40 Greatest Movie Heroes of All Time, Ranked
Since the beginning of cinema, moviegoers have been drawn to watching a brave hero overcome an evil villain. Filmmakers know that no matter how complex a story may get or how beautiful the cinematography is, at the end of the day, a story needs to have a hero worth rooting for.
As movies and audiences have transformed throughout the years, some heroes have become a bit more nuanced, and their villains, not always as clear-cut. But the universality of their triumph and the inspiring feeling we get from watching them face their fears is still present in any good film.
So, to honor these iconic heroes, we decided to rank them based on their courage as well as their ability to remain true to themselves. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does show that heroes can be found no matter what the character’s circumstance (or even the film’s genre).
40. Robin Hood
Movie: "The Adventures of Robin Hood"
Played by: Errol Flynn
Year released: 1938
* Be warned that in describing some of these heroes and their triumphs, there may be spoilers involved.
Bottom Line: Robin Hood
Sir Robin of Locksley, aka Robin Hood, is the hero we all want to be. He's usually on the wrong side of the law but the right side of justice. Known for stealing from the rich and redistributing it to those in need is legendary, and he manages to intercept the evil Prince John and court the beautiful Maid Marian at the same time.
Robin Hood's charisma and charm go a long way, but his quick wit and kindness make him a true hero.
39. Will Kane
Movie: "High Noon"
Played by: Gary Cooper
Year released: 1952
Bottom Line: Will Kane
Including a character from a low-budget Western was a stretch, but Will Kane is too much of a legend not to mention. Right after marrying his wife Amy, Will is notified that a criminal he locked up years ago has been released from jail. The criminal was sentenced to death but was somehow pardoned.
After his release, he's coming for Kane, but the citizens of the town have no interest in protecting him. Instead, Kane faces the killer all on his own. It's dramatic and predictable, but you have to see the performances of Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly as Will and Amy at least once.
38. Rick Blaine
Played by: Humphrey Bogart
Year released: 1942
Bottom Line: Rick Blaine
Rick Blaine is a cynical nightclub owner living in Morocco when World War II breaks out. While the local police are less than happy about it (a slight understatement), Rick turns his club into a refuge for those seeking safe passage to the United States. When a former lover of his turns to him for help, he has a tough decision to make: follow his heart or act in the name of love and help her escape with her husband?
The lines of right and wrong are way more blurred than they sound, but Rick ends up making the right choice even though it means losing the love of his life.
Movie: "Lassie Come Home" (and lots of subsequent films and shows)
Played by: Pal
Year released: 1943
Bottom Line: Lassie
Nowhere does it say that the best movie heroes have to be human. When a family is forced to sell their beautiful dog, Lassie, to a rich Duke to make ends meet, Lassie proves that her beauty is more than fur deep.
She's so devoted to her family, particularly young Joe Carraclough, that she sets to find him. Human heroism is well and good, but there's something extra special about canine heroes. There's no love purer than that of man's best friend.
Played by: Christopher Reeve
Year released: 1978
Bottom Line: Superman
Superman is pretty much the original superhero. An alien from the planet Krypton, Superman is sent to Earth as a baby and is adopted by two friendly farmers. As he grows up, he realizes his own strength and travels to Metropolis to protect the city.
The fact that he battles a supervillain while simultaneously working a day job as a reporter and trying to win the heart of his coworker, Lois Lane, demonstrates some pretty legendary multi-tasking skills. Fun fact: To develop the signature Superman build, Christopher Reeve was trained by David Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader in the first "Star Wars" trilogy.
Played by: Kirk Douglas
Year released: 1960
Bottom Line: Spartacus
For a movie made in the 1960s, the battle scenes in "Spartacus" are impressively well done. It tells the story of Spartacus, a Thracian slave who lived in 73 B.C. He and thousands of other slaves are forced to train as gladiators, risking their lives in gory fights to the death.
Spartacus decides he's had enough of the horrific treatment and leads a revolt that spreads throughout the entire Italian Peninsula. After defeating the Commander of the Garrison of Rome, Spartacus and the former slaves are on their way to victory until a group of their allies abandons them. They're forced to face the wrath of Roman Senator Gracchus alone. Spartacus can't be saved in the end, but his acts of bravery ensure that his wife and baby son will live freely.
