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17 Movie Sidekicks Who Were The True Heroes All Along

Updated November 8, 2019 4.5k votes 927 voters 35.6k views17 items

List RulesVote up the most mind blowing protagonist theories.

The white guy is always the hero, right? Well, that's what they want us to believe, anyway. There are a ton of movies in which the person you think is the protagonist, the one whose face is all over the posters and advertisements, the one who appears on all the talk shows and gets the most screen time, in fact serves a role other than that of protagonist. This mostly comes down to how the roles of characters are defined. When you get down to brass tacks, there are a lot of unlikely movie heroes out there. 

You have your movies where the hero isn't really a hero at all, and movies in which the protagonist isn't the main character. There are even cases in which the purported villain of the movie is really more of a hero or protagonist than main character. But what does this all mean? You can define "protagonist" is various ways - the central character in drama, for instance. However, this is a bit vague. This list sticks to the definition employed by most commercial screenplays, in which the protagonist is the character with the most urgent dramatic want or the most pressing physical goal. 

Here's how heroes and protagonists differ. A hero is a central character that displays admirable qualities and most often supports the emotional heft of a movie, giving action to the film's foundational themes. (Of course, sometimes a hero's most emotional moments end up on the cutting room floor.) As many films have shown over the years, it's not necessary for the hero to be the protagonist. Take, for instance, The Lion King. Simba's physical goal is to stay hidden with Pumba and Timon. Nala's is to save her society from starving. Who has the more pressing problem there? But Simba is most certainly the central character. 

The point is, we don't always have to accept the white guy around whom a movie revolves is the protagonist. Here are some movies with supporting characters who were actually the hero, or those in which the protagonist isn't at all who you thought it was. BTW, don't be surprised how many of these characters are female.

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  • Photo: LucasFilm

    Most Star Wars movies have protagonist problems. Who the hell is the protagonist in A New Hope? It starts as R2-D2, then becomes Ben Kenobi, then turns into a co-lead situation with Luke and Leia. 

    What do you remember about Return of the Jedi? Han frozen in carbonite? Luke battling Vader? Ewoks defeating AT-STs with their bolas? That's all well and good, but the person leading every single major piece of action in Episode VI is none other than Princess Leia. She rescues Han from Jabba the Hutt, then leads the rebel mission on Endor, where, after befriending Ewoks, a merry band of insurrectionists takes down a shield generator, thus enabling the rebels in space to blow up the Death Star. 

    And they still put her in that dumbass bikini. 

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  • Photo: Paramount

    Jack Dawson is so obviously the protagonist of Titanic. Except he's not. It's Rose DeWitt Bukater. Duh. Wait, is it? Is it both of them? 

    You could safely argue Jack and Rose are co-protagonists, but if you use your noggin' and do some hard, hard thinkin', you might come to the conclusion that Jack doesn't really have any goals other than maybe boning another dude's wife and whipping up some erotic sketches while tantalizing the unsinkable Molly Brown, with whom he probably would've had a sordid, depraved tryst had not Rose been present. 

    Rose is the protagonist of the story in both of time periods. In the 1996 story, in which explorers unearth a drawing of her diamond, Rose volunteers to travel to the middle of the ocean to tell the tale of the jewel and her time aboard the ship. In the 1912 timeline, Rose is trapped in a miserable marriage and takes charge of a relationship with Jack after a few moments of flirtation on his behalf.

    There are certainly instances in which Jack takes charge. When he's leading her away from the sinking portion of the ship, or when he confronts her after she receives him coldly and considers extinguishing the spark between them. But in far more (and more crucial) instances, she leads the action, such as when she asks him to draw her like one of his French girls, when she frees him from being handcuffed to a pipe, or when she decides its sexy time in the back of that steamy car. 

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  • The movie's called Inglourious Basterds, so it stands to reason the Basterds are the protagonists. Or, at least, that Aldo Reine, leader of the Basterds, is the protagonist. But that's most definitely not the case. 

    What's the primary physical plot of Inglourious Basterds? To kill Hitler. Who takes the most active role in doing so? Shosanna Dreyfus, a young Jew hiding in plain site from the Nazis who killer her family, and Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a British military officer tasked with leading the Basterds on a mission to take down the Third Reich. 

    Hicox only appears in two scenes in the film, but one of them - the showdown in the basement bar - could reasonably be called one of the best scenes you'll ever seen in a movie. Once Hicox dies, Aldo Reine takes over as protagonist of the Basterds mission, though is captured not long thereafter by Nazi officer Hans Landa, leaving Shosanna as the sole active protagonist, along with two supporting characters acting on Reine's (and, therefore, Hicox's) behalf. 

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  • Photo: Disney

    The Force Awakens is a hot mess from a narrative perspective. What the hell is it really about? If you were to boil the movie down to a few sentences describing the physical action of the story, it would be something like - rebel pilot Poe Dameron loads essential information onto a droid in order to aid a terrorist group fighting a tyrannical government; meanwhile, his comrades concoct a plan to blow up a planet-sized ray gun.

    Rey is largely irrelevant to this story beyond harboring fugitive droid BB-8 for a bit and helping Han and Chewy on their mission to help destroy the space laser. Same goes for Finn; he helps free Poe, which is essential, then screws around for an hour before joining up to destroy the Death Starkiller Base thing. 

    So where does this leave the story, in terms of protagonists? You could reasonably argue the terrorists/rebels act as a single unit, and are collectively the protagonists. But if you had to pin it on a few characters, BB-8 and Poe Dameron are co-protagonists. The former has the goal of getting information to the rebels, the latter has the goal of first obtaining that information, later leading the charge to get it back (the Takodana sequence), then, finally, taking point in the mission to destroy the Starkiller base. 

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