First impressions are crucial in film. Whether it’s a hero, a villain, or any other crucial character, it’s vital that someone’s first appearance in a story make an impact in just the way a filmmaker wants. While not every character introduction is meant to wow audiences and leave a lasting impression, plenty of them are designed to do so.
The greatest character introductions say vital things about the character and inform the larger film as a whole. Whether this is through big and bombastic fight scenes or intimate, detailed character studies, the best introductions linger in the memory and strengthen the character.
As some ground rules, an introduction included here has to be the first time we are introduced to a character in a film, but not necessarily an entire franchise. He or she may have been spotted briefly in the film previously, but not given a true introduction. In addition, the first time a character takes on a new identity does not count, such as Bruce Wayne’s first appearance as Batman halfway through Batman Begins.
Have your own personal favorite character introductions? Let me know in the comments section!
20. Renton (Trainspotting)
Some character introductions pivot on one small moment, some create an air of mystery around the person being seen on screen for the first time. Renton’s introduction in Trainspotting tells you everything you need to know about the young heroin addict played by Ewan McGregor. Being chased through the streets of London, Renton’s voiceover displays heroin’s grip on him while Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” bangs out over the speakers. It’s bold, brash, and unforgettable.
19. Vito Corleone (The Godfather)
Opening on the speech of a man who has come to request a favor of Don Vito Corleone (Marlone Brando) on the day of his daughter’s wedding, the opening to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather tells you so much about its central figure through the actions of another. The man comes to Vito because he knows how much power he has, and it’s Vito’s calm and calculated response, full of quiet power while bathed in darkness, that shows not just what business Vito is in, but how he holds the lives of so many others in his palm. Paired with Brando’s marble-mouthed delivery and you quickly come to see why Vito Corleone is one of cinema’s most iconic characters.
18. Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
The introduction of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), which comes with a sudden reveal of him sitting next to The Narrator (Edward Norton) on a plane ride, is almost as importance as the time before his first appearance. As The Narrator recounts his life and the time leading up to him meeting Tyler, the audience feels the absence of a character they have not yet met outside of a brief flash forward at the film’s start. But director David Fincher also splices brief glimpses of Tyler into The Narrator’s everyday life, placing him in the subconscious of both audience and lead character. Once he’s revealed, calling out The Narrator on his crap and making a big impression on him, it feels as if everything has clicked into place. This is less of a sudden shift in the film, and more of a completion of the whole that it should be.
17. James Bond (Dr. No)
International mystery, perennial ladies’ man, deadly spy, and poker extraordinaire, James Bond’s first introduction comes with the classic spy character fully formed upon arrival. First seen playing cards with his face out of frame, Bond (Sean Connery) introduces himself to his female rival with the classic “Bond, James Bond” and the instantly recognizable Bond Theme striking up simultaneously. It’s far quieter than almost any other Bond introduction in the character’s many films, but it sets the tone for Connery’s cool and collected spy. The rest is movie history.
16. Blade (Blade)
A hapless young man is pulled into a club by the girl he’s with, walking past hanging meat in a slaughter house and eventually making his way to a grimy techno dance floor. But when the sprinklers start showering everyone with blood and the fellow dancers turn to feast on the hapless victim, this party turns into a nightmare. That is, until the intimidating, stoic badass vampire hunter Blade (Wesley Snipes) makes his presence known. That juxtaposition between outright horror and sudden action showdown is thrilling upon both first and many subsequent views. Cutting his way through dozens of vampires, Blade is given one of the greatest, and bloodiest, superhero introductions in film.
15. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Just how dangerous can one man seem when locked away behind unbreakable glass and monitored 24/7? Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter certainly makes the case for being terrifying no matter where he is. When new FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is forced to consult with Lecter on a serial killer case, she’s led down into a dark, damp, underground prison hallway filled with all manner of raving maniacs. But it’s Hannibal at the end of the hall, filled with quiet, steely menace, who is most terrifying of all. And while Hannibal is playing mind games with Starling, he’s also playing mind games with the audience in an unforgettable introduction to one of cinema’s scariest killers.
