It has to be his evil highness, Lord Vader. That’s what Kellerman reasoned then, and I still can’t think of a better answer.
“Created solely for motion pictures” excludes a host of household names: Superman and the rest of the long-underwear brigade, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Vito Corleone, Flash Gordon, Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, Mary Poppins, The Lone Ranger, Hannibal Lecter, Harry Potter, Zorro, Snow White, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy, to name a few. (Technically speaking, Vader first appeared in the novel Star Wars, six months before the film. But even more technically speaking, that book was based on the film’s screenplay.)
Other characters that were (to my knowledge) born on the silver screen, like the Terminator, Jack Sparrow, Freddie Krueger, Indiana Jones, “Dirty” Harry, or Rocky Balboa, certainly are all recognizable, but are they iconic – and if so, in the same way as Vader’s metal-faced, black-clad figure?
Then there are cinephile characters like Travis Bickle, Annie Hall, Jeffrey Lebowski, Norman Bates, Charles Foster Kane, The Man With No Name, and Tyler Durden. But while those names are known to even casual movie buffs, I’d wager the general populace can’t name their respective films.
E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, could have given Vader a run for his money. When I was a kid, you couldn’t escape the slimy little slug. He was just everywhere: toys, commercials, fast food tie-ins. At one point the all-time highest grossing movie (not adjusted for inflation), E.T. never became what Star Wars did: A blockbuster series that spawned a merchandising revolution. And although the character appealed to young children and sentimental adults, it couldn’t capture long term interest among the broad, zeitgeist-pushing middle swath of pre-teens, adolescents, young adults, and – most importantly – geeks. E.T. fizzled out.
We also have King Kong and Godzilla. Famous in their day, for sure. You’d have to go back to the ’30s and ’60s, respectively, and gauge these behemoths’ Q-scores against Vader’s today. I can’t say for sure, but something tells me the Force is with Vader.
That leaves one character created in moving pictures (that I can think of) that can beat out big bad Lord Vader. That character is Mickey Mouse, who dropped in on our lives in a 1929 animated short. (Bugs Bunny, too, first appeared in animation, but it’s difficult to argue that the wascally wabbit comes close to Mickey’s worldwide recognition.) He is probably more famous than Darth Vader, but giving the nod to Mickey feels like a technicality. If we require that the debut must have been a feature-length film, Mickey is out.
But even if Vader is second to Mickey Mouse, that is no small feat, considering the character’s limits and nature. His face is hidden most of the time and we cannot see his mouth move when he speaks. He is a ruthless dictator, rather than a noble hero or cute anthropomorphic rodent. In fact Vader is so vile that we see him order the destruction of a peaceful planet, duel and kill an elderly man (his old friend, in fact), murder well-meaning generals for their incompetence, slice off his son’s hand, and throw his boss down an elevator shaft and into deep space. (Some people might have empathized with that last act.) Ultimately we are told that not even Darth Vader is beyond redemption, but the world clearly fell in love with his unabashedly evil side. Deeper minds than mine can divine what that says about humanity.
Darth Vader – cinema’s most famous character. Or have I left anyone out? You tell me.