Forgot the copout publicity scam from Batman Begins, and forget whatever the hell half-supernatural, half-publicity scam is passed for Ra’s al Ghul on Arrow. Everyone knows that the Batman: The Animated Series version of this classic DC supervillain is the real deal. Voiced by the great David Warner, this ambitious criminal has been trying to undermine humanity for its own good for centuries, and develops a fascinating relationship with our hero based on begrudging respect and the fact that Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter has a thing for the bat-suited detective.
Although his immortality may only last for a few thousand years (immortality is subjective, if you think about it), no one can say that Phil Connors didn’t make the most of his temporary godhood. Bill Murray plays a cynical TV weatherman who’s forced to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it just right, but before he figures it out he spends lifetimes doing whatever the hell he wants, including eating like there’s no tomorrow, robbing banks and kidnapping groundhogs.
The Time Lord from Gallifrey can live for thousands of years, and then get reborn and do it all over again. And even though he was only supposed to be able to do that 13 times, this BBC series is so beloved that they bypassed that supposed “rule” completely to give us more and more episodes of an old man who hangs out with young ladies, saves the universe and occasionally indulges in a strange series of fetishes, including Jelly Babies, fezzes and cardboard 3D glasses.
The elves from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy series can live forever, if you don’t kill them of course. And so we get characters like Lord Elrond, Galadriel and most popular of all, Legolas, the dreamy bowman from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and, perhaps unnecessarily, also the Hobbit movies. As played by Orlando Bloom, he’s probably the hunkiest racist in popular fiction, but at least he learns a valuable lesson about respecting dwarves by the end of the trilogy.
Another smooth-skinned megahunk from popular fiction, Captain Jack Harkness first appeared on Doctor Who as a smarmy Time Agent from the 51st century who - in a plot too weird to get into here - becomes an immortal. Harkness makes the most of his strange plight, saving the world multiple times and bedding babes from every gender and species, but over the course of his spin-off series Torchwood, he is also forced to endure the trauma of watching everyone he cares about die in unthinkable aways.
Is Logan an immortal? More or less, particularly if you believe the pseudoscience from his second solo movie, The Wolverine. Born in the 19th century and still looking pretty hunky by anyone’s standards, this badass mutant from the X-Men movies has fought in just about every major war, saved the world from his sexy crush and takes advantage of his mutant healing powers to smoke cigars long, long, long after they were socially acceptable.
In the action classic Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero is on the trail of the Holy Grail, which can supposedly bestow anyone who drinks from it with immortality. When he finally enters the room that contains the enchanted chalice, he finds a knight who has been living in isolation for centuries with nothing but a Bible to keep him company. He may be a minor character (played by Robert Eddison), but anyone who can live in isolation for dozens of lifetimes and still hang onto his sanity earns our respect.
The most badass installment of “Disney Afternoons,” a popular two-hour block of cartoons that aired weekday afternoons in the 1990s, was Gargoyles, an ambitious superhero saga about monsters from the Middle Ages who awake in present day New York City and do battle with sorcerers and billionaires. One of the most interesting characters (in a show with no shortage of them) was Macbeth, the Scottish King from Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy who - in “real life” - was cursed with immortality and now uses advanced technology to fight with or against the title heroes, depending on his motive from any particular episode.
The 1986 fantasy movie Highlander starred Christopher Lambert as a member of a race of immortal beings who fight each other for centuries, decapitating friends and enemies alike for the chance to win “The Prize.” Lambert starred in a series of films that varied in quality before the television series, which starred Adrian Paul as another member of the Macleod clan who just happens to also live forever. Fans continue debate over which Highlander was best, so we’ll just honor both factions here by declaring it a straight-up tie.
The godlike being from Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder and based on the comic book masterpiece by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, was once a scientist named Dr. Jonathan Osterman. When Osterman was disintegrated in an experiment, he became reborn as a blue-skinned, all-powerful being capable of unthinkable destruction and unthinkable creation. The boundless limits of Doctor Manhattan’s intelligence separate him from humanity, but give audiences a powerful glimpse of what it might be like to experience true omniscience.
Another immortal from Doctor Who (apparently this just happens a lot), Lady Me was born a viking before a chance encounter with The Doctor made it impossible for her to die. And sure enough, she turns up throughout the centuries, and also at the very end of existence itself. Played with a striking mix of cunning and vulnerability by Maise Williams (Game of Thrones), Lady Me became yet another breakout character for the BBC series, although to date she has yet to star in her own spin-off.
When we first meet the rambunctious Baron Munchausen in Terry Gilliam’s classic (but initially unsuccessful) fantasy, he is a crotchety old man who is ticked off that his life story has become fodder for fiction. But we soon learn that fiction makes Baron Munchausen, played wonderfully by John Neville, truly immortal… literally and figuratively. As our hero embarks on one fantastical adventure after another, he regains his youth and teaches everyone a valuable lesson about the enduring power of storytelling, and the positive attitudes that can make anybody young in spirit, no matter how old they actually are.
J.M. Barrie’s enduring creation - a boy who rebelled against maturity and lives in a fantasy world of his own devising, never growing old but never growing up either - is often played for fantastical wonder, overlooking the underlying tragedy of the character. Fortunately we have P.J. Hogan’s incredible 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan, which is full of thrilling fight sequences and overpoweringly gorgeous imagery, but which also embraces the bittersweetness of Peter’s tale. It’s wonderful that Peter lives in a land of mermaids and pirates, and utterly depressing that he will never leave.
In a way, aren’t we ALL immortal? The question sounds trite, but in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel and George Roy Hill’s impressive adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s a thought-provoking concept. The life story of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), from his early years to his unexpected final days as a sexually zoology project for aliens, plays out simultaneously. Slaughterhouse-Five argues that although we all technically die, it’s not the end. The forward progression of time is merely an illusion that can be overcome. We have always lived however long we lived, and that experience is what endures and matters.
What was supposed to be a one-off villain in the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation became one of the franchise’s most popular and enduring characters. Q (played with bemused condescension by John de Lancie), is an extra-dimensional being with godlike powers who can think of nothing better to do than screw with Captain Jean Luc Picard. The idea of a character who could do literally anything, but who chooses instead to be petty conniving, should make Q seem like a monster. Instead we actually grow to feel for him, as we eventually discover in Star Trek: Voyager that omnipotence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.