14. Batman (Batman ’89)
Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which charts Bruce Wayne’s ascent into the mythic figure of Batman, Tim Burton’s Batman starts off with the dark vigilante fully formed and ensconced in powerful gothic trappings. After a mugging that is clearly meant to evoke the fatal night that befell Batman’s parents, The Dark Knight ominously floats in behind a pair of muggers, his iconic outline silhouetted against the foggy night. Mystery soon turns to sudden attack and with a classic “I’m Batman,” the legend is born.
13. John Doe (Seven)
Late-film character introductions are a tricky proposition, especially for characters as discussed and mysterious as Seven’s John Doe. After being the subject of a massive investigation and the perpetrator of numerous gruesome slayings, John Doe is finally revealed in the third act of the film, played by Kevin Spacey and covered from head to toe in someone’s blood, walking into the police station and surrendering out of the blue. It’s a shocking and disturbing image and one that upends expectations for the film in the best way possible. Best of all, Spacey’s calm and eerily collected portrayal of Doe eschews potential scenary chewing for a far more disturbing portrait of a man who knows exactly what heinous acts he has committed and believes they were for the best. And just who’s blood is that?
12. Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
This is about as big and bold an introduction as a character can get. After the mysterious and haunting fairy tale introduction, audiences see Bell for the first time in response to the narrator’s question “Who could ever love a beast?” Transitioning into a boldly colored musical sequence that shows the heart and mind of Belle, Paige O’Hara’s soaring vocals and the massive amount of charm and wit seen in the opening number “Belle” make for an unforgettable introduction in what is easily one of Disney’s greatest films. This is how you introduce a character in a musical and how you wow audiences from the get-go.
11. Harmonica (Once Upon a Time in the West)
Director Sergio Leone loved slow build-ups in his character introductions, with his introduction to Tuco in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars both playing with quiet, drawn-out lead-ups to a character coming on screen. But it’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West that pushes the idea to its limit. With the film starting out tracking three men quietly waiting at a train station, Leone’s wild west epic begins with 10 minutes of quiet calm, until the train arrives and signals a three-on-one shootout that kicks off the film in an amazing manner, with the newly arrived Harmonica (Charles Bronson) showing off his deadly skills.
10. Darth Vader (Star Wars: A New Hope)
A massive spaceship engulfs another. The hopeless Rebels are cut down by incoming Stormtrooper fire. And out of the darkness steps the imposing, all-black figure of Darth Vader. Whether you are a newcomer to Star Wars or have seen the entire franchise countless times, the first appearance of Darth Vader strikes a chord thanks to his towering and menacing might. Followed by choking out a Rebel with one hand and his command over the entire ship and you quickly see Vader as an evil force to be reckoned with. And thus, a film legend is born.
9. The Dude (The Big Lebowski)
“Sometimes there’s a man.” The Dude is certainly the man for his time and place. First seen in a rambling voiceover introduction by Sam Elliot’s The Stranger, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is quickly shown to be the ultimate Los Angeles slacker. Roaming the isles of a Ralphs in his robe and sandals, sniffing a carton of half and half, and making out a check for 69 cents while a news broadcast of George Bush plays in the background, The Dude feels like someone you’d run into on any given day. But it’s The Stranger’s voiceover that gives The Dude a certain mythic, if highly comical, weight. What’s so important about The Dude? Nothing really and everything at the same time. He’s the man.
8. Kambei Shimada (Seven Samurai)
With an impending raid on their village, several poor famers go to town to enlist the help of samurai, only to find failure and mockery. But when they happen upon the ronin Kambei (Takashi Shimura), they find the good, honorable man they need. Kambei, an older but skilled samurai, has witnessed a thief take a young child hostage and threaten to kill the boy if anyone gets close. In response, Kambei cuts off his chonmage, a topknot haircut symbolizing his status, in order to disguise himself as a priest in order to get close and quickly kill the man to save the child. Kambei’s willingness to dishonor himself to save a life speaks a great deal about his character given the cultural context of the film. This silent but massive piece of character work is the perfect example of how to powerfully introduce a character.
7. Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
The first scene to feature Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow may be the character’s best, but it’s no wonder why audiences quickly fell for this roguish, off-kilter pirate. First seen bailing water out of his small boat and then riding in majestically on top of his ship’s mast, the impressive figure of Sparrow is quickly undercut by the reveal that his ship is quickly sinking. It’s that contrast between the adventurous and the comic, the proud and the silly, that make Sparrow an endearing character. This introduction says it all in just a few moments and images.
6. Harry Lime (The Third Man)
A large portion of The Third Man revolves around the character of Holly (Joseph Cotton) searching for answers concerning the suspicious death of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). So it comes as quite a shock when Harry shows up very much alive on the streets of Vienna. His shadowy, quiet, and unexpected appearance, brought to life in a balance-challenging dutch angle, is an indelible image in cinema. As Holly’s search is thrown for a loop, the mystery of The Third Man deepens, leading to all sorts of intrigue and twists in this fantastic thriller.
5. Quint (Jaws)
Introducing your character by having him make one of the worst sounds known to man will certainly make his first scene memorable, but it’s likely that Quint (Robert Shaw) is just as grating to those around him as a person as his decision to scratch his nails down a chalkboard. Introducing himself to the crowd calling for the government to hunt down a man-eating shark, salty sea captain Quint lets it be known that he’s the man for the job, but his price is steep. Shaw’s Quint easily commands the room and his introduction pushes Jaws in a new direction, even if the locals don’t immediately enlist his help. The countless riffs and parodies on this scene in the decade since show its continuing influence.
4. The T-Rex (Jurassic Park)
Like the whole of Jurassic Park, the introduction of the massive and monstrous T-Rex is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. After a great deal of buildup for both audiences and the characters, the T-Rex is unveiled in the worst possible way – breaking out of its enclosure after a power outage and in the middle of a massive storm. Towering over the people nearby, this humongous carnivore announces its presence with the drop of a severed goat leg, the ripping down of a fence, and a humongous roar. The terror and carnage that follow is one of Jurassic Park’s defining scenes and the ultimate introduction to this massive, dangerous, and instantly iconic ancient beast.
3. Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Cast in the same mythically heroic light as the many adventurers of ‘30s and ‘40s serials and pulp novels that came before him, archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) needed a suitably epic introduction. And that’s certainly the case at the opening of Raiders. Opening on a moody and dangerous jungle adventure, Indy is obscured for minutes until thwarting a traitorous partner and coming into the light to show off his handsome mug. Then it’s on to a booby trap-laden temple for a rousing and twist-filled adventure. And that’s all in the first 15 minutes! This isn’t just one of film’s great character introductions, it’s one of its all-time great scenes.
2. The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Heath Ledger’s Joker performance alone is enough to put The Dark Knight in the pantheon of great comic book films, with his introduction just being one small piece of this titanic performance. Here, director Christopher Nolan inverts audience expectation through the film’s opening scene – a bank heist set up by The Joker. With all manner of masked goons pulling off the robbery while talking about The Joker, audiences are given crucial information about the character while still maintaining his mystery. It’s only when one of them is revealed to be The Joker himself (after getting every other criminal killed during the heist) that the rug is pulled out from under the audience. Revealing his scarred, makeup-covered face in close up, we see the devilish brilliance of Ledger’s Joker and are both captivated and frightened by his strange, violent charisma. No other villain has a film entrance this good.
1. Willy Wonka (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)
Some character introductions are so perfect that describing them takes away from their wonderfully-concocted brilliance. That’s the case with the introduction to Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, whose limp-turned-roll-turned-exuberant welcome is a moment of pure cinema magic. At once maintaining the mystery of the character and also quickly confusing viewer expectations, this is how to introduce an iconic character who is meant to befuddle both character and viewer. It’s perfect.
Honorable Mentions: The Jesus (The Big Lebowski), Vincent and Jules (Pulp Fiction), Marge Gundersen (Fargo), Han Solo (Star Wars: A New Hope), The Terminator (The Terminator), Frank (Once Upon a Time in the West), Trinity (The Matrix), Rick Blaine (Casablanca), Luke (Cool Hand Luke), Tuco (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)