A Definitive Ranking of Movie Titles Named After Their Main Character
A movie title is a statement. It’s on the poster. It’s at the front of a movie. It tells an audience what they’re in for and what kind of experience they can expect. So what does it mean when that title just a name?
This is a topic that has been driving movie fans nuts every since Disney shortened the title of ‘John Carter of Mars’ to far more boring ‘John Carter’ and Paramount decided to name the adaptation of Lee Child’s ‘One Shot’ after its lead character, transforming it into ‘Jack Reacher.’ This naming convention is certainly not new, but it is still very much a thing: ‘John Wick’ just hit Blu-ray and DVD and ‘Victor Frankenstein’ is scheduled for release later this year.
While a title is a statement, if often doesn’t matter. People would have learned that ‘John Wick’ was a crazy and great action movie if it was titled ‘Dog Avenger’ or ‘Headshot Extraordinaire.’ ‘John Carter’ would have received those middling reviews even if audiences were helpfully informed that the film took place on a different planet. People would have made fun of (a really good) ‘Jack Reacher’ no matter what it was called because the short Tom Cruise was playing a famously tall character.
In other words, these titles mean nothing in the long run! Which is why we decided to embark on the totally stupid and completely pointless task of ranking them.
This list is not about quality. In fact, it will be only time you ever see ‘Corky Romano’ ranked above a Steven Soderbergh movie on any list. This list is about knee-jerk reactions to names. If you name your movie after your main character and only your main character, you are immediately assuming the name is compelling enough to command your attention. This is not about whether or not a movie is good; this is entirely about whether or not a simple character name can, by itself, get your butt in the theater.
This is important work.
Since every list requires a bunch of dumb caveats and rules, here are the barriers we put up to keep the riff-raff off this Super Important list:
1. The title must feature a full name. Titles that only feature a first or last name (like ‘Charly’ or ‘Locke’) are disqualified. Sorry ‘Rob Roy,’ but you are one “MacGregor” away from placing.
2. The title can only be one full name. Duos or teams are disqualified.
3. Movie titles that feature a full name as part of a longer title (‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’) are disqualified. The title must be the name and the name alone.
4. Nicknames or titles are not allowed, so sorry ‘Patch Adams,’ but here is yet another list where you will be forgotten.
5. If the title of the movie was the title of a pre-existing book, comic or play, you are disqualified. An existing title lends that name popularity and notoriety, which means this naming convention makes sense in these specific cases. This means ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Dick Tracy’ and others are disqualified. However, films like ‘Jack Reacher’ are not disqualified, because the book series it’s based on doesn’t actually feature a book called ‘Jack Reacher.’
And thus our list begins! Remember, this was created using methods that cannot be debated or argued against. This is final and no one is allowed to disagree with it.
47. ‘Michael Collins’
An incredible true story deserves an incredible title. This sounds like the biopic of a cocktail.
46. ‘Veronica Guerin’
Our second true story in a row about the fascinating life of an important Irish person! The second title in a row to sound like the professor of a college class you will never take!
45. ‘Billy Elliot’
44. ‘Harry Brown’
Nothing about this title implies that the movie is actually about Michael Caine ruthlessly killing young people. Everything about this title implies that the lead character is old and British.
43. ‘Vera Drake’
Director Mike Leigh doesn’t give a sh*t about what his movies are titled and he certainly doesn’t care about what you think about the titles of his movies.
42. ‘Simon Birch’
41. ‘Antwone Fisher’
With no disrespect meant to the real guy, that is one of the least marketable names of all time.
40. ‘Barry Lyndon’
An epic scope! Intense life-or-death duels! Sounds like your eighth grade science teacher!
39. ‘Charlie Bartlett’
This is the kind of thing that happens when the writer of the screenplay just flat-out think of a better title.
38. ‘Billy Madison’
History has transformed this name after-the-fact into a promise of juvenile, absurd comedy. By itself, it might as well be about a young British boy who wants to learn ballet.
37. ‘Ned Kelly’
The life story of Ned Kelly is crazy enough to inspire all kinds of dramatic titles. Really. Unfortunately, most of the world has no idea who Ned Kelly was.
