The use of an intense rivalry between characters to drive the events of a story is a time-honored tradition in film. For decades, fans have lined up outside theaters to see their favorite characters square off in intense showdowns, and long have these fans argued over who the better man or woman truly is as a result. A well-executed on-screen rivalry can lead to some truly dramatic/hysterical/epic scenes, whilst establishing a lasting legacy in the process. That got us thinking about some of our favorite big-screen counterparts, and what exactly has enabled them to stand the test of time.
You may notice the absence of some of film’s most memorable duos while perusing this list, but rest assured that their exclusion was not without purpose. Several tandems were left out of this discussion because of their murderous intentions, which makes them more mortal enemies than rivals. Sorry Neo/Mr. Smith and Harry Potter/Voldemort; you should’ve learned to co-exist.
That last little detail also forces the exclusion of another popular subcategory, comic book archenemies. As memorable as Thor and Loki’s battles have been over these last few years, and as legendary as Batman and the Joker prove to be every time they go toe-to-toe, they simply don’t qualify as true rivals.
This may seem obvious, but please note the abundant existence of SPOILERS in the following list. Without further delay, or any additional ground rules, here are our selections for the 10 Iconic Movie Rivalries That Deserve An Award, each of which receives a special award for their work.
Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed (Rocky film series) – Best Professional Sports Rivalry
Kicking things off is a rivalry widely-considered to be one of the greatest of all time, fictional or non-fictional. The 1976 Best Picture winner at the Oscars, Rocky pit a Muhammad Ali-like world heavyweight champ (Creed) against a down-and-out club fighter (Balboa) that had given up on his dreams of boxing glory. After a controversial split-decision win by Creed, the pair returned to square off once again in the sequel, which resulted in Balboa winning the heavyweight title in a dramatic last-second count-out.
Rocky III saw the two team up—with Creed taking over as Balboa’s manager—to take on a new challenger, and the two characters became best friends in the process. At the film’s conclusion, the victorious Rocky and his new pal go behind closed doors for one final bout, to see who the better fighter was once and for all. The result of that fight, which has been a popular fan argument for decades, was teased back in June in the trailer for Creed, a spin-off of the Rocky series that’s due out later this year. We may never know who won the deciding matchup between these two legends of the ring, but in no way does that take away from the mark they’ve left on cinematic history.
Sidney Deane vs. Billy Hoyle (White Men Can’t Jump) – Best Amateur Sports Rivalry
While Apollo and Rocky were well-compensated for their grueling fictional efforts, the streetballers of L.A. were forced to hustle unwitting opponents for every dime they earned. In White Men Can’t Jump, the unlikely pairing of Deane and Hoyle (expertly brought to life by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson) are forced to work together by their significant others, and prove to be an elite duo in the two-on-two basketball world. Amidst constant bickering and a double-crossing or two, the pair manage to win an amateur outdoor tournament, netting their biggest haul yet. A gambler at heart, Hoyle stakes his winnings (and later on, those of his Jeapardy!-winning girlfriend) against tough odds and loses them several times during the film.
As the title would imply, however, this isn’t merely a basketball story. The constant competition between the film’s two leads certainly reveals a whole lot more about the world we live in than a simple affirmation of the athletic shortcomings of white people. Through racially-charged arguments and deeply ingrained personal issues, the charismatic duo provide enlightening moments on and off the court, managing to cement their place in the blacktop history books along the way.
“Fast Eddie” Felson vs. Minnesota Fats (The Hustler) – Best Almost-a-Sport Rivalry
The oldest film on our list also happens to be one of the best. A true underdog story, The Hustler centers around small-timer “Fast Eddie” Felson’s efforts to dethrone pool hall legend Minnesota Fats, and the great lengths at which he will go to do so. Personal tragedies and self-discovery are in store for Felson on his journey, but few would argue that the rivalry between Fats and his young challenger is what has helped the film stand out for all these years.
