It’s called a character arc, and everybody has one. It’s the progression of a character throughout a film as they go from “A” to “B” and change emotionally, intellectually, and physically along the way. It exists because nobody sane wants to watch two hours of some dude sitting in a chair…which just so happens to be the story of how this very list was made.
When it comes to action, horror, and any other fast-paced genre of film, one of the best things about watching the characters adapt is that since the environment they exist in is so do-or-die, there is a incredibly steep learning curve – so by the end of the film, you most likely have a completely different person you started with…and considering that they are still alive, they probably got way, way more badass along the way.
10. Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise
Ellen is on the top of this list not because she was found to be the least badass in the end – keep in mind that this isn’t a contest of how badass a person got but rather a contest of how badass they got compared to how they started. The point is, Ripley is up top because she was already pretty badass to begin with. By the end of the first film she’s killing aliens in her damn underwear – that’s just breakfast for her. For lunch she’s inside a bipedal forklift showing a queen alien just how things go down in her neighborhood. At this point, there are now two giant jet-black space demons just drifting through the vacuum of space thanks to her.
Oh, but she ain’t done, no – she hates these things so much that the moment one of them is incubating inside her she takes a dive into a big ass furnace just to spite the little bastard. On her way down, the thing even tries to make a literal break for it, erupting out of her chest – so what does she do? She holds it so it can’t escape.
That needs repeating: she holds the alien baby that has just violently exploded from her chest. Who do you know in this film that would have had the presence of mind to do that? Until this – literally everyone who is killed by a chest-burster reacts the exact same way: screaming and dying. And she holds on to it.
Then for dessert she comes back as a cloned half-alien psycho lady. She goes from a blue-collar space worker to having goddamn acid for blood in four films. That’s some badass right there.
9. David Sumner in Straw Dogs
Weird movie. Watching it you expect things to unfold the way they do, but not for the reasons they do. They establish right away this group of ruffians working on David’s roof, and the extreme tension between them. It’s clear through many, many horrible moments that these guys are only getting closer and closer to meaning this man harm – and it’s clear that David, a timid mathematician, is not really capable of defending himself in the least.
This is why it’s interesting that in the end of this film, David and his wife find themselves locked in their house trying to keep these men out – only, it’s not because they want to get at David or his wife, but rather another man that David accidentally hit with his car and is now in possession of. They suspect this man of a crime, and they wish for swift justice upon him and nothing more. It’s very weird – but it makes the turn to badass that much more awesome.
You see, David has a choice: he could just shove this most likely guilty man out the door and give him to the group, who will probably beat him to death and then leave David and his wife alone. Considering that until this moment he’s basically ducked any confrontation when possible, you’d think that would be the option he goes with. But no – David’s had enough of this shit, and he decides out of principle that he isn’t going to give these assholes what they want. As he puts it: “I will not allow violence against this house.” Freaking badass.
And then well – blood, lots of blood as David just goes berserk on these guys – hitting them with knives, hot oil, and freaking bear traps like he’s Brock Sampson or something. It’s the most brutal you’ll ever see Dustin Hoffman.
8. Laurie Strode in the Halloween series
The character of Laurie Strode is pretty much the poster child for the helpless horror teenage girl. She’s the OG of hiding in closets and running in terror. In fact, the entire franchise is really the perfect example of the killer/victim relationship in slasher films – one side is screaming, running, jumping, hiding and the other side is just kind of chilling out and walking around and somehow people still manage to die. It really makes no sense – it’s like a ferret trying to escape a beached shark, if it calmed down it would probably figure out that it’s really not such a hard situation. Okay, that was probably the worst analogy I’ve ever made, but whatever.
The point is, Laurie is mega-helpless from the start, and then after two films of screaming, the franchise forgets about her until 20 years later. This time around, while still traumatized by it all, she’s prepared to take action – with an ax! Axtion! After making sure her kid get away from Myers she makes the switch from hunted to hunter, and actually goes after her brother with the intent to end this freaking series once and for all. After stabbing him repeatedly she knows, just like us watching, that the bastard hasn’t had enough – so she steals an ambulance and crashes it with him on the hood.
Then comes the truly badass moment where this once scared little teenage girl is face to face with her demon, her brother, who at that moment attempts to appeal to her softer side, only to get the ax treatment instead. It has to be one of the best ending moments of a horror series ever. And no – shut it right now before you try to tell me that there was another movie after this. I don’t remember such movie you speak of so don’t try. Shhhh – no. No.