36. ‘John Carter’
‘John Carter of Mars’ promises a very ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. ‘John Carter’ promises an ordinary guy doing ordinary guy stuff.
35. ‘Alex Cross’
The name itself? Eh. But the awesomely dumb tagline, “Don’t ever cross Alex Cross” comes oh-so-close to redeeming this thing.
34. ‘Erin Brockovich’
Here we go: a name that, while not spectacular, at least stands out from the pack because it doesn’t sound like someone you already know. That name, combined with Julia Roberts’ face on the poster, is a winner.
33. ‘Michael Clayton’
This the female version of ‘Erin Brockovich,’ with George Clooney’s handsome mug making that striking, if still slightly ordinary name have a little more authority.
32. ‘Charley Varrick’
Part of the beauty of ‘Charley Varrick’ is how its hero, played by the great Walther Matthau, is a blue collar guy working a violent gig (crime!). The title is only great in retrospect.
31. ‘Jerry Maguire’
The poster is important here. No one gives a crap about Jerry Maguire, but a lot of people give a crap about ‘Jerry Maguire’ if he’s played by Tom Cruise. Bonus points for a name that sounds like an actual name without actually being a name that no human being has ever had, ever.
30. ‘Bob Roberts’
Here it is: a name so intentionally boring that its comedic intent rings loud and clear. Well done!
29. ‘Donnie Brasco’
That’s the kind of name that smells like cheap scotch and cigarettes. You hear that name and you visualize shady men huddling meeting in the back alley behind bars, making devious plans. It’s subtle, but works context-free!
28. ‘Fred Claus’
“Wait a second. Are you telling me his last name is Claus but his first name isn’t Santa? Say whaaaaa-?!” (Buys ticket.)
27. ‘Ed Wood’
People who actually know the name Edward D. Wood Jr. must have salivated at the thought of this movie. Sadly, there were maybe 12 people in that situation in 1994. But so much excited drool!
26. ‘Dom Hemingway’
If you’re going to name your movie after a made up name, you might as well imply that he’s a combination of Marlon Brando playing a mobster and the greatest writer of the 20th century. That doesn’t hurt at all.
25. ‘Annie Hall’
‘Annie Hall’ literally couldn’t have been titled anything else. So it gets points for that. But it gets extra points for being called ‘Annie Hall’ and still beating ‘Star Wars’ at the Oscars. Take that, nerds!
24. ‘Corky Romano’
Here’s a case where a genuinely terrible movie gets ranked higher because it’s silly, slightly more memorable title has a bit more spring in its step than the competition. Sorry, good movies!
23. ‘Veronica Mars’
Veronica Mars is a great name for a fictional detective. However, it gets docked a few points for being the same title as the TV series that introduced her.
22. ‘Nancy Drew’
Hey, look! Another noteworthy female detective! The big screen adaptation of the classic kids’ mystery series leaves the famous name and ditches all of the unnecessary words that populate the cover of an actual Nancy Drew mystery. After all, no one really cares about the secret of the old clock or the password to Larkspur Lane. They just care about the gal at the center of it all.
21. ‘Sherlock Holmes’
And here we conclude our fictional detective trilogy! None of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or novels are actually titled ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ but there’s no way you can title a lavish blockbuster ‘The Sign of Four.’ Plus, Sherlock Holmes was a great name over a century ago and it’s a great name now. You say the name and everyone knows what your movie is about.
20. ‘Robin Hood’
Like with Sherlock Holmes, everyone knows the name Robin Hood. However, most Robin Hood movies place the character’s name in a longer title, like ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ or ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.’ Therefore, the only eligible movie for this list is the animated Disney version. You know, the one starring the cartoon fox. But hey. at least everyone will know going in that the cartoon fox steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
19. ‘Marie Antoinette’
Anyone who paid attention in history class for five minutes knows about Marie Antoinette. They may not know much about her beyond that famous “Let them eat cake!” quote, but name recognition is name recognition. Mmmm, cake.