34. Rocky Balboa
Played by: Sylvester Stallone
Year released: 1976
Bottom Line: Rocky Balboa
Rocky Balboa is the underdog we can't help but root for. He dreams of becoming a professional boxer, but he works as a debt collector to make ends meet. Then, he's offered the chance of a lifetime: to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed in hopes of making a name for himself.
The match begins as almost a joke; no one expects him to land a punch, let alone win. While he doesn't win, he gives it his all and gives Creed a run for his money. While Rocky isn't out rescuing people or defeating evil, he battles doubt and the odds — and wins. The next time you're faced with a daunting task, remember: Don't put yourself out of the race before it even starts.
33. Oskar Schindler
Movie: "Schindler's List"
Played by: Liam Neeson
Year released: 1993
Bottom Line: Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler wasn't always hero. At first, he's a selfish and greedy businessman who cares about little more than making money. When the Nazi regime begins to put thousands of lives at risk, however, Schindler reveals that he has a heart after all. A big one, in fact. He turns his factory into a secret refuge for Jewish people.
The best part is that it's based on the life of the real Oskar Schindler, who saved over 1,000 people from perishing at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
32. George Bailey
Movie: "It's a Wonderful Life"
Played by: James Stewart
Year released: 1946
Bottom Line: George Bailey
George Bailey is the main character and hero of the 1946 movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." In one of the most memorable Christmas movies ever, George begins as a depressed banker contemplating suicide. An angel visits him to remind him what life would have been like for his town if he had never existed, and it turns out he did a ton of good.
When he was only 12, he jumped into a treacherous, icy lake to save his drowning brother, going deaf in one ear as a result. He later served as an air raid warden in World War II and led supply drives. He also looks out for the angel even though he's a complete stranger. (And a little annoying.) In the end, George Bailey is the hero of his own story and a town hero at the same time.
31. Atticus Finch
Movie: "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Played by: Gregory Peck
Year released: 1962
Bottom Line: Atticus Finch
The year is 1932. Atticus Finch, a lawyer and widower in a small town in Alabama, is doing his best to raise his two children, Jem and Scout, in a complicated world in which loving the wrong person can be lethal.
He's about as respectable as a movie character can get. For most lawyers, becoming a defense attorney is about money. For Atticus, it's about advocating for the truth, even when no one wants to hear it. Throughout the movie, his mission is to prove the innocence of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
The animosity he faces from this unpopular decision is fierce, but it doesn't dissuade him from pursuing justice and teaching his children to do the same.
30. Yu Shu Lien
Movie: “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”
Played by: Michelle Yeoh
Year released: 2000
Bottom Line: Yu Shu Lien
She’s tough. She’s steady. She’s incredibly accomplished in both fighting and business. She’s loyal, dedicated, disciplined and everything we as average humans wish we could be. While she may seem like a normal person on the outside, she’s the embodiment of the titular phrase “crouching tiger hidden dragon,” which is a reminder not to take anyone at face value.
We especially love that she honors all the promises she makes to both the living and those who have passed on.
29. Erin Brokovich
Movie: “Erin Brockovich”
Played by: Julia Roberts
Year released: 2000
Bottom Line: Erin Brokovich
As one of the few real-life heroes on this list, Brokovich deserves accolades. While, yes, the Hollywood version of the story was tweaked a bit for clarity, most of what you see in the film is really what happened.
And considering what Brokovich was able to accomplish and how she was able to do so with her own familial obligations along with all the discrimination that came from being a female taking on a corrupt corporate entity, she’s incredibly inspiring.
28. Frodo Baggins
Movie: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”
Played by: Elijah Wood
Year released: 2001
Bottom Line: Frodo Baggins
Frodo didn’t ask to be a hero. He was a simple hobbit who was happily living in the Shire with his Uncle Bilbo who had this seemingly magical ring. He wasn’t aware of its darkness or its power. And upon becoming aware of it, he was one of the few creatures who could have handled it — even though in the end he couldn’t control it and gave in for just a minute.
Luckily, it worked out, and the ring was destroyed. The lesson learned? It takes a real hero to be willing to make such an arduous journey without giving into immense temptation every step of the way.
27. Forrest Gump
Movie: “Forrest Gump”
Played by: Tom Hanks
Year released: 1994
Bottom Line: Forrest Gump
We usually think of a hero as someone who is actively taking part in overcoming some foe. What’s interesting about Forrest Gump is he was both very active and very passive, while also being very innocent.
