The 10 Movie Characters Who Defined the Decade

movie characters who defined the decade

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

As another decade draws to a close, it’s time to reckon with the best of what we experienced in movies. Particularly, it’s time to take a look at some of the more memorable movie characters, figures who stayed at the top of our hearts, minds, and the public consciousness. The 2010s brought us surprising meme subjects and multi-movie arcs which introduced us to new favorite characters and let them grow in our affections. Here are ten characters that made the biggest impact.

RUNNERS UP: Conner Friel/Conner4Real (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), Rosemary & Dill (Easy A), Rey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), The Bowery King (John Wick 2 and 3), Rod Williams (Get Out), Spider-Man Noir (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Okoye (Black Panther), M’Baku (Black Panther), Ernst Toller (First Reformed), Llewyn Davis (Inside Llewyn Davis)

john boyega in attack the block

10. Moses (Attack the Block)

Moses may not be John Boyega’s most high profile role, but it’s the one that got him Star Wars. As the stoic head of a gang of teenagers in Joe Cornish’s alien invasion movie Attack the Block, Moses feels like equal parts Warriors member and John Carpenter hero. He’s a natural leader, kept from realizing his full potential by growing up in a situation where his options forward are few. Cornish and Boyega show Moses’s struggle to defy his community’s assumptions of him, while also living up to what he thinks is expected of him. He’s a conflicted kid who’s mastered hiding his insecurities. The smile on Boyega’s face at the end, as a crowd chants his name, says it all. For once, he gets to be the hero.

The Babadook silhouette

9. The Babadook (The Babadook)

The Babadook’s place among beloved characters of the last decade goes beyond the horror movie that bears his name. This shadowy terror is enmeshed in the meme culture of the 2010s, thanks to his surprise emergence as an LGBTQ icon. What started as a Netflix algorithm error made its way to Twitter, quickly became a running gag, and finally an accepted image, legitimized in its symbolism by queer scholars and members of the LGBTQ community. Scream! Factory finally made the Babadiscourse into an artifact earlier this summer with its release of a pride-themed special edition DVD

the master decade

8. Lancaster Dodd (The Master)

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in 2014 at age 47 robbed us of years of great performances and memorable characters. Fortunately, we still have many great turns on record, such as his work as Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Dodd was exactly the kind of character Hoffman portrayed so well: a man whose outward bluster and confidence covered a vast pit of insecurity and an intense need for the devotion of others. Dodd has weaponized those needs, and mastered that confidence, to turn himself into a powerful cult leader. In Joaquin Phoenix’s walking disaster, Freddie Quell, Dodd finds a personification of his wild, untamed id. The moments when the composed, egomaniacal Dodd completely loses his cool, increasingly so as he gets closer with Freddie, are The Master’s greatest pleasure.

First 10 Minutes of Hunt for the Wilderpeople

7. Ricky Baker (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)

Once rejected, now accepted. Ricky Baker belongs among the best characters of the decade not just because of his humor or his underlying sweetness, but because of how accurately he represents a specific subset of early teenhood. His social worker, Paula, would like us to think the troubled Ricky is a menace to society, but really he’s just a neglected kid in need of an outlet. Anyone who’s worked with kids in any capacity knows a Ricky, that kid with a snotty attitude (and maybe a penchant for burning stuff) who’s actually just after some positive attention and a little patience. Here, he not only gets attention, but gets to be the hero of his own story.

6. Gustave H. (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Gustave H. brought a touch of old-world class to 2010s cinema. He is always refined, even in settings that have no refinement. His politeness isn’t just good breeding (though it is that, too), but generated by a sense of empathy that allows him to befriend all kinds of people, be they society ladies, lobby boys, or jailbirds. Make no mistake, though: Gustave H. holds no truck with those who would disparage him or endanger the people he cares for. He’s not a skilled fighter, but he is a willing one, and a good friend in a tight spot. Among the many great characters we met in the last ten years, he is among the most stylish, resourceful, and uniquely mannered.

5. Thor (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

Of all the heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor has had the wildest arc. The Thor films have also undergone the biggest tonal changes of any in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok finally hitting on the winning formula that lifted the god of thunder from lesser Avenger to cult favorite.

While all of the Avengers have had a pretty eventful decade, it’s arguable Thor’s had the most interesting experiences. Since his first appearance in 2011’s Thor, he’s dealt with family infighting, the loss and regaining of his godhood, the loss of his beloved hammer, his family, and his home – not to mention his brief stint as an intergalactic gladiator. That he’s come through all of it with his sense of humor still intact is a testament to strong writing, Chris Hemsworth’s gameness, and his terrific embodiment of the character.

4. Shuri (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

Black Panther was a revelatory entry into the MCU for several reasons. Its most delightful? The introduction of Letitia Wright’s Shuri, the 16-year-old cheeky science genius and little sister of King T’Challa. Shuri’s ingenuity and mile-wide snark streak put Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to shame. Her inventions are focused on helping protect others, rather than amping up her own abilities. Shuri brings a lightness and energy to Black Panther that elevates the entire enterprise, displaying technical prowess and confidence and absolutely owning her talent. She’s a pesky little sister with incredible chops, the literal power behind the throne, and she never lets anyone forget it. 

john wick sequels more

3. John Wick (John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum)

There’s a certain beauty in the news that the fourth Matrix film and the fourth John Wick film share a release date in 2021 (for now). This is not just because of “Keanu Day,” but because Keanu Reeves inhabits both roles so fully, they’ve become part of how we understand him. John Wick, especially, has become part of how we understand the ways Reeves himself has matured as an actor. 

Neo was a turning point for Keanu Reeves: Action Star. In John Wick, the badass assassin living with a lifetime of regret, we have the final form. Where once there was an earnest, action-ready youth with a touch of melancholy, there is now an action-capable but world-weary man with a touch of humor and vulnerability. The big draws of the John Wick series may be its clandestine world and incredible action, but the character of John Wick, and the way he’s intertwined with Reeves’ public persona in this stage of his career, is just as fascinating.

Mad Max Fury Road Prequel - Furiosa

2. Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road advocates for female leadership and empowerment throughout the story, but expresses that sentiment most strongly in Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Initially, Furiosa almost seems like a female equivalent of Tom Hardy’s Max. She’s tough, smart, and, contrary to the instincts of the post-apocalyptic culture around her, cares for others. But she’s also stronger than Max is. He’s (understandably) shut down emotionally after years of loss, but Furiosa has had to live among her enemy since childhood, yet somehow maintains hope that one day things will change – a hope that eventually wins out. That illustration of strength presaged what we’d need in the decade that saw the emergence of #MeToo and a continued fight for gender parity.

Paddington 2 bear

1. Paddington Bear (Paddington, Paddington 2)

Is there a purer character on Earth than Paddington? I’ll answer that for you: of course there isn’t. The little bear stole our collective hearts in two movies this past decade, spreading joy (and marmalade) wherever he went. 

Paul King’s Paddington movies are widely adored for their craft and well-executed jokes, but also for their message about the power of kindness, and the good things an outsider can bring to their adopted community. Paddington transforms the lives of the Brown family, and their surrounding community by trying to make life better for others – a mentality he brings with him wherever he goes, even in places where goodness seems impossible to find. Paddington is a shining beacon of empathy, hope, and optimism in a time characterized by selfishness and distrust. He’s a better hero than we deserve, but exactly the hero we need.

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