The most epic character introductions of all time

Cinema is about story and spectacle, but it's also about character. The history of cinema is a history of great actors and actresses giving great performances. But how a character is treated in a film isn't just about who plays them; it's about how the story, the direction, and the cinematography treats them. Often, one of the most memorable things about a movie character is how they're introduced to the viewer, and how the film lets the viewer know who they are and why they matter. With that in mind, here are ten of the best character introductions in the history of film.

​Vito Corleone - The Godfather​

We're starting the list with a classic: Vito Corleone, the title character of Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece The Godfather. The film opens with a different character, Amerigo Bonasera (played by Duncan Kennon), telling a complicated story that begins with his perspective on America as an Italian immigrant, and leads to an account of his daughter's brutal assault at the hands of two men. It's clear as he speaks that he's talking to someone highly respected and very dangerous. 

As the shot grows wider, we see Marlon Brando from behind, listening to him from across a desk. When Bonasera comes to his point, he asks Don Corleone to make his daughter's attackers pay. When he gets up to whisper in the Don's ear, we understand without hearing it that he's asking for them to be killed. It's only then that we see Corleone's face, which doesn't betray any emotion in response to what he's been asked. As he chastises Bonasera for asking for asking him to kill, however, we gain a sense of the code of honor that this mobster follows. Soon we'll see him in happy scenes with his family, but we first meet him as the Godfather, a man so powerful he literally decides who lives and who dies.

Blade - Blade

Stephen Norrington's 1998 comic book adaptation Blade opens with a young man following a woman to a party. To his surprise it turns out to be a party for vampires, and he was brought there as a literal snack. As blood pours from the sprinkler system while the vampires dance and prepare to feed, the hapless young man attempts to escape—and runs right into a mysterious figure in a long coat and intimidating black boots. As the camera slowly pans up to reveal his body armor, the vampires become aware of his presence and start murmuring to each other: 

"It's him." 

"It's the daywalker." 

The music has gone quiet, and the vampires move away from this newcomer in a manner that makes it clear that they fear him as much as regular humans fear them. As the bloody crowd parts, Wesley Snipes' face is revealed and we meet Blade, who draws a gun and begins wiping out the undead. It's a perfectly badass introduction to one of action cinema's most badass characters.

Hannibal Lecter - The Silence of the Lambs

In Jonathan Demme's 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, the viewer hears quite a bit about Hannibal Lecter before meeting him. He's a cannibalistic serial killer who's in custody at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He's highly intelligent, and FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is being sent to interview him in the hopes he can provide insight into a new case. He's also extraordinarily brutal dangerous, and on her way to meet him Clarice is warned not to go near him, even though he'll be behind unbreakable glass. He's discussed as more of a monster than a man. 

When Clarice enters the dungeon-like hallway that leads to Lecter's cell, she sees a succession of horrifying men in the cells along the way, including Miggs, who climbs on his bars like a monkey while making obscene comments. After all this setup, it's something of a surprise when Lecter finally comes into view. His cell is clean and has art hanging on the walls. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is standing up straight right in the middle of it, arms at his sides, with a pleasant look on his face. He says, "Good morning," and begins an entirely civil interaction. But even as he's being friendly to Clarice, there's always something unnerving about him. He's being polite, but he's also testing her in every moment. It's not that Hannibal Lecter isn't a monster, we soon realize, it's just that he's an extraordinarily civilized one.

Jack Skellington - The Nightmare Before Christmas

Henry Selick's 1993 animated holiday film The Nightmare Before Christmas begins with a song about Halloween. The first image shown is of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow hanging motionless on the "Halloween Town" sign. This leads into a song by all the creatures of the town about Halloween and their roles in it. Eventually the song leads to lyrics announcing the introduction of "Jack, King of the Pumpkin Patch," who everyone in Halloween Town respects and follows. The scarecrow from the beginning is led in on a straw horse, apparently the King the song refers to. Suddenly he starts moving, grabbing a torch and stuffing it into his Jack O' Lantern mouth, setting himself on fire. He continues to move undisturbed as he burns, before jumping into a fountain. Jack then emerges from the fountain, revealing that the Pumpkin King is not really a pumpkin at all—he's an animated skeleton. And more than that, he's a skeleton who knows how to make an entrance.

Batman - Batman (1989)

Tim Burton's 1989 version of Batman begins with a scene that suggests the character's well-known origin, as a boy and his parents are accosted by hoodlums in the back alleys of Gotham City. These aren't the Waynes, however, and they survive the mugging. As the mother screams, a black-cloaked figure is seen on a rooftop. The two criminals find a nearby perch and start sorting through their spoils, while discussing recent sightings of a batlike figure attacking criminals. As they talk, the recognizable silhouette of Batman descends behind them. The caped crusader quickly dispatches the hoods, holding one over the roof's edge and asking him to tell others about him. When the mugger asks, "What are you?" the masked man pulls him close and declares "I'm Batman."

