone who recognized “the importance of being part of a group and helping for the common good.” At least, that’s what George Lucas said back in 1997.
But a character is only as good as his supporting players and Han has plenty. Lando, Chewbacca, Luke, and Leia all offer different shades of Han to come out to play. There’s friendship with Chewbacca and Luke, a loose trust and rivalry with Lando, and a blossoming romance with Leia. The Empire Strikes Back‘s most iconic quote might be the “father” line, but Han responding “I know” to Leia’s “I love you” takes a very close second.
Han’s sarcastic wit is what sets him apart from the other Star Wars characters and I can’t begin to imagine how Return of the Jedi would have fared if Ford would have gotten his way and convinced Lucas to kill Han off at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. We definitely would have lost one of the best character arcs in Star Wars, that’s for damn sure.
03. Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson) | Ghostbusters (1984)
“Who you gonna call?”
Dan Aykroyd originally envisioned Ghostbusters as a vehicle for fellow SNL alums Eddie Murphy and John Belushi. After Belushi’s death, Aykroyd approached Bill Murray who signed on to the project. What makes the Ghostbusters interesting is that every member has a different personality. Murray is the sarcastic ladies man, Ramis is the scientist, Aykroyd is excited at the very possibility of ghosts, and Hudson is just there for the steady paycheck. As we’ve previously mentioned, clashing personalities and opinions were a common occurrence in the ’80s and some of the best pairings revolved around these differences. What makes it work in the end is teamwork, and the Ghostbusters were always there to answer the call.
02. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) | Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Ford’s other major role of the 1980s. Indiana Jones is a character that everyone is familiar with whether you’ve watched the films or not. Sailor mentioned above how Marion may be the best creation Lucasfilm owns because she wasn’t based on any pre-existing clichés, but personally I think Indiana Jones works so well because of those clichés. As an audience, we know what to expect from Jones, so whenever the film subverts those expectations, as in when Indy chooses to shoot the armed swordsman instead of fight him, it makes the character that much more unique. Because Indiana Jones was always about paying homage to the serials of yesteryear, and that’s exactly what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg accomplished.
01. The Breakfast Club | The Breakfast Club (1985)
What does a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal have in common? At face value, nothing. But over the course of one Saturday detention, these five students will learn that, despite their differences, they face similar problems. The Breakfast Club is John Hughes’ masterpiece and is a perfect snapshot into the mindset of teenagers. We may all belong to different cliques, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all not the same. That’s what makes watching the Breakfast Club interact across the all-day detention so enthralling. We’re witnessing them realize that their colleagues are more than the stereotypes they push onto them. They’ve judged each other on who they thought they were, not on who they actually were. The Breakfast Club may walk into school Monday morning and fall back into their social circles and act like nothing changed, but something did. They realized that each one of them was a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. And all it took was getting stoned, a dance montage, and an honest heart-to-heart to realize that.
So don’t you forget about them. They’re the greatest ’80s characters of all time.
What did you think of the list? Who were some of your favorite 80’s characters that didn’t show up? Tell us who you think should have made the cut down in the comments!