Legends of the silver screen like George C. Scott and Piper Laurie take a back seat to Paul Newman (Felson) and Jackie Gleason (Fats), who were both overlooked for Academy Awards despite their outstanding performances. In a belated apologia of sorts, Newman was awarded a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the film’s sequel, The Color of Money, 25 years later. While the second entry’s principal rivalry isn’t quite as compelling as the original’s—despite a strong showing by a young Tom Cruise—both films possessed dramatic tension and emotional weight in spades.
Derek Zoolander vs. Hansel (Zoolander) – Best Looking Rivalry
In a movie filled to the brim with really, really, really, ridiculously good looking people, Zoolander and Hansel were inarguably the best looking. The tale of a fading fashion icon going toe-to-toe with an up-and-coming male model while attempting to prevent the assassination of the Malaysian Prime Minister was exactly as absurd as it should have been. Initially panned by critics, Zoolander eventually became the sort of cult hit that studios dream about. The film’s quotability factor is largely responsible for its lasting impact on the comedic landscape, and the long-awaited sequel is due out early next year after a dragged-out production process.
At the center of it all is Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson), bitter rivals turned best friends. In the original film, Derek, terrified by his loosening grip on the fashion world, lashes out against Hansel, a fast-rising star in the modeling industry. The two trade barbs and duke it out in an unforgettable walk-off before eventually realizing their shared love of the simpler things in life.
Long-gestating comedy sequels rarely live up to expectations, but here’s hoping that Derek and Hansel manage to surprise us all yet again.
Ferris Bueller vs. Edward R. Rooney (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) – Most Lopsided Rivalry
A comedy classic that finds itself consistently ranked among the greatest ever, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off owes quite a bit of its notoriety to the efforts of Matthew Broderick (Ferris) and Jeffrey Jones (Rooney, the Dean of Students), who each turned in career-defining performances in the film. Rooney’s hilariously misguided attempts to bust Ferris for skipping school serve as a driving force behind the events of the movie, which was selected for preservation by the Nation Film Industry just last year.
The impossibly-popular Ferris Bueller manages to thwart the dean’s every effort to catch him in the act, thanks to careful planning and a series of top-notch fail safes. But before we go labeling Rooney the Wile E. Coyote to Bueller’s Road Runner, keep in mind that the dean actually manages to catch Ferris sneaking back into his home in the film’s penultimate scene. This being a John Hughes movie though, our hero is of course able to slip through Rooney’s fingers one final time, thanks to a perfectly-unexpected twist of sisterly fate.
Thankfully, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains largely untouched by Hollywood’s incessant need to remake and sequel-ize (there was apparently a short-lived TV series in 1990 that featured a young actress by the name of Jennifer Aniston, but we, like the rest of the world, can go on pretending like that didn’t happen). With the film’s 30th anniversary coming up next summer, however, we should probably keep our fingers crossed, just in case.
Woody vs. Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story trilogy) – Best Rivalry Between Inanimate Objects
Few would argue against the inclusion of the dynamic duo behind one of the most influential film series of all time on this list. While Buzz and Woody’s rivalry has been decidedly friendlier since the original Toy Story—which is somehow now 20 years old—their impact on the film industry has been a lasting one. John Lesseter’s directorial debut featured state-of-the-art computer animation with a whole lot of heart, and Disney/Pixar has never looked back.
Buzz and Woody were hardly pals when they first exploded onto the scene way back in 1995. Perfectly voiced by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks, Andy’s (previously believed to be) inanimate toys were in way over their heads during their first foray into the outside world. The two have grown to become close friends as a result of their adventures, but their competitive natures often leave them at odds with one another.
Story details on the franchise’s upcoming fourth installment are just now beginning to surface. June 2017 is a long way off for the legions of fans who’ve grown up with these characters, but surely Buzz and Woody’s next adventure will be well worth the wait.
