The 32 greatest '80s movies characters

Ferris Bueller's Day Off
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

The 1980s are a decade marked by excess. Cable TV, credit cards, and constant threat of the Cold War turning hot was the norm for millions everywhere. Amidst so much paranoia and fear, movies of the 1980s grew in scale, spectacle, and ingenuity. But who were the characters that populated these stories?

After the director-driven, “New Hollywood” movement ceased being in vogue, Hollywood studios reclaimed greater creative control and perfected the tentpole blockbuster. Movies became more expensive, with more experimentation of techniques in special effects and digital filmmaking. The stories contained in these movies followed suit. Fantasy characters became even more fantastical, whilst stories with more grounded worlds featured more robust characters who illuminated different depths of the human experience.

All told, 1980s movies look and feel far more different than previous decades. If you find that hard to believe, then these 32 greatest characters of ‘80s cinema should show just how much movies started looking beyond our natural world - and making us see new things within it.

32. Jane Craig (Broadcast News)

Broadcast News

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

When business and pleasure mix in funny ways, you get someone like Jane Craig. In Albert L. Brooks’ prescient comedy Broadcast News, set in the television news industry, Holly Hunter’s lead character Jane Craig is an overachieving, overambitious dynamo who finds herself conflicted as she falls for the handsome and earnest, if also simple, rookie anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt). Though she is obscenely skilled at her job and fiercely independent, Brooks’ movie shows that even the hardest people can be vulnerable when love is in - and on - the air.

31. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)

Nightmare on Elm Street screenshot

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

One, two, he’s coming for you. Forged from the childhood traumas of horror filmmaker Wes Craven, the supernatural serial killer Freddy Krueger of the popular Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is the ultimate cinematic slasher, who unlike most of his contemporaries also boasts a wicked personality. Played by Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger is evil incarnate, born of sin (just look up his ghastly origin story) who in life and death targets the youth of Elm Street in their dreams. With a taste for razor-sharp claws and a sense of humor that cuts equally deep, Freddy Krueger not only reinvented slasher horror, but remade it in his hideous image.

30. Frank Dux (Bloodsport)


(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

After the death of Bruce Lee, the big screen yearned for action heroes who could pack a punch. Because Arnold Schwarzenegger was more adept with guns and swords, there was Jean-Claude Van Damme. A legit martial artist turned movie star, JCVD’s big break came from his starring role in the 1988 film Bloodsport, in the role of a fictionalized version of real-life U.S. Army veteran Frank Dux. While the facts of Dux’s story - who supposedly competed in an underground Hong Kong tournament - are lofty at best, there’s no arguing that Van Damme is at his best wearing Dux’s black shorts in a role foundational for ‘80s beefcake heroism.

29. Louis Tully (Ghosbusters)


(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

The Ghostbusters are colorful characters in and of themselves. But their pale gray uniforms are no match for the loud, velvet jumpsuits of nosy neighbor Louis Tully, played by Rick Moranis in the comedy-horror classic Ghostbusters. Originally set to be played by John Candy, Rick Moranis took over after Candy dropped out; it was Moranis who invented so much of Tully’s memorable persona. In fact, it was his idea for Louis to be a clueless, geeky accountant - a tweak that ensured Tully held a purpose in the sequel. Everyone knows to call the Ghostbusters, but it’s Louis Tully, and his possession by Sumerian demons, that elevates Ivan Reitman’s film from chuckle-worthy to gut-busting. 

28. “Brother” Mark Lee (A Better Tomorrow)

A Better Tomorrow

(Image credit: Fortune Star Media)

So many people on the internet use GIFs and memes featuring Brother Mark without realizing who he is. In John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow duology - crown jewels in Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed canon of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s - Chow Yun-fat stars as “Brother” Mark Lee, a bodyguard and gunman who plays a central role in Woo’s underworld epic. Masked behind aviator shades and a signature trench coat (which the character popularized to the point that trench coats in Hong Kong are colloquially named after him), Mark Lee oozes cool even when the action is too hot.

