We’ve already looked at the scenes we loved in movies we didn’t like so much, but subpar movies can have so much more to offer (or less, possibly). Sometimes the only redeeming quality of a disappointing film is a single character who, unfortunately, ended up in a less-than-fantastic script.
It could be a great actor who makes a bland story come to life, or it could just be that the screenwriters only took time to develop one member of their story. Other times, however, it’s just a complete accident, and we don’t know whom to thank for it, but we’re just glad some quality made it in there somewhere.
Here are 12 characters and performances that brightened up some otherwise (largely) unpleasant viewing experiences. And maybe they couldn’t save the whole movie on their own, but that’s a lot to ask of anyone. They did what they could, though, and we appreciate it.
12. Darth Maul – Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
We can’t put The Phantom Menace‘s ostensible villain any higher on the list than this because for all his flipping and badassery, he’s really not that great of a character.
But we still love it every time he shows up in the film because it always meant something was going to happen. And not a lot happens in Episode I, so we’ll take an otherwise boring guy doing amazing stunts over the rest of that snoozefest anyday.
Based solely on his first appearance, and not his expanded role on the Clone Wars animated TV series, here’s what we know about Darth Maul: He hates Jedi, he’s really good at fighting them, he works for Darth Sidious, and he’s black and red with horns. That’s pretty much it, but that’s all we really need so long as he doesn’t mention trade disputes or sound like a racist cartoon character from the ’40s.
11. Paulina Zander – Ouija
We admittedly had no high expectations for Ouija, a movie that came out in 2014 featuring an evil spirit board of the kind that toymaker Hasbro registered as a trademark 70 years ago. You might as well write a script about cursed Transformer figures.
Sure enough, Ouija is crap, and not even the fun kind. It’s full of dumb characters, a “twist” the writers ripped off from Ringu, and, again, a diabolical object that anybody can pick up from the board game section at Toys R Us for $23. It’s just not a good time by any definition of the term.
Its one redeeming quality, however, is Paulina Zander, whom Lin Shaye portrays with all the twitchy, manic insanity of a fan-favorite actress reduced to playing a bit part in Ouija. It might have been tempting to just phone it in, but Shaye actually manages to be creepier than the ghost that’s floating around murdering all the teens foolish enough to lay hands on a planchette.
She’s prepped to return in the sequel (the trailer for which you can check out here), so…there’s that.
10. Sandman – Spider-Man 3
In a movie that contains a watered-down version of Venom, too many villains, and one more than the zero dance numbers that any superhero movie should have, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) is the only character we ended up liking in Spider-Man 3.
A series retcon makes him the guy who shot Peter’s Uncle Ben in the first movie, because one thing director Sam Raimi’s trilogy proves again and again is that while over eight and a half million people live in New York City, Spider-Man has personal ties to every supervillain he fights. Why else would he want to stop them, after all? Because it’s the right thing to do? Leave that Boy Scout stuff to Captain America.
Regardless, the whole reason Marko is in a position to provide Peter Parker with his entire justification for fighting crime was because he has a sick daughter and turned to a life of crime to pay for her treatment. That’s cliché, sure, but it at least made his actions more understandable and ultimately sympathetic than anyone else’s in the movie.
We’re looking at you, jerk Peter Parker.
9. Abraham Van Helsing – Bram Stoker’s Dracula
We don’t hate Bram Stoker’s Dracula; it looks amazing and remains reasonably true to its source material. Its relentless drama and “reincarnation of a lost love” story point, however, had us wishing for a slightly less operatic adaptation of the book.
But our favorite part, other than Old Dracula’s inexplicable butt-shaped hair, was Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation of fearless vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Hopkins is clearly the only actor in the movie who was having any fun, and he delivers the film’s only intentional jokes. And we’re absolutely counting offhand comments about decapitating dead bodies and stabbing them with things as “jokes” because this is an incredibly serious movie, and we’ll take what we can get.
He’s also the only character who can kill a vampire without getting all emotional and weird about it, and that’s good because he slays more monsters than anyone else. And like our runner-up below, he has a sad lack of screen time. A lot of the time, director Francis Ford Coppola just sticks us with Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and their incredibly suspect English accents.
8. Sabretooth – X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Our brains have erased most of X-Men Origins: Wolverine from our memories out of self-defense, but we still remember Sabretooth being pretty great. Liev Schreiber (Showtime’s Ray Donovan) is a reliable actor with a decent range, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for when you’re watching some disappointing junk. And Origins is like the Platonic ideal of disappointment.
But it does contain the best version of Wolverine’s nemesis Sabretooth outside of the comics to date. And while the other options — the weird, always-shouting one in the ’90s animated series and the dumb-as-bricks take in the first X-Men movie — don’t offer much competition, a win is a win, and we’re giving this one to Origins. It’s basically all it has going for it.
You only have to believe two things about this character for him to work: that he and Wolverine could be friends, and that he’s capable of winning their inevitable confrontation. Schreiber manages to do both of these things while being completely terrifying in his own right. It’s a level of menace that not even Hugh Jackman can pull off most of the time, and he’s way more intimidating than the train-wreck of a “Deadpool” we get at the end.
7. Roland Tembo – The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The first sequel to Jurassic Park includes more dinosaurs, a higher body count, and a Tyrannosaurus embarking on a King Kong-style rampage through the streets of San Diego. And in the middle of all of that, it forgot to include decent characters with good dialogue and solid arcs.
