What would cinema be without instantly recognizable heroes like Indiana Jones, Cameron Poe, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker? Well, as far as their stories are concerned, apparently not too different. Of all the great screenwriting fails and narrative snafus, movie heroes who have no effect on the plot is among the most flagrant of sins, yet has produced a number of great movies that don't need heroes.
The idea of the ineffective hero was made infamous by a film-ruining moment in The Big Bang Theory that shook fan boys and girls to their nerdy cores by torpedoing Raiders of the Lost Ark. Since then, film fans have been endlessly debating which other beloved favorites are led by useless movie heroes. Was Voldemort's bid for power destined to fail with or without Harry being there? Is Atticus Finch the most brilliantly pointless lawyer in fiction? Let's destroy some great movie characters!
Raiders of the Lost Ark started this whole debate in the first place. The first installment of cinematic dream-team George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg's classic action/adventure series follows 1930s archeology heartthrob Indiana Jones as he endeavors to foil an occult Nazi plot (the go-to historical baddies) to find and harness the mysterious power of the Ark of the Covenant.
Except that, as explained by Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, "Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. [...] If he weren't in the movie, the Nazis would still have found the Ark, taken it to the island, opened it up, and all died, just like they did."
And she's totally right. All Indie really does is slow the Nazis down. They still get their leather-gloved hands on the Ark, they still end up opening it, and the Ark is the thing that stops them, not Doctor Jones. Still, we'll always have that great gun vs. sword scene.
Actors: Harrison Ford, Alfred Molina, Karen Allen, Frank Welker, Denholm Elliott, + more
Initial Release: 1981
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
The Boy Who Lived. And made no difference to the outcome of this film.
Think about it. Although the titular wizard in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone goes through a lot of personal growth in the first installment of this epic seven movie saga, he has very little significant impact on the plot. As with most of the Potter films to come, Professor Snape does most of the work and gets none of the credit; he keeps Harry safe from Professor Quirrell/Voldemort and does his best to foil the evil plot before Harry and the gang even start to suspect him/them.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione also needlessly go through all those deadly traps to get the Philosopher's Stone, despite it being perfectly protected already - it can only be obtained by someone who wants it without wanting to use it, meaning conniving Quirrell never stood a chance. In fact, the only significant thing Harry does is make it easier for Quirrell to obtain the Stone by just showing up. Good job, kid.
To be fair, this is all on JK Rowling, not the filmmakers.
Actors: Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, Julianne Hough, John Hurt, John Cleese, + more
Initial Release: 2001
Directed by: Chris Columbus
#97 on The Best Movies of the '00s
#40 on The Most Rewatchable Movies
Aww, poor Indiana Jones. Yet again, the good doctor proves worthless, this time in the third (and second best) installment of the venerated series.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade introduces Sean Connery as Indie's dad, which is interesting, since Indie is basically James Bond as an archeologist. Otherwise, the movie is exactly the same as Raiders of the Lost Ark - the Nazis want a Biblical relic (this time it's the Holy Grail) and don't know where to find; Indie goes on an adventure, during which he accidentally delivers the relic into enemy hands.
In the end, it's revealed the Nazis don't actually know how to get past all those great ancient booby traps to retrieve the Grail. Indie helps them, and it's reveealed the Nazis don't even know what the Grail looks like. So they wouldn't been able to get it in the first place. So, actually, Indie helps the Nazis even more in Crusade than he does in Ark. Come on, man.
Actors: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, River Phoenix, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody, + more
Initial Release: 1989
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
#16 on The Most Rewatchable Movies
Perhaps a bit of a prickly pear here, because it's hard to say who the hero is in most Tarantino films (Kill Bill and Django Unchained being obvious exceptions), but suffice it to say, only one character in Inglourious Basterds has a resolute impact on the film's story, and she (Shosanna) disappears for huge sections of the film while the titular squad of murderous guerillas roves France, mucking things up.
What's the point, ultimately, of Inglourious Basterds? To end Word War II by killing Hitler. And Shosanna, along with her boyfriend, Marcel, do that just fine without the help of anyone by burning a movie theater packed with the Nazi high command. While the Basterds rush the theater as it's burning, set off some bombs, and shoot a bunch of Nazis, they're all burning to death anyway.
Head Basterd Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) negotiates a deal with with Nazi mastermind Col. Hans Landa, but that's an incidental detail that has nothing to do with ending the war. In fact, had the Basterds not made a mess of their clandestine meeting with German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), Landa wouldn't have known about a plot to kill the Nazi high command, and therefore wouldn't have been in a position to leverage his knowledge into a successful surrender.
Actors: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Samuel L. Jackson, Mike Myers, + more
Initial Release: 2009
Directed by: Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino
#20 on The Best War Movies Ever
#11 on The Best Movies of the '00s