Burton's Batman, played by Michael Keaton, is overshadowed by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck's later incarnations, and even the more comedic Adam West version that came before. However, this opening scene has endured for almost three decades as one of the very best introductions to the character in any medium.

The Dude - The Big Lebowski

Narration by Sam Elliott opens the Coen Brothers' 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski. Over the distinctly old-timey Western sounds of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" by Sons of the Pioneers and shots of a tumbleweed making its way through Los Angeles, Elliott's cowboy drawl promises a story about a man named Jeff Lebowski, who prefers to be called the Dude. Elliott demures from calling the Dude a hero, but says he's the perfect man for his time and place. After nearly two minutes, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) finally appears, walking down the dairy aisle of Ralph's grocery store in a bathrobe and sunglasses. As Elliott's voiceover ends, the Dude writes a check for 69 cents, revealing nearly as much about the sort of man he is.

Darth Vader - Star Wars

It's hard to imagine a time before Darth Vader was a universally known villain. Before George Lucas released Star Wars in 1977, there was no direct antecedent to the black-armored Dark Lord of the Sith, although he drew on many influences. So if you were watching Star Wars at the time, even if you'd seen the character in marketing for the movie, you probably didn't know what to expect. Then came that moment when the rebel ship that opens the movie is boarded by Imperial forces. 

A brigade of white-armored stormtroopers enter first, engaging in a shootout that leaves many rebels dead and the ship filled with smoke. Once the rebels are on the run, the stormtroopers stand at attention as Darth Vader enters the scene. Arms akimbo beneath his black cape, the huge black-clad figure surveys the scene. Two things are immediately clear: Vader is extremely powerful, but he doesn't have to do the grunt work. The nature of Darth Vader's power will become clear in later scenes, but for now it's enough that he's very big, very scary, and in charge.

Bela Lugosi - Ed Wood

Tim Burton's 1994 Ed Wood focuses on the titular schlock filmmaker (played by Johnny Depp) and his friendship with the actor famous for playing Dracula, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Lugosi is revealed in perfect Dracula fashion, laying motionless in a coffin, which Ed spies as he's walking by a Hollywood mortuary on the way out of a bar. At first Lugosi appears to actually be dead (or perhaps undead), but then he suddenly speaks. "Too constrictive!" he exclaims about the coffin, which he was trying out for possible use in an upcoming stage production of Dracula. Everything you need to know about Lugosi as he appears in this film is contained in this quick moment—people think he's dead, but actually he's just old, unhealthy, and extremely grumpy about his lot in life.

Harry Lime - The Third Man

Harry Lime is supposed to be dead. 

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) came to postwar Vienna looking for his old friend Lime at the beginning of Carol Reed's 1949 noir classic The Third Man, but everyone has told him Lime died. Something doesn't add up, however, and Holly stays in the city trying to uncover the truth about Lime's mysterious death. Realizing he's being followed, Holly starts yelling at a mysterious figure in the street late at night. This causes an angry woman to turn on the light in her apartment window as she yells for quiet. The light shines down on the mysterious figure, revealing the face of Orson Welles as Harry Lime, who's not dead after all. He smiles at Holly, only to disappear again when the light goes out (but don't worry, he'll be back shortly). 

One of the great things about this reveal is that the viewer may not know what Harry Lime looks like, but Orson Welles' fame and status as star of this movie makes it easy to guess when you see him that he's playing Lime, even before Joseph Cotten's reaction makes it undeniable.

Quint - Jaws

Steven Spielberg's 1975 classic Jaws is a movie about a killer shark, obviously. On the other hand, it's also a movie about a town in crisis, as a beach community that depends on tourism struggles to figure out how to bring people back to their beaches and keep them safe after a series of very public shark attacks. This aspect comes to a head in a scene where all the town leaders are meeting and everyone is talking at once. Then the teeth-grinding sound of fingernails on a chalkboard shuts everyone up. 

Those nails are seen scraping over a drawing of a shark eating a man, before the hand is revealed to belong to Quint (Robert Shaw), a tough fisherman who promises he can kill the shark, but wants $10,000 to do it. Quint enters the movie very late, but this scene quickly makes clear what sort of man he is. He's extremely competent, and he knows it, but he's also disinterested in polite social norms. He's not the guy anyone wants to work with, but he's the guy who can kill a giant shark.

Jaws is a classic film by any standard, and this character introduction is one of the all-time greats. On the other hand, every other choice on this list, new or old, can stand alongside it. When a character's introduction is memorable, you remember them—and when you remember a character, you remember the film that contains them. That's why every film on this list is in some sense a classic, and every character—good or evil—is beloved by their fans.