27. Baby and Johnny (Dirty Dancing)

Dirty Dancing

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

They come from different worlds, but life and destiny brings these two together for one hot summer in an upscale Catskills resort. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze co-star in the ‘80s classic Dirty Dancing, with Grey as 17-year-old “Baby” who ends up in the arms of hunky dance instructor Johnny Castle (Swayze). In this supremely manicured environment split apart by class divisions, Baby and Johnny come together to have the time of their lives in the ‘80s romance to end all ‘80s romances.

26. Gordon Gecko (Wall Street)

Wall Street

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Greed is good. So says Gordon Gecko, the sharp-dressed finance shark of Oliver Stone’s buttoned-up crime drama Wall Street. Played by Michael Douglas (who won an Oscar for his performance), Gordon Gecko is a shark in Brooks Brothers tailoring who represents the heartlessness of Wall Street and American capitalism at large. In fact, in 2014, two Belgian psychiatrists dove into the history of cinema and singled out examples of textbook psychopathy; among them was Gordon Gecko. His viciousness and cunning make him unquestionably a bad guy, but because of his wealth, millions of would-be traders today still try to follow his example.

25. Loretta Castorini (Moonstruck)


(Image credit: MGM)

Even Cher can’t help but fall in love with Nicholas Cage. (Who among us wouldn’t?) In Norman Jewison’s romance classic Moonstruck, music titan Cher stars as Loretta Castorini, a widowed woman who falls for her finance’s roughneck brother, played by Nicholas Cage in the role that made him famous. While Cage’s innate charisma demands attention, Loretta is no slouch of a character either. Through the magnetic power of Cher, Loretta is admirably self-assured, a fully realized individual who knows what she wants before life throws her a curveball. Along with her overblown hair and chic wardrobe, Loretta possesses a sort of beauty we’ve all seen before but are nevertheless drawn into.

24. Radio Raheem (Do the Right Thing)

Do the Right Thing

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Worn on his hands is the tale of good and evil. A gentle giant who gives people around him the gift of music via his boombox (whether they want it or not), Radio Raheem’s murder by NYPD officers is the catalyst for racial tensions in Brooklyn in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. Played by Bill Nunn, Radio Raheem is a towering figure with his own inclination to outbursts of anger. But no one, not even the Korean grocers he agitated, believed he deserved to die with indignity. From his death, turmoil sparks in his community, not unlike the real-life death of George Floyd in 2020 that ignited widespread reckoning towards America’s systemic injustices. Radio Raheem blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” wasn’t just an extension of his brand, but a call to action for everyone willing to hear him.

23. Puyi (The Last Emperor)

The Last Emperor

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Imagine being given dominion over an empire at just three years old. Believe it or not, that actually happened. In 1908, the toddler-aged Puyi was declared the last monarch of Qing dynasty China before political revolutions ended its monarchies. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping period epic, the life of Puyi is charted from his extremely young age to his middle age as a political prisoner. Played by actors Richard Vuu, Tijger Tsou, Wu Tao, and John Lone - who all play Puyi at various stages of his life - Puyi is ultimately a tragic figure, a cherubic-faced child who is left totally clueless to his monumental role and place in history. At one point, he is described as “the loneliest boy on Earth,” and it is a woefully correct assessment.

22. Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull)

Raging Bull

(Image credit: United Artists)

The title is quite an apt description for its main character. In Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic drama Raging Bull, Robert De Niro plays real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (the movie is an adaptation of LaMotta’s memoir), a talented but short-tempered and hot-blooded middleweight boxer. While Jake flirts with success, his abrasive personality and destructive ways frequently get in his own way. In true Scorsese fashion, Jake doesn’t outright win or lose in the game of life. Instead, he is doomed to live in a prison of his own making.

21. Shermer High School Detention on March 24, 1984 (The Breakfast Club)

The Breakfast Club

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

John Hughes’ seminal coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club takes place on one fateful afternoon inside the library (and hallways, and gymnasium) of Shermer High School. Gathered for detention are five students: popular overachiever Claire (Molly Ringwald), varsity jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez), nerdy Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), shy loner Allison (Ally Sheedy), and rebellious John (Judd Nelson). These five undergo a life-changing experience that makes them question the walls they put up on a daily basis. The Breakfast Club is one of the most enduring teen movies for a reason, with its collection of unforgettable young adults who show that connections can be made in the unlikeliest of places - and with the unlikeliest of people.

