Just like in real life, first impressions in a movie can make or break a character for the audience. We begin making judgements on characters from the second they appear on the screen, so throughout film history, filmmakers have sought to find new and interesting ways to introduce their characters to an unsuspecting audience. Can you imagine meeting Indiana Jones in any other context than him swiping that ancient idol from the pedestal? Or Quint being introduced without that ear-splitting scrape along the chalkboard? The first impression of the character informs our feelings about them instantly. Introductions are everything.
These are the absolute best of the best cinematic meet and greets you’ll ever see. Feel free to enjoy this list with our it’s companion piece, The 40 Greatest Opening Scenes of All Time. Without further ado, here are the 20 Best Movie Character Introductions Of All Time.
20. Trunchbull (Matilda)
The character that chilled every child’s heart when Matilda was first released is introduced in spectacularly intimidating fashion. Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) is first revealed brandishing a riding crop and flexing her rubber gloves. Without ever showing her face, the camera follows her as she marches through the busy playground, barking orders and admonishing children (“You’re too small. Grow up faster!”)
Director Danny DeVito uses some classic cinematic tricks to introduce one of Roald Dahl’s scariest villains. Matilda, and the audience, learn scattered hints about Trunchbull’s evilness as the film begins. The mystery surrounding this cruel disciplinarian builds and builds until Matilda’s first day at school. Upon her introduction, DeVito withholds showing Trunchbull’s face until the last possible moment, letting the characters timidly whisper awful legends about the principal as she wanders through the crowd of children. We see her boots, the back of her head, and that painful looking riding crop. She becomes scarier in our minds the longer we go without seeing her, Jaws-style. All of these cinematic techniques set the stage for one of the scariest big bads in children’s movie history.
19. Jesus (The Big Lebowski)
One of the many beauties of the Coen Brother’s filmography is their ability to switch from deadly serious to unabashedly silly on the turn of a dime. Think of the difference between Anton Chigurh’s introduction in No Country for Old Men (another incredible cinematic introduction that unfortunately missed the cut on this list) and then contrast it with the introduction of Jesus (John Turturro) in The Big Lebowski. It’s hard to believe these two scenes were crafted by the same filmmakers.
As the Gipsy Kings pluck a Spanish cover of “Hotel California”, we watch Jesus tighten the strings on his bowling shoes and smoothly pull his satin, knee length socks up his leg. With an almost religious ritualism, he picks up the ball. He wears an apparatus that protects the pointer finger on his bowling hand. He sensually licks the ball. The name on his purple jumpsuit reads “Jesus”. Jesus sends the ball down the lane for an easy strike. The Dude, Donny, and Walter look on in disdain. The entire scene is unapologetically goofy and an absolute delight.
18. Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
We meet Tyler Durden several times before we meet Tyler Durden in Fight Club. We’re first aware of the character as he holds a gun in the mouth of The Narrator (Edward Norton). We then see brief, subliminal appearances of the mysterious man as The Narrator slips in and out of insomniac states. But we don’t really meet Tyler Durden until he shares an aisle with The Narrator on an airplane.
Tyler Durden enlightens The Narrator with conspiracy theories and stories regarding flight, soap-making, everything. He’s effortlessly cool. The Narrator is in apparent awe, having met the man that is everything The Narrator wants to be. He tries to impress Tyler with his clever little observation, describing Durden as the most interesting “single-serving friend” he’s ever met on an airplane. Tyler’s response? “How’s being clever working out for you? Good? Keep it up then.” Then Tyler makes for the back of the plane, but not before sharing an observation of his own, that is impossible to not think of as you exit an aisle of seats. “As I leave, the immortal question. Do I give you the ass or the crotch?” Tyler Durden enters the scene and the world takes notice.
17. Elle Driver (Kill Bill)
After being left for dead by Bill (David Carradine), The Bride (Uma Thurman) lies comatose in a hospital bed. Machines beep and whir as she lies, completely still, eyelids closed. From down the hospital hallway comes a whistled tune. The whistle is upbeat and light, contrasting the dark, ominous hospital halls. The tune is being whistled by Elle Driver, codename: California Mountain Snake. She’s getting closer and closer to The Bride with a syringe full of poison to finish the task that Bill started.
The mounting tension in this scene is almost suffocating. In a split screen, we see the eyepatch-wearing Elle come closer and closer to The Bride’s hospital room while our hero sleeps. We keep hoping her eyelids will flutter and she’ll wake up in time, but she just lies there, completely vulnerable to the assassin making her way down that hospital hallway. Thankfully, a call from Bill distracts Elle from her mission, and The Bride lives to take her revenge.
16. Harry Lime (The Third Man)
Warning, spoilers for a seventy year old film are to follow.