7. The Narrator in Fight Club
This is a weird one because when you really think about it – the change happened a lot stranger than how we see it. To us, we see this complacent everyman who suddenly meets the version of himself he’s always wanted to be, and slowly through his help becomes just as badass as his friend, only to realize that the whole time he’s been talking to himself.
That twist, when you go back and watching the film knowing it, means that his transformation was probably a hell of a lot more bizarre than we’re led to believe. Suddenly, to those around him it’s not gradual and smooth so much as it is rocky and awkward – every day he gets better, but only by constantly fluctuating between being wicked badass and totally whiny. He goes through with terrorism on a massive level and simultaneously fights himself every step of the way.
It’s funny to think about that scene where he and Tyler are driving in a car with their space monkeys and Tyler eggs him into letting the car crash. To sit in the back seat listening to a man argue with himself about taking his hands off the wheel has to be a pretty strong indicator that you’ve joined up with the wrong men’s club, you know?
What’s great about this guy’s process, his path to enlightenment, is that it actually makes sense – the saying goes that you first “kill” your parents, then your god, and then your teacher in order to cast off all your limitations in life. This is exactly what happens, down to the ending of the film when the narrator “kills” Tyler, his teacher.
6. Samantha Caine in The Long Kiss Goodnight
This is one of those films out there that has been long forgotten, but still really holds up in the ‘wisecracking’ department. Probably my favorite of the action one liners in this film has to be when Samuel L. Jackson’s character complains about putting a gun in his pants worrying that he’ll ‘shoot his damn dick off’ and Samantha replies with ‘Now you’re a sharpshooter?” Booya! That’s some 90s action film banter right there.
Anywho, this is basically The Bourne Identity only six years earlier and with Geena Davis. Davis plays a sweet little schoolteacher with amnesia of eight years who suddenly finds out that she is a bona fide CIA murder machine hotty. Suddenly as everything slowly starts rushing back she begins to take on her old self – slaughtering with the greatest of ease. It all comes to be a wonderful reversal of the typical action film guy/girl relation as this badass lady pretty much treats Samuel L. like some piece of meat that she has to occasionally save now and then. Sure he gets a few punches in there, but as would any action movie sidechick had the genders been reversed.
All in all it’s 90s action in a nutshell: killer dialogue, convoluted villain motive, kidnapped little girl, ticking time bomb, and Samuel L. Jackson. All the ingredients.
5. “Pasha” Antipov in Doctor Zhivago
Pasha seems like an afterthought the moment you meet him in this film – a passive protester on the side of democracy, Anitpov is brought to extremism after being shown that peaceful resistance is useless. He marries Lara, Zhivago’s love interest in the film, early on – so we know this guy pretty much has to die. That’s really all you see him as at first – he’s just this little dude who is in the way. And after having a kid with Lara he goes off to volunteer to fight in WWI – problem solved! He is promptly forgotten and later said to have died doing something or other. It really feels like the last we’ll see of him. But it ain’t.
Next thing you know this cat is chilling on the back of an armored train with a scar down his face like a goddamn bond villain with the new title and name of the People’s Commissar Strelnikov. Zhivago cross paths with him as a prisoner on said armored train, making for some awkward conversation. In the end he is let go, a rarity, as a guard lets slide that most people who are questioned by this once peaceful protestor usually get their asses shot off.
What makes this change great is that Pasha himself doesn’t really hold Zhivago or Lara back in any direct way – it’s just that suddenly he’s a very powerful man, and Lara – still married to him – is now a target. It kind of sucks.
4. Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy
Luke was raised but a simple moisture farmer at the beginning of the series. Moisture farming being, of course, the farming of water – which is probably the stupidest kind of farming ever conceived. Not that there isn’t a need for aquatic farming on Tatooine, it’s just that there really isn’t a stupider sounding occupation out there. “So what do you do?” – “Oh, I farm water.”
Now Jedi Knight, on the other hand – that’s something to take that’ll impress the ol’ sister. When the tool of your trade is a glowing scepter, you know you’re on to something. Of course it takes a whole lot of whining along the way for Luke to become anywhere close to awesome, which is what makes the transformation so satisfying – it’s hard to put fresh eyes on the series, but frankly he is a real twerp for most of these movies. I don’t care what kind of galaxy far, far away you’re in – when someone tells you that they can train you to make stuff float around in the air you listen to everything they say without any question at all times.
