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.
20. Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) | The Karate Kid (1984)
There are few ’80s father figures like Mr. Miyagi. His friendship with Daniel, which blossomed after he cleverly got Daniel to do his chores (“wax on, wax off”) and learn karate at the same time, is one of the film’s true highlights. The two characters are able to bond over mutual loss. Mr. Miyagi’s wife and son both died during childbirth and Daniel’s father had been gone for almost a decade. Pat Morita plays the role of Miyagi with such strength and emotion that his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor is entirely earned (let’s just forget about his Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for The Karate Kid Part III, okay). The karate tournament that closes the film may be the highlight of The Karate Kid, but Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel karate through the use of everyday chores is the scene that remains heavily rooted in today’s pop culture. Everyone knows where “wax on, wax off” is from. Mr. Miyagi, thank you for teaching us karate.
19. The Blues Brothers (Dan Aykroyd/John Belushi) | The Blues Brothers (1980)
There has never been nor will there ever be a better launching pad for talent than Saturday Night Live. The show turns comedians into red hot commodities but what they do with that heat determines whether or not they’ll become stars. Aykroyd and Belushi, two of the biggest stars of SNL at that time, decided to gamble their combined heat on a property they created for the show proper (an idea that would prove disastrous for later cast members) and the result was a resounding success.
Even though the characters were paper thin and had no skits to pull from, the duo (along with director John Landis) managed to create a comedy classic based solely on the joke that two white boys know the blues. But successful comedies don’t need strong characters, all they need is strong conduits for comedy and The Blues Brothers have two of the very best.
Comedies usually consist of a straight man or a straight man and wacky fool but this is the only one in existence that has neither. Both Jake and Elwood are just cool ass costumers that bounce off of every outlandish situation with mild indifference. They’re very rarely the source of the comedy; they never crack any jokes, nor do they react in a funny way. They just weave in and out of craziness like snakes made out of Teflon. They’re so cool, they almost make the blues cool. Almost.
18. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) | Back to the Future (1985)
Moments after successfully inventing time travel, Doctor Emmett L. Brown, standing in the lot of Twin Pines Mall, is shot dead by the Libyans. Devastated, his friend Marty barely escapes a similar fate by pushing the time traveling DeLorean up to 88mph and going back in time to November 5, 1955. It is there that Marty meets a younger version of Doc, and the two work together to send Marty back to the future before he is erased from existence.
One thing I have always found interesting when watching the Back to the Future trilogy is that the first film does a great job establishing Marty and Doc’s friendship despite the fact we barely have any screen time with the two. And by that I mean that we only have the scenes in Twin Pines/Lone Pine Mall that feature the Marty and Doc that are actually friends. Otherwise, the majority of the movie is Marty being helped by the 1955 version of Doc that has zero history with him. Yet their friendship is just as strong even when one of them doesn’t know their full past together. Doc and Marty is one of the best pairings in cinematic history, and they only work because the other perfectly balances them out.
Fun Fact: Christopher Lloyd’s first on-screen kiss was with Mary Steenburgen in Back to the Future Part III.
17. ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) | Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Approximately three years after the events of Mad Max, we find Max wandering the wastelands in solitude with the sole companionship of a dog he picked up along the way. With his family (who were murdered by a gang of lawless freaks) all gone and his sanity teetering on the edge, Max is about a thousand miles away from the cop he started the first film as. He’s no longer a protector of the law and he certainly doesn’t care about justice. Now all he cares about is survival.
He’s gone from a hero, to an apathetic drifter who only helps people out of self interest. He’s the closest the West (I know this isn’t an American film but when they were first released here, the voices were redubbed so that Americans wouldn’t know that these were foreign films) has to a Lone Wolf and Cub or Zatoichi type character. He wonders into a town, inadvertently becomes entangled in their problems, has to kill a bunch of people to save the day and then leaves before they can thank him. He’s the ultimate antihero and is one of the most influential figures in all of pop culture.
16. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) | The Terminator (1984)
Cherry picking the best elements of Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger from Westworld and Michael Myers from Halloween, the Terminator is the ultimate killing machine. He’s an unrelenting, unstoppable robotic assassin driven by one mission: kill Sarah Connor. If there was ever a role an actor was born to play, you’d have a hard time finding a better example than that of Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. He’s so perfectly cast, it’s impossible to picture anyone else in the role. Between his perfect physique and iconic accent, Schwarzenegger’s performance is such an all timer, it set the template for every killer cyborg and robot to follow.
15. Spinal Tap (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer) | This is Spinal Tap (1984)
An English heavy metal band created by American comedians Michael McKean (as lead singer and co-lead guitarist David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel) and Harry Shearer (as bassist Derek Smalls), Spinal Tap is the closest a fictitious band has come to being legit. Because while most fake bands in movies are obviously fake and would most likely suck if they existed in the real world (Eddie and the Cruisers would barely be a one hit wonder), Spinal Tap is different in that it’s a real band that only exists within that film.