20. The Terminator (The Terminator)

The Terminator

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

The enormity of Terminator 2: Judgment Day can make it hard to remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original T-800 was, in fact, the bad guy. The original 1984 action thriller The Terminator was all about Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) escaping the crosshairs of “The Terminator,” an unstoppable cyborg assassin from the future. With Schwarzenegger still in the early days of his career, the bodybuilder-turned-actor fleshes out The Terminator with steely ferocity, his sheer physicality frightening while still making complete meals out of minimal dialogue. (“I’ll be back.”) While subsequent sequels have turned Schwarzenegger’s T-800 into a model hero, never forget that his original programming was to destroy humanity at any cost.

19. Raymond (Rain Man)

Rain Man

(Image credit: MGM)

Disregarding its harmful stereotypes of individuals with autism, Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man is still a startling combination of actor and character working like cinematic chemistry. Hyper intelligent but deeply socially inept, Raymond is a sympathetic figure whose talents are precious; the tragedy is that few others lack the time and patience to understand him. That includes his own brother Charlie (Tom Cruise). Heavily based on the real-life “megasavant” Kim Peek, Raymond is a character who definitely deserves a spot in the canon of 1980s movie characters. Yeah.

18. Joel Goodsen (Risky Business)

Risky Business

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Ah, to be young and free to dance in the living room. While there is a lot more than bare-legged lip syncing in Paul Brickman’s classic comedy Risky Business, there’s no arguing over its enduring image of suburban teenage rebellion. That extends to its main character Joel Goodsen, played by Tom Cruise in the role that made his star shine bright in Hollywood. Before Cruise leapt from mountains and flew fighter jets, the A-lister slid around in ankle socks and got into all kinds of trouble - including one named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). While the aptly-named Joel Goodsen may not be as synonymous with teenagedom as Ferris Bueller or Bill and Ted, Joel has more personality than any of them even with his pants off.

17. Tony Montana (Scarface)


(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The world was his. Almost a decade after Al Pacino played the definitive mafia don in Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather movies, Pacino became a different, and more violent type of gangster in Brian De Palma’s searing crime epic Scarface. Unlike the more composed and measured Michael Corleone, Tony Montana is fiery and volatile, the chip in his shoulder burrowed deep to the bone. In his fast rise and furious fall in Miami’s criminal underworld, Tony Montana is the physical embodiment of the immigrant’s American dream - including the parts of it that feel like a nightmare.

16. Flyora (Come and See)

Come and See

(Image credit: Roskino)

War is hell, and you can see its corrosive powers in the face of a child. In Elem Klimov’s anti-war epic Come and See, Aleksei Kravchenko stars as Flyora, a Belarusian boy conscripted into service during World War II. Taken from his family, Flyora just barely survives from the onslaught of Nazi cruelty. Kravchenko’s facial expressions throughout Come and See are forever haunting, his big eyes and crooked mouths illustrative of how the war machine utterly devours the soul. The movie’s unforgettable ending, with Flyora unloading his rifle into a photograph of Adolf Hitler and set to a montage of Hitler’s life in reverse, tells that what little bit of humanity we have left must be kept safe. If not for ourselves, but for the good of our species.

15. Bill S. Preston and Theodore Logan (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

Leave it to two rockin’ California teenagers to impart a moving message of universal brotherhood. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter co-star in the Bill & Ted movie franchise with 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a rollicking time travel comedy where Bill and Ted recruit real historical figures to help them with their homework. While Bill and Ted are simple guys, they embody big time “dudes rock” energy as kind, enthusiastic best friends who only want to help the world through their music. The world could use more people like Bill and Ted, just as much as we ought to be more excellent to each other. Party on forever, dudes.

14. Wah (As Tears Go By)

As Tears Go By

(Image credit: Kino International)

It is not in anyone’s best interest to fall in love with their cousin. But Andy Lau’s reckless, abrasive triad enforcer “Wah” in Wong Kar-wai’s directorial feature As Tears Go By makes romantic yearning look so good, even if it’s with somebody from his own family tree. Often masked by rip-off Ray Bans and denim jackets, and with cigarettes sewed to his lips, Wah is like the reincarnation of James Dean just with late ‘80s stylings. Beneath his aggression are his fierce loyalty, physical and spiritual endurance, and emotional vulnerability, which leads him into the arms of his beautiful cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung). Wah would be so cool, if only the path he walks didn’t lead to nowhere.