Maverick vs. Iceman (Top Gun) – Best Rivalry Above 30,000 Feet
The movie responsible for sending Tom Cruise and director Tony Scott straight to the A-List of their respective professions, Top Gun has been a fan-favorite for nearly three decades, and for good reason. An action film complete with training montages, cheesy one-liners, and a soundtrack headlined by the likes of “Take My Breath Away” and “Danger Zone,” Top Gun may just hold the distinction of the most ’80s movie ever made.
One of the film’s true highlights is undoubtedly the intense rivalry between Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) and Tom “Iceman” Kazanski (Val Kilmer), both of whom strive to be the top pilot in their training program. Iceman famously views Maverick’s reckless flying style as being too “dangerous,” while Maverick remains unshaken in his quest to be the best. Tragedy and extraordinary circumstances force the two to work together in the end, but even the “you can be my wingman anytime” exchange had a strong competitive undertone to it.
Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Top Gun is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release next summer. Unlike the John Hughes classic, however, plans are very much in place for a sequel to this film. Fans should expect to see Maverick and Iceman’s rivalry reignited within the next few years.
Cady Heron vs. Regina George (Mean Girls) – Best High School Rivalry
We have Tina Fey to thank for gifting us the greatest rivalry confined to the halls of a high school (the SNL-alum wrote and starred in the film). The teen comedy was a monstrous hit with critics and audiences alike, surging to $129 million at the box office amidst glowing reviews.
Mean Girls, among numerous other cultural contributions, gave the film world one of its truest villains—and worst students—in Regina George (McAdams). In a story centered around the toxicity of social cliques in our youth, we witness the rise and fall of queen bee George through the eyes of the new kid at school, Cady Heron (Lohan). After initially being taken under the sadistic wing of the most popular girl in school, Heron soon realizes the legitimate danger that people like George pose to society, and proceeds to knock her nemesis down a few pegs.
Like Zoolander, the quotability of the film is largely to thank for its lingering pop-culture relevance. 11+ years after the movie’s release, memes featuring Mean Girls quotes remain in heavy use in the online world. The film helped launch the careers of both Lohan and McAdams, the latter of whom could very well board a comic book franchise or two any day now. And although the cult-hit may have been initially targeted at a female audience, its standing as a crossover sensation doesn’t appear to be fading away anytime soon.
Marty McFly vs. Biff Tannen (Back to the Future trilogy) – Best Time-Traveling Rivalry
Rivalries come and go, but few stand the test of time quite like this one. The highest grossing film of 1985 introduced audiences to Marty McFly, an aspiring young musician who’s sent hurtling back in time to 1955 via a time-traveling DeLorean. There, he encounters his parents’ younger selves and is forced to undo the damage his arrival in the past has caused. Along the way, Marty (played by Michael J. Fox) encounters Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), a thick-headed goon who’s actually the bully of Marty’s father in the original film.
Biff proves to be a major thorn in Marty and his partner Doc Brown’s side throughout the film trilogy, constantly interfering with their plans and complicating matters. Tannen evolves into a full-blown villain in Back to the Future Part II, stealing the DeLorean from Doc and Marty and using it to make his younger self rich, drastically altering history in the process. And although it’s Biff’s great-grandfather Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen that serves as the big bad in Part III, the antagonistic relationship between Marty and Biff is the one that fans will always remember.
Edward vs. Jacob (Twilight film series) – Best No-Longer-Relevant Rivalry
One can’t really make the case that the Twilight movies weren’t a successful film franchise, as the five entries combined for a box office haul of over 3.3 billion over their four year run. But it’s safe to say that a whole lot of people found themselves breathing a big sigh of relief at the end of 2012, when Breaking Dawn – Part 2, the franchise’s concluding chapter, was released in theaters. Whether or not you were a fan of the films (you probably weren’t), there’s a good chance you were asked at one point whether you were Team Edward or Team Jacob.