Orson Welles sure knows how to make an entrance. As we’ll get to later, he introduces us to one of the most famous movie characters of all time, in one of the most cinematically gorgeous sequences of all time, in the 1941 classic, Citizen Kane. In 1949, eight years after his magnum opus, Welles appeared in Carol Reed’s noir thriller, The Third Man. In it, he makes another surprising, memorable introduction to the audience. The moment is particularly surprising because, until the moment he appears on the screen, we had thought he was dead.
The Third Man finds pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arriving in post-war Vienna at the request of his friend, Harry Lime. Upon his arrival though, he learns that Harry Lime has recently died in a mysterious traffic accident. Mysteries lead to more mysteries, and soon Martins doesn’t know who to trust. Then, halfway through the film, the biggest shock of all is revealed. Harry Lime is alive and well, and has information for Martins.
15. Hit Girl and Big Daddy (Kick-Ass)
The first time we meet Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) he’s preparing to shoot his daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) in the chest. In a dried up river duct, they’re deep in the midst of another superhero lesson when we first drop in on them. Hit Girl tells her father she’s scared, which is an understandable reaction when your father is training a six millimeter handgun on you. The brilliance of the scene is the mundanity with which the two characters discuss the training. Hit Girl and Big Daddy negotiate being shot in the chest the same way most children would negotiate eating their vegetables.
When the moment finally does come, the impact of the bullet knocks Hit Girl off her feet. The bulletproof vest under Hit Girl’s pink jacket stopped the bullet. Big Daddy helps her up, and agrees to take her out for bowling and ice cream if she will take two more bullets with no wincing or whining. The role of Hit Girl was a breakout one for Chloe Grace Moretz, and Nicolas Cage’s performance as Big Daddy was a return to form for the actor. Their insane chemistry is on display from their very first scene together.
14. Daniel Craig’s James Bond (Casino Royale)
Less of an introduction, and more of a re-introduction, the opening of Casino Royale is a miniature masterclass in cinematic storytelling. The opening of this film had to accomplish quite a few things in a short amount of time. For one, it had to assure audiences that Daniel Craig would make a satisfactory 007. There had been controversy surrounding his casting, with fans claiming the British actor didn’t fit the role. For another, the movie had to demonstrate it’s markedly different tone than the preceding Pierce Brosnan Bonds. This Bond was grittier, darker, and more realistic. And finally, the opening had to be an exciting and suspenseful re-entry into the iconic world of James Bond. Casino Royale’s opening manages to do all of that, and then some.
The film starts out in black and white, with MI6 section chief, Dryden, finding Bond in his office late at night. The two discuss Bond’s not-quite 00 status, and we learn that it takes two confirmed kills before an agent can be considered a 00. Intercut with the dialogue is a visceral fight scene between Bond and Dryden’s espionage contact. The entire sequence plays like some kind of arthouse action scene, and it serves as a thrilling introduction to one of the greatest Bond performers ever.
13. Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Could there be a more perfect introduction to the character of Jack Sparrow than him sailing into port on a sinking ship? After a chilling opening scene featuring a young Elizabeth Swan encountering pirates on the misty ocean, we flash forward twenty years into the future to find Jack Sparrow eyeing the coastline from his crow’s nest. He must swing down to bail out a few bucketfuls of water, as his boat is sinking quickly. The tanned and beaded pirate takes a moment to salute his fallen brethren, hanging in warning outside the city’s walls, before his ship coasts into port. Sparrow steps directly off his fully submerged boat onto the dock and strolls into the city, perfectly demonstrating the Bugs Bunny-esque physics that will come to define this iconic character.
The role of Jack Sparrow propelled Johnny Depp from quirky character actor to headlining superstar forever, for better or worse. And from this delightful opening scene, it was clear to audiences everywhere this was going to be a memorable leading man.
12. Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction)
Quentin Tarantino had already made his mark on the world of independent cinema in 1992 with his pop-culture obsessed gangster flick, Reservoir Dogs. Nobody knew what to expect from the second feature directed by the former video salesman-turned-auteur. Whatever expectations audiences had were blown away when Pulp Fiction rolled into theaters, and it’s clear to see why from the first scene.
Endlessly mimicked and frequently parodied, the “Royale with Cheese” scene that introduces Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever put to film. We drop in on these two suits in a car, driving to an unknown destination, discussing the differences between fast food in America, and fast food in Europe. In hilariously mundane and completely authentic-sounding dialogue, we learn they don’t call Big Macs the same thing in Europe that Americans do. They call them “Royales with Cheese”.
This already entertaining scene takes on new levels of entertainment when we realize these two gentlemen are hitmen, on their way to take out a few poor schmucks in an apartment. The entire scene, from the discussion in the car to the Bible-quoting assassination in the apartment, is pure cinematic brilliance.
11. Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
Roger Ebert once said that the scene where Marge Gunderson is introduced in Fargo is the moment when it goes from being a story about pathetic criminals to a great movie. Watching the scene, it’s hard to disagree with him. The 3am phone call that wakes Marge (Frances McDormand) and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch) introduces something the story had been missing previously: a warm, beating heart.
The opening of the film is totally engrossing, with delectable characters played by William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, and the plotting is fascinating. But when Marge is introduced, sliding on a coat to go check out a homicide scene as her husband makes eggs, the audience is given a character to connect with in this line-up of petty criminals and selfish oafs. Marge has to be considered one of the greatest characters ever written. Full of compassion, common sense, and a persevering desire to do good, she is a shining beacon in the grim Minnesota world created by the Coen Brothers.
10. Trinity (The Matrix)
What many people may not remember about The Matrix is that, prior to it’s release, most people didn’t even know what it was. The marketing campaign kept things intentionally cryptic, so as to not give away too much of the plot. In the trailers, we heard Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) waxing philosophic about the nature of reality, some mind-bendingly surreal shots, and that’s it. It got butts in the seats on opening weekend, but expectations were tempered. That all changed with Trinity’s introduction in the first scene.
We watch as a police squad breaks in the door of an abandoned building to find Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) sitting at a desk. Outside, Agent Smith arrives to give the police sergeant some bad news: his men are already dead. Inside, we witness one of the most exhilarating fight scenes ever put to film. Trinity soars around the room, defying gravity as she breaks arms, punts handguns, and generally kicks ass. This is the character introduction that changed action filmmaking as we know it today.
9. Willy Wonka (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)
The second Roald Dahl character to make an appearance on this list is the iconic Willy Wonka, as portrayed by Gene Wilder in the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Like Trunchbull in Matilda, both stories get a lot of mileage out of talking about these mysterious characters long before we’re ever granted a glimpse of them. Wonka is talked about in reverent terms, with characters wondering aloud about the mysterious, genius, eccentric recluse.
When Wonka first makes his grand entrance, the characters are underwhelmed. He slowly steps out, appearing to be nothing than a feeble old man using a cane as he slowly makes his way down the red carpet to greet the crowd. But just when he seems to be losing his balance, he rolls into a delightful somersault and the crowd goes wild. Wilder makes this already beloved character completely memorable and iconic, and this impressive and unexpected bit of choreography cements him in our hearts and minds.
8. Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood)
The opening sequence of There Will Be Blood has more ambition and mastery in it than most movies fit into their entire runtime. For the first twenty minutes that we meet Daniel Plainview, we don’t hear him speak a single line of dialogue, and yet we learn so much about him.
Introduced covered in sweat and dirt at the bottom of an oil shaft in the desert, Plainview’s almost psychotic ambition is plain to see. And when an accident leaves his leg smashed, he is forced to drag himself out of the hole and across the long, hot desert. This is clearly a character who holds intense drive, and an insane, dangerously ambitious motivation to succeed. The cinematography choices by Paul Thomas Anderson and the beautifully sparse score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood both serve to plunge us is into the grimy, barren, beautiful world of There Will Be Blood.
7. Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)
Deep in the bowels of a prison for the criminally insane, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is standing stock still in his cell, apparently waiting for Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to approach. This is how one of the most terrifying and fascinating characters in film history is introduced. Clarice has already been briefed by her superior offices and the guards. Stay away from the glass, don’t get close to him. The way they talk about Lecter seems more fit for a zookeeper entering the cage with a lion.
All of this ominous talk only serves to heighten Clarice’s anxiety and terror (and ours) about what’s lurking around that corner. When she finally lays eyes on Lecter, he utters a simple “hello,” and one of the most interesting cinematic relationships is sparked. Even from this early scene, we see the mutual respect the two have for each other, even as we fear for Clarice’s well being. The scene is brilliantly staged and expertly acted, and will continue to fascinate viewers for years to come.
6. T-Rex (Jurassic Park)
Does it count as a great character introduction if the character in question is a dinosaur? Of course it does! Steven Spielberg introduced audiences to the T-Rex on a stormy night on Isla Sorna, and film was never the same again.
Everything about the T-Rex’s introduction in Jurassic Park is a masterclass in suspense building. Our anticipation is already sky-high during the tour earlier in the day, but Spielberg, working from the story written by Michael Crichton, withholds the dinosaur from our view. We, like the characters, are disappointed. Later that night, as a tropical storm bears down on the island, the characters wait in their stationary cars, the power in the park deactivated. That’s when the terror begins. A claw tests out the electric wire. Ripples appear in a glass of water. With a heart-stopping thump, the leg of a goat slams onto a jeep windshield, and then all hell breaks loose. Using a mix of CGI and practical effects, Spielberg created one of the most believable cinematic monsters to ever be unleashed, and one that is well deserving of the number 6 spot on our list.