Luckily by the second film he’s gained enough badass points to laze yeti limbs, but of course it’s only after Yoda’s albeit brief training does he really shine – claiming himself some Rancor meat and of course saving the day and all that later on. In the end he’s sitting pretty good with his newly liberated rebel pals and all those delicious Ewoks to eat. Good times.
3. Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy
In terms of skin tone, Ash is the John McClane of the horror genre in that he only gets redder and redder throughout. Blood does that to you.
What’s great is that any single one of these films would be enough to be on this list – he starts the first film as a real cowardly little guy, leaving most of the heavy lifting to his blonde friend. It’s only after that guy gets taken down does Ash step up – and in the end he’s bloody, crazy, and awesome. Then the second film pretty much starts him out in the exact same weak way that the first started him, but luckily a guy tends to harden pretty quick after cutting off his girlfriend’s head, burying her, and then fighting her undead corpse. In the horror genre that’s practically a rite of passage anyway.
Oh, and chainsaw hand. Can’t forget Ash’s hand becoming possessed, beating him up, getting cut off, beating him up some more, and being replaced with logging equipment. Then they go ahead and top off the second film with Mr. Chainsaw-Hand being worshiped as a savior after going back in time to the Crusades. Yikes. And that’s only the end of the second film!
By the end of the third he has successfully lead an entire army against hoards of the undead lead by a guy who for some reason split off him like a dividing cell. It’s all very confusing, but Ash makes it out on top and is able to get back to modern times and continue to fight deadites on his own turf. So basically he goes from wimpy college dude to saw-handed time traveler in three movies. And all that’s without even mentioning his boomstick.
2. Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series
Poor Neville. The kid’s had a hard life before we really even first see him in the films. Right after his birth his parents were freaking tortured to insanity – that was his starting point in life and then things didn’t really get all that better afterward. He spends the first few movies as a painfully forgettable character – usually the butt of jokes and at best being paralyzed by his friends. I mean – the dude studies plants, how badass could that possibly be?
Neville is the perfect example of a talented, kind-hearted kid living under the shadow of a much more popular and praised child – Harry. But Neville isn’t resentful – he’s better than that. And slowly as the films progress he sneaks up on us – joining Harry’s cause, taking a stand, helping when possible, and next thing we know he’s covered in ash hacking a snake’s head off like some kind of slayer of beasts.
You can tell this kid is going to be stonecold just from the scene in Goblet Of Fire where Moody is showing the class each unforgivable curse by subjecting an innocent creature to them as an example, and when Neville is asked to name a curse he actually names the one that was used to torture his parents. He sits there and he watches Moody use this very curse in front of him just building up that crazy rage inside. Kid’s a mad dog.
1. Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 & 2
No matter how many times you watch these movies back-to-back the transition is still startling. For the first movie she’s a sobbing, running, screaming waitress being ushered to safety by her future son’s buddy from the future whose been sent to protect her by her son who also needs him to have sex with her so he can father her baby that will eventually be his friend who sent him back I think I got mixed up there…point is that Sarah Connor’s womb must look like an M.C. Escher drawing on the inside, and in the first film she is as helpless as the baby that Kyle Reese has been sent to protect/make.
Then we get to the second film and boy did this gal prepare. It only makes sense; if your family has a history of heart disease or diabetes you take care of yourself early on so as to avoid future problems. If, in Connor’s case, your family has a history of time-traveling robots with a human flesh coating then you’re going to want to bulk up and perhaps learn how to shoot a grenade launcher or two. It’s just good sense.
What really makes Sarah the ultimate badass is that not only is she strong, smart, and capable, but she’s also crazy like a foxy fox. She’s not to toy with because human life is meaningless to her, after all, everyone’s going to die anyway so who cares, right? It’s that lack of compassion that really brings her to the next level. In the first movie she has friends, and a boss, and she cares about life the way any of us would – but now, all she sees are walking corpses. Hard. Core.
Also there’s pretty much nothing more badass than carving “no fate” into a picnic table while dreaming about nuclear holocaust. Try doing that in the park and see if anyone approaches you.