Over the course of the series, the two paranormal beings (Edward was a vampire and Jacob a werewolf) each vied for the affections of the story’s resoundingly-average human protagonist, Bella Swan, with Edward ultimately winning her heart when all was said and done. Regardless of your feelings on the Twilight franchise, it’s had its share of lasting effects—even its fan-fiction spinoff (sort of) Fifty Shades of Grey has a sequel on the way— thanks in no small part to the rivalry at the center of the films’ love triangle.
Alfred Borden vs. Robert Angier (Prestige) – Best Non-Superhero Superhero Rivalry – Batman and Wolverine themselves square off in the greatest comic book crossover film we’ll never get to see. Christopher Nolan’s highly underrated sci-fi thriller features so many twists and turns, not even the World’s Greatest Detective could have figured out what was really going on until the credits rolled.
Carl Spackler vs. The Gopher (Caddyshack) – Best Man vs. Beast Rivalry – One of Bill Murray’s first film roles, this comedy classic sees groundskeeper Carl Spackler go to war with an exceptionally clever gopher; the latter outwits the simple-minded Spackler at every turn in hilarious fashion.
Daniel LaRusso vs. Johnny Lawrence (The Karate Kid) – An underdog story of the highest order, LaRusso’s one-legged triumph over his Cobra Kai-practicing tormentor makes for excellent movie watching to this day.
John Gustafson Jr. vs. Max Goldman (Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men) – Longest Running Rivalry That Doesn’t Employ Time-Travel – John and Max’s rivalry stretches back over fifty years, and the outstanding on-screen chemistry between stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau shines through in every scene.
Nina vs. Lily (Black Swan) – Most Twinkle-Toed Rivalry – The night and day differences between rival dancers Nina and Lily (the latter of which may or may not be real) drive the action in Darren Aronofsky’s intensely creepy thriller. Natalie Portman (Nina) earns the hell out of the Best Actress Oscar she was awarded for her work in this film.
Ron Burgundy vs Veronica Corningstone (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) – Classiest Rivalry – Being the lead anchor on cable’s highest-rated news program, Mr. Burgundy certainly has his share of rivals, but none compare to Ms. Corningstone. Their antics define what has become one of the most beloved comedies of all time.
Ricky Bobby vs. Jean Girard (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) – Best Rivalry on Four Wheels – Will Ferrell (Bobby) seems to be drawn to rivalry-based films, as some of his most well-known films (Step Brothers, Blades of Glory) revolve around such conflict. His Talladega Nights nemesis, played by Sacha Baron Cohen at the peak of his comedic powers, proved to be an excellent foil to Ferrell’s dim-witted NASCAR driver.
Annie Walker vs. Helen Harris III (Bridesmaids) – Best Wedding-Themed Rivalry – While the film’s primary claim to fame may end up being the launching of Melissa McCarthy’s career, its memorable clashes between Kristen Wiig’s Annie and Rose Byrne’s Helen should not be underestimated.
Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) – Most Smartest Rivalry (get it?) – While Guy Ritchie’s first foray into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work was well-received, the sequel was subject to a very lukewarm response. One of the film’s greater shortcomings was an underwhelming depiction of the “Napoleon of crime,” Professor Moriarty. Described as being Holmes’ intellectual equal, Jared Harris’ portrayal simply came up short. Moriarty has actually appeared in several films over the years, with Game of Shadows being the most recent since The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Few would argue that this rivalry, while full of big-screen potential, could be handled better.
That just about wraps up our list of our favorite on-screen rivalries. While the burning desire to outright kill each other can certainly intensify a rivalry, sometimes slightly happier endings can lead to longer lasting legacies. Not all of our nemeses ended up shaking hands in the end, but all have certainly left their mark on the film world.
A list of this nature is, to a degree, inherently subjective. Did your favorite film rivalry make the cut? Which on-screen duo do you feel is most deserving of being included in the conversation? Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? Sound off in the comments below.
Creed will be in theaters on November 25th, 2015; Zoolander 2 on February 12th, 2016; Fifty Shades Darker — February 10th, 2017; Toy Story 4 — June 16th, 2017.