Film's Top 5 Classic Action Heroes

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Robert Downey Jr. stars in this 2008 superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The plot surrounds Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), who as an industrialist and master engineer builds a powered exoskeleton and becomes the technologically advanced superhero, Iron Man.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
January 28th, 2014

Action heroes have a unique ability captivate broad audiences that span enormous demographic ranges. Because of this ability, great action heroes become pop culture icons more often than not. The fame — or notoriety -— of the most classic action heroes only grows with time. Indeed, no entry on this list of classic action heroes should come as a great surprise.

 

dirty-harry-image.jpgPhoto Credit: Warner Bros.

Dirty Harry

When an actor is synonymous with one of his characters, that character is almost always a classic one. Dirty Harry is one of those characters. It is hard to see Clint Eastwood without thinking of his role as Dirty Harry, and for good reason. Clint Eastwood nailed his role as Dirty Harry. In the original 1971 film, "Dirty Harry," the character is a tough-as-nails cop who takes flak from no criminal, viewing the law as a tangled web that gets in the way of justice. Though Dirty Harry's philosophy often startles modern sensibilities, one need only look at history to see why the character remains an enduring icon. The Scorpio Killer, whom Dirty Harry pursues in the original movie, is loosely based on the Zodiac Killer. The Zodiac Killer was a notorious serial killer that operated during the 1960s and was never caught. In a way, Dirty Harry helps the audience feel justice by proxy.

 

terminator-image.jpegPhoto Credit: Orion Pictures Corporation
The Terminator

The Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is captivating for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the most significant factor that makes him classic is his origin. In the first "Terminator" film, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg Terminator unit created by Skynet to kill Sarah Connor and prevent her son, John Connor, from leading a human uprising. The original Terminator is a villain whose pursuit of Sarah Connor feels inexorable and terrifying. Because of the terrifying role Schwarzenegger plays in the first movie, his appearance in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" as an identical Terminator unit reprogrammed and sent to protect John Connor is both jarring and exciting to audiences. The Terminator's abrupt change from horrifying villain to powerful ally makes the Terminator one of the most iconic heroes in film.

 

han-solo.jpgPhoto Credit: Twentieth Fox Film Corporation

Han Solo

While "Star Wars" is everything from a dramatic space opera to a sci-fi movie in addition to being an action series, Han Solo is a character firmly entrenched in the action side of Star Wars. In "Star Wars IV: A New Hope," Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a mercenary smuggler who reluctantly helps Obi-Wan Kenobi and a young Luke Skywalker in their search for Princess Leia. At first, he is a self-serving loner, but as the series progresses, Han Solo begins to see the importance of fighting for the common good, befriends Luke Skywalker and falls in love with Princess Leia. His great shift in character is a major reason for his iconic status, but his quick wit and cocky personality, portrayed perfectly by Harrison Ford, are also key elements in Solo's position as a classic action hero.

 

sean-connery-image.jpgPhoto Credit: United Artists

James Bond

James Bond, Agent 007, is the epitome of a classic action hero. In fact, he is probably one of the most well-known and enduring action heroes there is. This is due in no small part to the James Bond series' long run. James Bond is featured in 24 films, and he is played by seven actors. The first film, "Dr. No," grossed $6 million on a $1 million budget. With great acting, Sean Connery established James Bond as a classic action hero in the first five Bond films. Though the franchise, based on a character created by novelist Ian Fleming, has changed much since its film debut in 1962, its classic formula remains the same. James Bond is always a thoroughly competent British spy whose soft spot for women gets him in trouble. This formula's endurance through 24 successful films shows why James Bond is an immortal character.

 

iron-man-image.jpgPhoto Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Iron Man

Iron Man is a more recent action hero, at least in film, but he is an instant classic of a character that deserves a place on this list. Iron Man is based on a Marvel comic book character created by Stan Lee. Interestingly, Lee created Iron Man to prove that one can make a character likable in spite of qualities that should make him hated by an audience. Tony Stark is a billionaire weapons dealer, yet because of his personality, he is easy to cheer for. He is also fascinating as a superhero because he does not bother with an alter ego. The public always knows that the man in the Iron Man suit is Tony Stark. In the comics, his personality shines through great writing. In the "Iron Man" films, however, Tony Stark is made likeable almost entirely through Robert Downey Jr.'s superb character acting. Indeed, Downey steals the show even in movies in which Iron Man plays a minor role. Tony Stark owes his instant classic status on the silver screen to the man who plays him.

The fascinating thing about classic action heroes is the fact that they captivate audiences in vastly different ways. There is no set formula that guarantees wide appeal to an action hero. These five classic action heroes are just a small sample of many.