That is, except for Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite), the leader of the group of straight-up sleazy “Marlboro Men” tasked with rounding up dinos for an American version of Jurassic Park because the first one was such a good idea and worked perfectly. These guys are all jerks, but Tembo decides to forfeit what has to be an insane amount of money for the opportunity to hunt a male T.Rex, and you kind of have to admire that. Plus, the movie includes a scene where he gives dinosaurs nicknames because he can’t pronounce “Pachycephalosaurus” or “Parasaurolophus,” which is oddly adorable.
He gets his wish all too well after a crazy plan that involves luring in his prey with the plaintive cries of its injured, infant child.
But in the chaos that is bound to follow a course of action that includes kidnapping and injuring (in a deleted scene) a dangerous animal’s baby, Tembo loses his best friend, Ajay (Harvey Jason), to velociraptors. And that doesn’t so much teach him that hunting is wrong so much as it convinces him that it’s time to pack it in. But it’s the only character development in the whole movie, so we’ll take it.
6. Dr. Heiter – The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Director Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is an objectively bad film that, once you get over the immediate shock of its core concept, is mostly just boring. If you haven’t been on the internet since 2009, that concept is that a mad doctor decides for some reason to join three people together in such a way as to create a single, long digestive system. And you can probably fill in the blanks from there.
Dieter Laser, whose name is too awesome not to be on a movie poster, plays the surgeon, and he’s the best part of the whole thing. And to be fair, we know that isn’t saying much.
Laser could have played the role broad and crazy, like he does in the completely unwatchable third film, but he mostly sticks with creepy. The highlight is the scene in which he describes to his victims what he’s going to do to them, and he does so with the flat, enumerative tone of someone delivering a lecture at a medical convention. It’s genuinely chilling.
Since half of the cast is incapable of saying or doing much of anything for most of the movie, Laser has to carry it himself. And he succeeds, insofar as we can describe any part of The Human Centipede as “successful.”
5. Quicksilver – X-Men: Apocalypse
Whether you loved or hated the latest X-Men outing, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) was the only character we’ve heard zero complaints about.
He has the best action sequence, a solo run through the exploding Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters to save everyone inside, set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Later, he sees an opportunity to just mercilessly beat on Apocalypse, and he takes it. Nobody tells him to do this; Mystique doesn’t say, “Hey, Peter. Go punch En Sabah Nur so hard that he flies comically through the air.” The fledgling X-Man just kind of appears and does it.
We’d normally have a problem with something that crazy happening so randomly, but we just can’t stay mad at Quicksilver.
4. David – Prometheus
The list of complaints about David are many and varied. He learns almost immediately how to speak an alien language he’s never heard and his actions are questionable at best, as they lack any apparent motivation. But in a movie that includes a trained scientist using the politically loaded and inaccurate term “Darwinism,” the guy whose only job is to make maps getting lost, and the climax’s “Why not run to the side?” moment, we’re going to latch on to a good performance like a facehugger on John Hurt. And Michael Fassbender, who plays David, delivers that, at least.
3. Wonder Woman – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Similarly to Quicksilver up there, while director Zack Snyder’s latest, Batman v Superman, divided audiences (but not so much critics), we haven’t heard too many complaints about Wonder Woman other than that small issue of her not doing anything metahuman for most of the movie. But when she finally did, it was pretty worth the wait.
In a film with a gloomy, uninspiring Superman and a Batman who is really just a murderer, it was nice to see at least one member of the Justice League’s Trinity behaving like an actual superhero. She does confess to killing “things from other worlds,” but then, she’s the only one out of the three of them who has never had a steadfast rule against putting her enemies down for good.
Okay, so maybe she did indirectly when people actually cared about the Comics Code Authority, but that wasn’t really her call. But our points are that Dawn of Justice is terrible, and Wonder Woman was awesome. More of that, please.
2. Joe Brody – Godzilla
The 2014 contribution to the “giant monsters fighting” genre was a vast improvement on Hollywood’s last attempt to bring the giant lizard to the screen. But it was kind of a bummer for two reasons. First, because Godzilla only has about 10 minutes of screen time in a 123-minute long movie called “Godzilla.” And second, because the most interesting human character (by far) dies a third of the way in.
We’re referring, of course, to Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who goes from the mild-mannered director of a nuclear power plant to full-on conspiracy theorist nutcase. It’s a good arc, and Cranston manages both personas perfectly. And then, once his ramblings are proven correct, and the rad-sucking MUTO escapes to wreak havoc on the United States and its landmarks, he unceremoniously goes out like Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations, falling to his death — delayed long enough to encourage those who come after him — on a collapsed metal bridge.
Unfortunately, that leaves us with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who unenviably and understandably can’t follow that act. But luckily, we only have 15 more minutes to wait before the King of Monsters finally shows up.
1. Edward Malus – The Wicker Man
We could have picked any Nicolas Cage role for this top entry, because it doesn’t matter what dreck he’s making; he’s a world-class actor, and he always brings it.
But we chose his turn in writer/director Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man because Cage is genuinely the only good thing about it. You can laugh at his crazy antics, which include straight-kicking Leelee Sobieski into a wall, punching several women in the face (once while wearing a bear costume), and his heavily memed aversion to having bees on his face, but guess what? The movie made you laugh, and it’s the only joy it ever gave anyone.
Edward Malus is our anchor in this turkey, our voice in an unreasonable world that doesn’t care how we’re doing. Whenever he is confused, we’re confused. When he gets annoyed, we’re right there with him. And when he hits boiling point, and the kicks and yelling start coming fast and furious, it’s the only catharsis the film offers. If it weren’t such a terrible experience, we could almost think that this was one of the most brilliant exercises in empathy ever committed to film. But it’s just a bad movie, and Nicolas Cage is the only reason to watch it.
Did we forget to mention any of your favorite characters from mediocre (or worse) cinema? Let us know in the comments.