The Best New Movie Characters of 2016

By  · Published on December 6th, 2016

Will any of them be remembered iconically for years and years?

Next week, we’ll be seeing the return of one of the most iconic movie characters of all time, Darth Vader, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s funny that we’re ending the year with his reprisal, since 2016 wasn’t a very good year for iconic characters of its own. There have been plenty of great, memorable, and well-written characters, but not really any BB-8s, Furiosas, or John Wicks, let alone any Vaders.

So, we weren’t into revisiting many preexisting characters, with our collective dismissal of almost every single sequel that arrived in the last 12 months, and we didn’t really have anything fresh to latch onto, either. Not in terms of franchise potential, anyway. Newt Scamander of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? He’s OK, but he’s also just a wannabe Doctor Who. Nick Wilde from Zootpia? He’s Disney’s Robin Hood reincarnated.

Both those movies do each have a slightly significant figure stealing their shows. For Fantastic Beasts it’s the kleptomaniac Niffler, though he could have used some personality as a character and not just been a cute beast – he needed to be more Gizmo than Bubo. Zootpia has the sloth Flash, but he’s really just a one-joke deal. There’s also Judy Hopps, and she’s one of the greats of 2016 that just aren’t new monuments of cinema.

To determine if the general population has grabbed hold of a new movie character, it’s best to look at the merchandising and what’s selling well and what’s evidently being displayed by people. Although not a new character in her own right, Harley Quinn as portrayed by Margot Robbie, which is the first live-action movie version of the comic book villain (originating in an animated series), will likely go down as the most historical.

Superheroes we hadn’t seen on the big screen before that made an impact are Deadpool, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange, though it’s hard to mark them as something special still since they’re based on existing icons and didn’t sway much from their source. Deadpool at least has triggered a seemingly elevated interest in that figure, maybe majorly as a movie icon. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation is also a new favorite.

I can personally vouch for one incarnation of a 2016 character that should have its own toy, but so far as I can tell it doesn’t exist: shark-head Maui from Moana. My children haven’t laughed so hard at a visual gag involving a character in an animated feature since Olaf the snowman had his head punted in Frozen. Maui himself is plenty memorable, yet that’s another level. Of course, the one deserving most distinction there is the title character.

Elsewhere in animation, Hank the “septopus” from Finding Dory is without a doubt what’s called a breakout character, and maybe he’ll even get to be the focus of the next sequel, but is he iconic? Think of it this way: when you see a clownfish, you see Nemo. When you see a blue tang, you see Dory. When you see an octopus, even one with only seven tentacles, your mind doesn’t automatically go to Hank.

The Secret Life of Pets has so little character distinction that it had to put one of its dogs in a Minions costume at one point to have something memorable. Trolls, on the other hand goes too far in trying to make characters that stand out from one another and for the movie itself that it’s ultimately just an ensemble of grotesquely surreal placeholders. Kubo and the Two Strings has some very memorable-looking characters, but none are extraordinarily so.

In comedies, we are mainly going to remember characters because of iconic lines. Alden Ehrenreich’s role in Hail, Caesar!, can you name him? Maybe not (it’s Hobie Doyle), but you know his “would that it were so simple” bit. In sci-fi, outside of Rogue One, new alien designs aren’t too exciting; we’re not going to think much about Arrival’s heptapods any more than we’re going to think about Independence Day: Resurgence’s sphere.

The Secret to Sequels Is In the Details

Rogue One also has an interesting new droid in K-2SO. Passengers might also have a fun robotic character in Michael Sheen’s bartender, Arthur. Jessica Chastain’s title character from Miss Sloane could one day be as familiar as James Stewart’s Mr. Smith. Maybe Manny the corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man will still be a favorite in 50 years. One of my personal picks that I hope lasts is “Toni Erdmann,” from Toni Erdmann.

My very favorite, one that might not necessarily wind up an icon but is still pretty much perfect is John Goodman’s bunker-dwelling survivalist Howard in 10 Cloverfield Lane. He’s a great dramatic character and a great genre character, maybe a villain, maybe not, maybe only kind of. A monster of sorts. Goodman has sadly been left out of awards talk this season, but he shouldn’t be left out of any conversation of the best characters of the year.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.