5. The Joker (The Dark Knight)
The opening scene of The Dark Knight is perfect. We’ll just say it. The Heat-inspired bank heist is thrilling and immediately iconic, with the robbers all wearing those spooky clown masks. Outside the building, a man with his back to the audience is picked up in a car. From the sporadic dialogue, we learn that The Joker (Heath Ledger) has planned this heist, and that the robbers have half a mind to cut him out of the profits entirely. We cut around the different parts of the bank as the criminals break in, and one by one, we see them taken out by each other. The Joker’s plan is coming together.
All the while, the thrilling score by Hans Zimmer punctuates the tension. During the final, explosive shootout between the bank manager and the final clown, the criminal gains the upper hand. In a chilling monologue, he assures the incapacitated manager that “whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you stranger.” The robber takes off the mask, revealing himself to be The Joker. Whatever you think of Nolan’s series as a whole, you cannot deny the indelible nature of this introduction.
4. Vito Corleone (The Godfather)
“I believe in America.”
This is the line, spoken out from a black screen, that begins what is perhaps the greatest American movie ever made. And the scene that this leads into introduces us to one of the greatest characters ever put on film: Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). The Godfather.
Brando is sublime in this role. As the camera slowly zooms away from a man begging Corleone to take justice on the men who hurt his daughter, we see the mosbter listening, patiently. The camera cuts to his reaction, and we’re given our first glimpse of the eponymous Godfather. Withered and aged, he’s a far cry from the young Brando audiences knew from On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. This Brando murmurs his words in a gravelly slur. His performance is entirely naturalistic and organic, and he’s as unpredictable and authentic as the cat on his lap. As he confronts the man in front of him, we realize how dangerous and powerful he could be, were you to find yourself on his bad side. Fortunately, he has an intense sense of justice, and he agrees to help the man, on this, the day of his daughter’s wedding.
3. Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane)
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Citizen Kane. If you are watching it and feel underwhelmed by “one of the greatest movies ever made”, just try to compare it to other movies that were being released at that time. The things that Orson Welles is doing with his camera were unheard of in 1941. The opening sequence that introduces us to Charles Foster Kane is the perfect encapsulation of Welles’ groundbreaking cinematic techniques.
The camera wanders over the fencing and chains that seclude Kane’s house on the hill. Slowly, patiently, we crossfade to different areas of the grounds, seeing the monkeys and other eccentric features Kane has installed on his property. Already, we’re learning so much about the title character. He’s isolated, wealthy, and bizarre. When the camera finally makes it’s way to Kane’s darkened window, Welles plays with our perspective again by placing us inside a snowglobe. He then proceeds to zoom out of the snowglobe, reversing the direction we approached the house with. Welles utters that famous line, “Rosebud,” and lets the snowglobe shatter to the floor.
2. Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Inspired by the adventure serials he loved as a child, Spielberg crafted a film that belongs in the highest echelon of adventure films with Raiders of the Lost Ark. He introduced us to this world, and more specifically, the character of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) with the thrilling, iconic, and wonderful opening scene of the film. Seriously, just try not to smile as you watch the clip above.
Audiences must have known they were watching movie history unfold as they saw Indy and his compatriot (Alfred Molina) work their way through the booby-trapped temple. And as Indy laid his eyes on that golden idol, and John William’s score grew to a rousing crescendo, audiences everywhere held their breath for their new favorite archaeologist. The subsequent escape from the temple, chased by a giant boulder, cemented Indy as one of the greatest characters in cinematic history with what was undoubtedly the perfect introduction.
1. Quint (Jaws)
It all starts with the scrape of fingernails on a chalkboard. That’s how Quint (Robert Shaw) introduces himself to us in Jaws, and how he lands at the number one spot on our list of the best character introductions in movie history.
As the characters in the town argue over what to do about the killer shark in their tourist-driven beach town, they’re drowned out by the excruciating screech of nails on a chalkboard. “You all know me,” Quint says, as Spielberg’s camera calmly makes it’s way through the crowd to land on him. The townsfolk may know Quint, but we, as the audience, are just meeting the fisherman. Quint’s willing to hunt the shark, he says. But it won’t be easy. He’ll find him for $3,000. But he’ll catch him, and kill him, for ten.
Those fingers on a chalkboard and that speech caught the attention of the townsfolk of Amity, and it caught the attention of all of moviegoing America, giving us what has to be the coolest fishermen we’ll ever meet.
Did we miss your favorite character introduction? Disagree with the order of our list? Let us know in the comments!
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