The three actors all wrote and performed every song you hear in the movie and every comedic situation they get themselves into (like getting stuck in a prop or getting lost in the way to the stage) are all believable and relatable to any rock star. But they didn’t make the list because they’re authentically terrible or because they’re legit musicians, they made the list because everything they say and do, is side splittingly hilarious. Each of them is a non-stop quote generator with multiple lines being amongst the funniest bits of dialogue in anything ever.
14. Gremlins | Gremlins (1984)
Originally conceived as a hard R horror film, director Joe Dante and producer Steven Spielberg decided the script had potential to be massive hit, so they scaled back the graphic violence and innuendo and molded the project into the children’s classic it is today. While some dark elements still remain (“the Santa speech” has been killing Christmas for kids since 1984), the film is still very much for children. Which is refreshing. There’s a million monster films but there’s not that many horror films made specifically for children.
I have no idea who the hell was running Hollywood back in the 80’s but it seemed like whoever it was hated children. There was a huge string of dark films catered to kids and although the nightmare fuel well runs deep (seriously, there’s so many great kids film villains from this decade), the Gremlins eclipse them all in popularity. Adults have their Xenomorphs and the kids have their Gremlins. And I would pay any amount of money to see that battle royale. I have my money on Gremlins.
13. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) | Back to the Future (1985)
After accidentally time traveling to 1955, Marty cannot go five minutes without changing the future. But driving over one of Old Man Peabody’s pine trees would be the least of his worries. He accidentally runs into his parents and cause them to never meet. And if they never meet then they never fall in love and Marty is history.
Speaking of history, it’s common knowledge that everyone involved in Back to the Future wanted Michael J. Fox for Marty, but the creator of Family Ties was not willing to give Fox any time off to shoot the film. So Eric Stoltz was hired, and subsequently fired due to being miscast. Luckily, Fox’s schedule was now available to shoot Back to the Future, he was cast, and the rest is history.
Fox has talked about how personal the role of Marty McFly was to him: “All I did in high school was skateboard, chase girls and play in bands. I even dreamed of becoming a rock star.” It’s no surprise that Fox’s personality, charisma, and charm are a huge part of what makes Marty work. He’s not so much playing the role as he is acting out his own past teenager years. While the sequels may have added unnecessary flaws like his refusal to be called “chicken,” Back to the Future established McFly as a teenager on the cusp of greatness. All I need to do is pop in Back to the Future and watch Marty McFly tell his own father that he can accomplish anything if he puts his mind to it to know that that kid is going to go places. And I don’t just mean in a time traveling DeLorean.
12. Yoda (Frank Oz) | The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
After crash-landing on the planet Dagobah, Luke meets Yoda, a Jedi Master who worked alongside Obi-Wan. Yoda reluctantly accepts Luke as his apprentice and teaches him the way of the Force. Known for his distinct pattern of speech, he is also.
The Empire Strikes Back is commonly referred to as one of the best Star Wars film, movie sequels, and films of all time. It introduced a number of fan favorite characters from Lando and Boba Fett to Yoda himself. The small green creature belongs to an unknown species that has very few members of its race left (obligatory shout out to Baby Yoda!), but are all powerful in the Force. There could have been no one better to teach Luke how to control his force powers, and the relationship between the two characters is one of the best in the franchise (shout out to their reunion in The Last Jedi; it’s a great scene).
Finished this write up, I am.
11. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) | First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1982-1985)
For at least four years, every boy on planet Earth wanted to be a commando when they grew up. Thanks to the three Rambo films and the video game Contra (which had a character in it based on the likeness of Stallone), there was nothing cooler than running through the jungle mowing down waves of bad guys while saving POWs. Something about that formula struck a cord with the youth of the 80s.
The formula being — Rambo hiding in the muck, surrounded with booby traps and when the numbers are low enough, he goes in guns a-blazing. His hunting style is more fun to imitate than the modus operandi of any other character. Nobody pretended to be Kyle Reese hunting Terminators on the playground and they certainly didn’t pretend to be John McClane or John Matrix. Every kid wished they could become Rambo or rather, they wished they could become First Blood Part II Rambo.
Because while First Blood still had action, it was filled with a ton of real life drama. That character is a far cry from the badass super soldier he’d become in later sequels. He’s a broken man who snaps when assholes push him into a corner. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone and only kills one person in that entire film and that was an accident. He’s a victim of a system that broke him and he’s a victim of a society that doesn’t want him. The Rambo in the first film, compared to the rest of the films in the series, is a radically different character and whether you prefer that one or the unstoppable killing machine he’d turn into, there’s no denying how impactful he was to the decade.
What do you think of the selection so far? Who are some of your favorite 80’s characters? Maybe they will show up further on the list!