13. Rick Deckard (Blade Runner)

Blade Runner

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Is he human? Or is he a Replicant? The answer doesn’t matter as much as the act of questioning it at all. In Ridley Scott’s profoundly influential sci-fi noir Blade Runner, Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a hard-boiled bounty hunter of humanlike androids whose latest case encourages in him startling and disturbing visions about the truth of his existence. While it’s the villain Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) whose climactic monologue imbues the movie with philosophical depth, don’t forget that it's directed towards Rick, who is on his own violent journey of understanding what it means to be more human than human.

12. Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)

My Neighbor Totoro

(Image credit: Toho)

He’s big, he’s furry, he growls - and we’re not talking about your friend’s husband the morning after Super Bowl Sunday. We’re talking about Totoro, the oversized bear/rabbit spirit in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy My Neighbor Totoro. As a vehicle for Miyazaki to explore concepts like animism and environmentalism, Totoro splits the difference between eerie and inviting, being so huggable even if he’s just a bit off-putting. Since the release of My Neighbor Totoro, its title character is so iconic that he alone represents the universal appeal of Japan’s animation canon, not to mention as a mascot for the legendary Studio Ghibli that created him. 

11. John McClane (Die Hard)

Die Hard

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

All John McClane wants to do is to make up with his estranged wife. But to do that, he’ll have to survive one hell of a Christmas at Nakatomi Plaza. From John McTiernan’s Die Hard comes Bruce Willis as NYPD officer John McClane, whose holiday visit to Los Angeles goes up in smoke from a terrorist heist. While McClane has as many quips (“Welcome to the party, pal!”) as he does bullets, what makes him so great are what make him human. He’s flawed. He’s petty and just a bit jealous over his wife’s new life without him. But it’s his determination and resilience - lest we forget, he’s barefoot through most of this ordeal - that make McClane so much more dimensional than most other action movie heroes.

10. Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

He would be so scary if he wasn’t in high school. From John Hughes’ timeless classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the man himself, played with aplomb by a trickster Matthew Broderick. Clever and charismatic, Ferris Bueller holds potential as an incredibly lethal adult; imagine Ferris working as a politician, or a company executive, or as the head of a PR firm. Luckily, as far as Hughes’ movie is concerned, he’s just a teenager who wants to have a beautiful day away from school. There ain’t no harm in a little joyride in his friends’ dad’s prized Ferrari.

9. Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid)

The Karate Kid Part II

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Yoda wasn’t the only cool movie mentor of the 1980s. Throughout the Karate Kid film series there was Mr. Miyagi, played by Japanese-American comedian Pat Morita (with Morita imbuing Miyagi-san with a touch more seriousness into the role). While introduced as a humble maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi possesses a wealth of experience, both as a descendant of a martial arts master and himself a World War II veteran who lost his family in Manzanar.  Mr. Miyagi reluctantly takes Daniel under his wing to teach him Miyagi-do karate, and by extension, a better, fuller life. Wax on, wax off.

8. Lando Calrissian (The Empire Strikes Back)

The Empire Strikes Back

(Image credit: Lucasfilm)

He’s the smoothest, coolest dude in the galaxy, so much so that Star Wars fans still love him even after his one-time betrayal of Han and Leia. A handsome scoundrel who runs Cloud City, Billy Dee Williams’ Lando - introduced in the 1980 Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back - brought style to George Lucas’ pulp sci-fi universe. In contrast to the more pragmatic Han Solo, Lando isn’t afraid to dress up and get down, with an iconic silk cape (just because) and a carefully groomed mustache. Though he does sell out the heroes to Darth Vader, his redemption in Return of the Jedi has made certain his legacy as the guy Leia tells Han not to worry about.

7. Marty McFly and Doc Brown (Back to the Future)

Back to the Future

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

No one questions why a teenager is best friends with a manic, geriatric scientist. That’s because Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown are simply electric together, with Brown’s boundless enthusiasm for experimentation that compliments Marty’s own inherent thirst for adventure. (He’s a teenager! Of course Marty is down for reckless adventures!) Separately, Marty and Doc are great characters. But it’s the two together, through their overall onscreen chemistry, that really take Back to the Future to the next level, making the whole trilogy so timeless in its appeal as an ‘80s classic.

6. Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop)

Beverly Hills Cop

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

His is the coolest synth music motif in the history of movies, which in turn makes him one of the coolest and most definitive characters of the 1980s. Played by Eddie Murphy at the top of his game, Axel Foley is a streetsmart, resourceful Detroit detective who isn’t above mocking Los Angeles’ shallow glamor, especially when it means bringing the murderer of his best friend to justice. Just watch what he can do with some bananas and a sense of humor. He’ll get the job done, and he won’t have to jump off any buildings to do it.

5. Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride)

The Princess Bride

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

An expert Spanish swordsman who mastered his craft to satisfy his vengeance, Inigo Montoya is a standout character from Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy classic The Princess Bride. Originating from writer William Goldman’s novel, Inigo Montoya comes to the aid of the story’s main characters, but somehow still has the most exciting and engaging story as he hunts down the man who killed his father in cold blood. Played by the formidable Mandy Patinkin, who verbalizes some of the rawest lines in movie history, Inigo is an all-time ‘80s movie character who still oozes more swagger than anyone before or since.

4. Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

It wasn’t enough for Harrison Ford to just play Han Solo and Rick Deckard. In Lucasfilm’s other big franchise Indiana Jones, Ford wields the whip as cinema’s coolest archaeologist (who also fears snakes), beginning with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though Jones is bookish by nature, he isn’t afraid to get dirty either, prone to punching Nazis and gunning down flashy swordsmen in the sweltering heat of exotic locales. Though Jones would quite obviously prefer a quiet life as a university professor, he simply can’t resist the call to adventure when it summons him.

3. Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

(Image credit: Toei)

Though she’s a royal princess, that doesn’t mean she’s resigned herself to a life of privilege. In Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic fantasy classic, Nausicaä (voiced by Sumi Shimamoto, and Allison Lohman in the English dub) is a curious and brave activist who seeks to better understand the giant sentient insects who overrun her world. In addition, she’s a gifted “windrider,” able to stylishly zig-zag in the air in her own custom air glider. Before Disney modernized its princesses by making them more capable fighters and survivors, there was Nausicaä, who single-handedly reimagined what it means to be a cartoon princess.

2. Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)

Rocky IV

(Image credit: MGM)

“I must break you.” He’s a man of few words, but the fearsome Ivan Drago says all he needs to say in his fists. Appearing in the fourth Rocky film played by Dolph Lundgren, Ivan is a model athlete of modern Soviet science, perfectly designed to eclipse the United States in the cultural arena of sports. That makes him the perfect, ultimate villain for Philly boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who represents not only the heart of America but its dreams too. It would be a tad too cartoonish for Rocky to box monsters, but Ivan Drago is about the closest Rocky’s world can get to a foreign existential threat.

1. John Rambo (First Blood)

First Blood

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

He is not only one of the best movie characters of the 1980s, but easily the decade’s most misunderstood. Originating in the 1972 novel First Blood, the movie stays true as a politically-minded action thriller about a haunted Vietnam War veteran waging a one-man war against local police after his PTSD is triggered. First Blood is a smart movie, almost dangerously so. But when the sequel comes along, 1985’s awkwardly-titled Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo is haphazardly thrust into pretty much a superhero role, an asset deployed by the government that “made” him whilst Rambo still maintains some independence by defying their orders. Subsequent expansion of Rambo’s story into a multimedia franchise that clumsily glorifies his military background have turned Rambo into something he decidedly should not be, an avatar of military service being the mark of a badass. In that way, you cannot summarize the excess of the 1980s better, in taking something authentically pointed and still missing it anyway. 

Eric Francisco

Eric Francisco is a freelance entertainment journalist and graduate of Rutgers University. If a movie or TV show has superheroes, spaceships, kung fu, or John Cena, he's your guy to make sense of it. A former senior writer at Inverse, his byline has also appeared at Vulture, The Daily Beast, Observer, and The Mary Sue. You can find him screaming at Devils hockey games or dodging enemy fire in Call of Duty: Warzone.