He did what he felt was instinctually right. And, in doing so, was braver and lived a more charmed and exciting existence than most people ever will. He’s inspiring in his unquestioning dedication to doing the next right thing.
Movie: “Shaun of the Dead”
Played by: Simon Pegg
Year released: 2004
Bottom Line: Shaun
Sometimes we forget that comedies can have inspiring and worthy heroes. And Shaun of “Shaun of the Dead” is just that. He was a directionless, down-on-his-luck, below-average mope.
But when adventure called and he found himself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, he answered big. He becomes a zombie-fighting peacekeeping hero who fights not only for his life but also for his love. And, as a bonus, he makes us laugh along the way.
25. The Bride
Movie: “Kill Bill”
Played by: Uma Thurman
Year released: 2003
Bottom Line: The Bride
Though her real name is Beatrix Michelle Kiddo, she’s better known as The Bride (or sometimes referred to as Black Mamba). This deadly woman is one of the foremost assassins in the world.
When her marriage plans don’t exactly pan out, she overcomes trauma and a four-year coma before finally coming out of it. And, when she does, she becomes incredibly heroic while enacting her very bloody revenge.
24. Jamal Malik
Movie: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Played by: Dev Patel
Year released: 2008
Bottom Line: Jamal Malik
A young and talented Dev Patel is introduced to the world as Jamal Malik through this fascinating, exciting and beautiful love story. Throughout the course of the movie, we see just how much Jamal has gone through to get to where he is.
And even though he was already someone who was easy to root for, he becomes a true hero of the people and someone who has overcome incredible challenges over and over again.
23. Harley Quinn
Movie: “Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn”
Played by: Margot Robbie
Year released: 2020
Bottom Line: Harley Quinn
Sure, technically Harley Quinn is considered a villain. It’s fair to say her motives aren’t exactly pure. And she prefers chaos and killing to peace.
But in “Birds of Prey,” she shows that she has a lot of empathy behind her wisecrack humor and general desire to cause mayhem. She becomes the quintessential example that every villain is the hero of their own story. And in this movie, which is very much her story, she is a hero you genuinely root for.
22. Katniss Everdeen
Movie: “The Hunger Games”
Played by: Jennifer Lawrence
Year released: 2012
Bottom Line: Katniss Everdeen
Katniss already has a strong moral compass in her everyday life in District 12. But she really answers her hero’s call when she volunteers in the place of her sister, Prim, to participate in the Hunger Games in which she knows her chances of surviving are slim. And that’s just the beginning of her heroism.
During the incredibly dangerous Hunger Games themselves, she shows bravery and a willingness to self-sacrifice time and time again. She not only inspires her own people in the film, but also any audience member with a heart who watches it. And, of course, she also inspired multiple sequels.
21. Ryan Stone
Played by: Sandra Bullock
Year released: 2013
Bottom Line: Ryan Stone
Ryan Stone is new to space. Within a short period of time, she’s completely on her own and, quite literally, out of her element. This wonderfully written and perfectly acted out story is a very different experience from your average movie. But it produces the same heart-pumping tension.
And without a hero to root for, it could become somewhat boring since there’s, well, nothing to see except a dark void. But Ryan’s humanity made us feel like she was all of us just trying to figure out how to return to … wait for it … gravity.
20. John Wick
Movie: “John Wick”
Played by: Keanu Reeves
Year released: 2014
Bottom Line: John Wick
For anyone who has ever been upset at the callous death of an innocent creature in a movie, John Wick is the answer. Like so many of us, he wanted to move on from his previous life and start a happy, quiet one anew.
But some very dumb villians make a very dumb mistake and messed with the very cute dog his newly dead wife left him … and he sets out on easily one of the most murderous canine-avenging rampages ever seen in cinema. He’s a hero for both humans and dogs alike.
19. Annie Walker
Played by: Kristen Wiig
Year released: 2011
Bottom Line: Annie Walker
Annie Walker is another perfect example of how a hero comes in many shapes, sizes and senses of humor. In this raunchy comedy, Annie deals with her own insecurities as they shape up around the wedding of her best friend.
She’s funny, real and very relatable. And all those elements make her triumph in the face of her challenges that much more rewarding for the audience.
18. Harriet Tubman
Played by: Cynthia Ervio
Year released: 2019
Bottom Line: Harriet Tubman
The only other real person who made the cut on this list is a hero who, for too long, wasn’t given enough credit for her bravery. In this biopic, we learn so much more about how Harriet Tubman became the legendary abolitionist, slave freer and suffragette we know today.