18. ‘John Wick’
The tagline for ‘John Wick’ is “Don’t set him off.” Because, wick. Get it? Of course you do. You’re a smart person. That instantly elevates the name into something just campy enough to earn your attention. It’s the movie itself that makes it legendary.
17. ‘Rover Dangerfield’
If you’re going to cast Rodney Dangerfield as the voice of a cartoon dog, you might as well embrace it.
16. ‘Jack Frost’
This is a movie about a man whose actual given name is Jack Frost. And then he dies and comes back as a magical snowman. This f---ing movie, man. But that title certainly gets the job done.
15. ‘Black Dynamite’
The only reason ‘Black Dynamite’ isn’t top 10 material is because actual blaxploitation titles are cooler than any old parody. Still, Black Dynamite is one helluva character name.
14. ‘Cat Ballou’
‘Cat Ballou’ drops most of its source novel’s title and transforms a dramatic western tale into a comedy. Probably a good choice, since ‘Cat Ballou’ screams “Lee Marvin goofing off” and not anything else.
13. ‘Jack Reacher’
The center of the whole “character names as titles suck” debate, ‘Jack Reacher’ is actually a much better title than people give it credit for. First of all, it’s a significantly better title than that of the source novel, ‘One Shot.’ More importantly, the sheer number of bad jokes about the title have made this (actually really good) movie immortal.
12. ‘Wyatt Earp’
Here we go! Here’s a name that promises shootouts and adventures and tough talk and horses and whiskeys and saloons. ‘Tombstone’ may be the better movie, but ‘Wyatt Earp’ lets you know what’s up.
11. ‘Malcolm X’
Here’s a name that promises drama and turmoil and sticky moral situations and societal commentary and Denzel Washington dramatically pointing at other really good actors while delivering monologues. The name ‘Malcolm X’ should trigger an immediate, dramatic reaction in just about everyone.
10. ‘Pootie Tang’
As far as blaxploitation parody titles go, ‘Pootie Tang’ dropkicks ‘Black Dynamite’ through a suspiciously thin apartment wall.
9. ‘Donnie Darko’
That’s the kind of title that shouts at you from the shelf of your local blockbuster in the year 2002: Rent me. I am weird and I am edgy and I’m dark. It’s in the title. Trust me. I’m a movie title.
8. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’
If you created a computer that was programmed specifically to generate quirky character names for indie comedies, it would never be able to top ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’ You know exactly what you’re getting into with this one.
7. ‘Edward Scissorhands’
“Wait a second. Are you telling me this guy’s got scissors for hands? Say whaaaaa-?!” (Buys ticket.)
6. ‘Barton Fink’
Barton Fink is one of the greatest character names of all time, so it earns instant admittance into the top 10 on that strength alone. Just say it out loud. Barton Fink. Barton Fink. Baaarton ... Fiiiiink...
5. ‘Max Payne’
Max Payne is his name, but it also lets his enemies know what he has in store for them! Get it? Okay. Um. Well, in this particular case, “Payne” is a homonym. See what we’re saying? Okay. You’re still confused. Let’s back up. You see, Max is a name, but it also means “the greatest quantity or value attainable or attained—”
4. ‘Cleopatra Jones’
That name means business! Seriously, find two words that promise more ass-kickery and we’ll put you in charge of making a big dumb list where you rank movie titles.
3. ‘Speed Racer’
“Wait a second. Are you telling me that ‘Speed Racer’ is his name and his profession? Say whaaaaa-?!” (Buys ticket.)
2. ‘Rocky Balboa’
Sylvester Stallone knows you’re into this whole nostalgia thing. He knows you know that the main character in ‘Rocky’ is named Rocky Balboa. He knows he can get you to take him seriously by making a new ‘Rocky’ movie that doesn’t have a Roman numeral in the title. This is a name that creeps into your soul, man. Your soul.
1. ‘Jackie Brown’
Here’s a name that radiates confidence. It’s tough but feminine. It wears the film’s blaxploitation influences on its sleeve without being on the nose. Plus, the character herself earns the right to have the movie named after her about 30 seconds into the running time. All hail ‘Jackie Brown.’