This movie shows a hero who makes brave choice after brave choice, usually putting her life (and almost always putting her well-being) on the line for a cause bigger than herself. It’s no wonder her story of resilience has withstood the test of time.
Movie: “The Matrix”
Played by: Keanu Reeves
Year released: 1999
Bottom Line: Neo
Neo is an average computer programmer who learns he has the ability to bring peace to the entire world. He’s given a choice — the iconic red pill or blue pill. And, like any good hero, he makes the harder choice to leave his old life behind and embrace his destiny.
The fact that he goes from a quiet programmer to the most powerful matter-controlling human in the world (or, in this case, the Matrix) makes him enthralling to watch.
16. Robert McCall
Movie: “The Equalizer”
Played by: Denzel Washington
Year released: 2014
Bottom Line: Robert McCall
Here’s the thing about Robert McCall: He didn’t want to be a hero. He was satisfied enough living what people would see as a completely average existence. But, like a true hero, when someone crossed one of his only friends and left her hospitalized, he decided to make things right.
And when the bad guys involved don’t play along, he transforms from a nice guy into a highly skilled, killing machine. It’s his very clear moral compass, though, that makes you root for him every step of the way.
15. Evey Hammond
Movie: “V for Vendetta”
Played by: Natalie Portman
Year released: 2005
Bottom Line: Evey Hammond
While you may think that V is the hero in “V for Vendetta,” Evey has a much more dynamic story arc. When we meet V, he is already in his element with a plan in place. He still faces challenges, but he already knows that he has the power to face them.
Evey, however, learns her own power throughout the movie with V’s sometimes questionable teaching tactics. By the end, she transforms into V himself (or, in this case, herself) and makes us all believe that by working towards a better world a little bit at a time, we can achieve greatness.
14. Jo March
Movie: “Little Women”
Played by: Winona Ryder, Soirse Ronan
Year released: 1994, 2019
Bottom Line: Jo March
The two most popular film versions of the timeless and heartfelt story of “Little Women” wouldn’t exist without Jo March. She was a woman ahead of her time, more interested in her career and her creativity than conforming to the norms around her.
She had complicated feelings and complex family dynamics that she worked through as she and her sisters came into their own. She is an outspoken hero who bravely skirted (all puns intended) expectations of her at the time.
13. John McClane
Movie: “Die Hard”
Played by: Bruce Willis
Year released: 1988
Bottom Line: John McClane
You can’t talk about iconic heroes without mentioning John McClane. “Die Hard” truly captured lightning in a bottle.
Thanks to McClane’s bravery, a whole group of very capable terrorists were thwarted in their evil plans and were held accountable (often by death at his hands) for their own killing ways. For many people, he’s a more influential Christmas hero than Santa Claus.
12. James Bond
Movie: “Quantum of Solace”
Played by: Daniel Craig
Year released: 2008
Bottom Line: James Bond
Of course, the classic James Bond character has been played for decades by many different actors who all brought different energies to the role. But what sets the Bond in “Quantum of Solace” apart is that, for the first time in all the movies, we truly see his humanity. He falls in love. He gets his heart broken. He makes mistakes and isn’t just a skilled and charismatic (not to mention handsome) killer in the world around him. He’s a human who can be hurt on many levels.
There is nothing more heroic than vulnerability, and that’s exactly what Daniel Craig brings in this James Bond film.
11. Batman / Bruce Wayne
Movie: “The Dark Knight”
Played by: Christian Bale
Year released: 2008
Bottom Line: Batman / Bruce Wayne
One of the only technical “superheroes” on this list, Bruce Wayne gets a pass because he’s a man (albeit a billionaire, but still technically only human) who decided to make a difference in the dark world around him. And in this particular movie, his heroism is largely defined by the unforgettable villain (played by Heath Ledger) who he is up against.
What’s even more amazing is that this hero values life above all and does everything in his power not to kill people as he sets out to protect and avenge.
10. Chris Washington
Movie: “Get Out”
Played by: Daniel Kaluuya
Year released: 2017
Bottom Line: Chris Washington
It’s one thing to fight a villain you can see. It’s another to face an insidious foe who asserts their power in ways that you never see coming. But that’s exactly what Chris Washington faces in “Get Out.”
He has to find the power within himself to get out of the sunken place in his psyche before getting physically out of the dangerous (and deeply racist) reality that surrounds him. His journey is riveting every step of the way.
9. Ellen Ripley
Played by: Sigourney Weaver
Year released: 1979
Bottom Line: Ellen Ripley
Ripley is not only one of the first major female action movie heroes, she’s also one of the most unforgettable. Her awesomeness not only landed her another unforgettable movie in the sequel “Aliens,” but it also spawned a number of other related graphic novels and video games.
Her heroic influence is quite literally out of this world.
8. Ethan Hunt
Movie: “Mission: Impossible”
Played by: Tom Cruise
Year released: 1996
Bottom Line: Ethan Hunt
Since this original classic debuted in theaters, it seems like there’s a new “Mission: Impossible” every few years. And while some sequels can feel repetitive or tired, Ethan Hunt’s humanity and dedication always keep us coming back for more. Plus, the stakes and the storylines are always fascinating, modern and relevant.
This first movie, however, was the one that launched it all. And while the storylines may get bigger and more complicated, the hero at the heart of it is still just as easy to root for.
7. Imperator Furiosa
Movie: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Played by: Charlize Theron
Year released: 2015
Bottom Line: Imperator Furiosa
If you went to theaters to see Mad Max in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” you may have been surprised when Furiosa takes over both the screen time and the majority of the storyline.
But that choice actually made the movie significantly more interesting and turned this rocking futuristic apocalyptic action film into one that tells a fiercely feminine story, with a fierce female at the helm who you root for every step of the way.
6. Indiana Jones
Movie: “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”
Played by: Harrison Ford
Year released: 1981
Bottom Line: Indiana Jones
As one of the most time-tested classic heroes in cinema, Indiana Jones bravely used his intelligence, his wit and his incredible physical fitness to face myriad challenges in his path.
And he did so all in the name of being on the right side of history and taking down Nazis. He was such a relatable and easy hero to cheer on, people did so in droves (and continued to do so in the multiple sequels that followed).
5. Cassandra Thomas
Movie: “Promising Young Woman”
Played by: Carey Mulligan
Year released: 2020
Bottom Line: Cassandra Thomas
A hero is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their, usually honorable, goal. So while Cassie may seem like an uninterested barista by day and a drunk victim by night, it doesn’t take long before you learn that she has very clear and very admirable motivations to right the wrongs done to her best friend.
In the end, she is even willing to go so far as to sacrifice herself to finally get her friend the justice she always deserved.
4. Maximus Decimus Meridius
Played by: Russell Crowe
Year released: 2000
Bottom Line: Maximus Decimus Meridius
Even though he was great at war, Maximus just wanted to live in peace. But the world wouldn’t have it that way. So, he ended up clawing his way back from the dark, damp and dangerous caves of sporting gladiators into the limelight to take on the evil Commodus and let Rome become the democracy his murdered father wanted it to be.
Throughout every moment of the film, largely thanks to his moral compass and genuinely inspirational persona, moviegoers are very much entertained.
3. Lorraine Broughton
Movie: “Atomic Blonde”
Played by: Charlize Theron
Year released: 2017
Bottom Line: Lorraine Broughton
A major part of what makes Lorraine Broughton so different from many other heroes on this list is the fact that she is just as formidable and fascinating as any other iconic hero.
She’s often not listed in the same circles as some of the large-muscled men who are usually mentioned as movie heroes, but she’s just as morally righteous and very obviously as dangerous as any of them.
2. Sarah Connor
Movie: “The Terminator”
Played by: Linda Hamilton
Year released: 1984
Bottom Line: Linda Hamilton
It’s one thing to be an android who learns to feel and becomes programmed to do better. It’s another to be a woman who knows what will happen in the future and the sacrifice she will have to make in order to try to save humanity and to give everything she can in the process to do so.
Sarah Connor was a hero ahead of her time. And her steel cold resolve — not to mention her incredibly jacked arms — have withstood the test of time.
1. Luke Skywalker
Movie: “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”
Played by: Mark Hamill
Year released: 1977
Bottom Line: Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker is the first of many heroes in the “Star Wars” sagas. But as such, he’s one of the most admirable and easily the most memorable. He comes from what he thinks are humble origins as a farmer only to learn he has a distinct connection that he can harness with all the unbelievable power of the universe.
And while some in his family lineage may have chosen power over morality, Luke chooses not to go to the dark side. Instead, he inspires hope. He became so popular that his story not only launched multiple sequels, it became a multibillion-dollar franchise.