A version of this post originally ran in December 2013.
There’s a glut of dragons this weekend — big screens have the cute firebreathers of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and small screens have Game of Thrones’s troubling teens. We’ve placed twenty of the most memorable TV and movie dragons on a scale (scale!) from most to least badass. In the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, we’ve labeled their finest assets and gravest liabilities as “Natural 20” and “Critical Hit,” respectively. Flame on!
King Ghidorah, Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster (and others)
Three heads, two tails, no arms, and a number of battles with Godzilla over the years.
Natural 20: Godzilla’s biggest nemesis is not of this Earth. (Technically, he is from Earth’s Cretaceous period, but he spent 130 million years in space.) He alternates between breathing fire, lightning, and gravity beams. But it’s his wingspan, so huge that just a few flaps can cause a hurricane, that is his greatest weapon.
Critical Hit: The King of Terror’s badass swagger makes him his own worst enemy. He is so powerful that all the other monsters join forces to defeat him. Yeah, he could probably take on Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan on their own — but all three? Not a chance. This ability to inspire teamwork in his enemies is the biggest weakness.
Vermithrax Pejorative, Dragonslayer
Terrorizer of Urland, annual devourer of virgins. Star of groundbreaking kids’ film.
Natural 20: That name. Clearly, that name. Walt Disney’s 1981 high-fantasy epic has a lot of things going for it. Yes, celebrated effects guys like Phil Tippet, Ken Ralston, and Brian Johnson all worked together to bring this mighty flying villain to life. Sure, legendary British stage actor Ralph Richardson played the sorcerer Ulrich of Craggenmore. And there was a surprising amount of onscreen nudity for a kids’ film (good ol’$2 1981). But, really, nothing touches that name.
Critical Hit: Vermithrax doesn’t think before he claws. When he grabs Ralph Richardson, all our young hero Galen (Peter MacNicol) has to do is smash an amulet to destroy the mighty dragon, owing to some folkloric mind-body-exploding ordinance transference.
Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty
Third act stunner in Disney’s 1959 animated classic.
Natural 20: The Mistress of Evil transformed by “all the powers of Hell!” has a little something extra that makes her badass: green fire. Even at her most wicked, the beautiful-looking Maleficent has an eye toward sharp design.
Critical Hit: Poor depth perception. Maleficent gets hit with Prince Philip’s hurled, charmed sword, but that isn’t what does her in. She lunges at him, misses, and doesn’t realize that her weight is too much for the elegantly drawn cliff on which she stands, thus falling to her doom.
Unnamed Dragon Inspired by Fafnir, Die Nibelungen
First act hurdle in Siegfried’s warrior quest from that other epic “Ring” fantasy.
Natural 20: Fritz Lang’s 1924 film includes cinema’s first kickass dragon. Sure, it’s not all that agile, but consider that a team of seventeen UFA technicians brought the 50-foot beast to life with no clear road map (several of them had to crouch inside the rubber skin and wooden interior, fanning smoke out of its mouth!).
Critical Hit: The dragon’s blood makes you invincible. This is, like, the REVERSE of the deal from Alien. Really not a smart play.
Fell Beasts, Lord of the Rings
The terrifying winged steeds of the Nazgul.
Natural 20: The enormous creatures that serve as aerial transport for the Ringwraiths may not technically be dragons (maybe wyverns?), but we’re not gonna stick around to ask to see their papers. Their wingspans are gigantic, their fangs frightening, and their screams rattle the nerves. Their most nightmarish quality, however, is on display during the battle of Minas Tirath, when they swoop down and just grab warriors and fling them to their doom like rag dolls.
Critical Hit: The Fell Beasts don’t appear to have a specific liability. They may just be that badass. True, the good guys ultimately win in The Lord of the Rings, so they clearly aren’t invincible ± but against foes other than Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli, they may just be. The fact that they may not technically be dragons (or breathe fire) is the only thing keeping them down, perhaps.
An awesome, altruistic dragon with a bit of a plucky, huckster’s streak.
Natural 20: Draco is large and fearsome but is a cut above other dragons owing to his (cobblestone) street smarts. He is surely the only dragon known to put on fake-slaying scams for profit. Nevertheless, Draco’s biggest asset is his voice — the dulcet Scottish tones of Sean Connery in one of the most fun performances of his career.
Critical Hit: It’s right there in the title: his heart. In a literal sense, as a part of his heart has been transplanted into the evil King, thus connecting the fate of the two. But, also, Draco is just too good for this world!
Taraakian Beast, Heavy Metal
The transportation method of choice for the adolescent boy fantasy at the end of this animated film from 1981.
Natural 20: Inspired by the art Jean “Moebius” Giraud, this fearsome winged monster shows up in the final few minutes of “Heavy Metal” with a mostly naked warrior princess riding him into battle. The greatest strength of this creature: working in concert with this vision of harsh sexuality to get every teenage boy of the eighties to rent this VHS. The movie itself is mostly Eugene Levy jokin’ around to Donald Fagen tunes.
Critical Hit: Blind loyalty. The beast (which, to be fair, kinda looks like a giant beige chicken) puts up no fight when its owner, the butt-floss-wearin’ Taarna, decides to ride straight into an erupting volcano. (Interpretations concerning the creature’s reincarnation in the film’s epilogue exist, but that’s after midnight talk only, man.)
Tiamat, Dungeons & Dragons
The frightening but benign five-headed hydra and foe to the evil Venger, and chief reason for getting up on a Saturday in the early eighties.
Natural 20: Five heads are better than one. Especially if they are as bright and colorful as the sugar-charged cereal we gobbled while watching this seldom-bested fantasy Saturday Morning cartoon. Tiamat’s central red head speaks and breathes fire. The others shriek and spew acid (black head), electrical bolts (blue head), poisonous gas (green head), or blasts of cold air that will freeze you where you stand (white head). There will be a quiz on this later.
Critical Hit: Dragonbane. This herb that grows in the Tardos Keep is, indeed, the bane of her existence.
Quetzalcaotl, Q: The Winged Serpent
Aztec deity newly moved to New York in 1982 VHS classic.
Natural 20: Manhattan’s most fearsome illegal alien has, above everything else, exquisite taste. She makes her nest in the Art Deco crown of the Chrysler Building. Bonus points for counting awesome character actors like Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, and Malachy McCourt (!) as her foes.
Critical Hit: Q succumbs to an aerial assault meant to evoke the original King Kong. So not only is she bested, but she’s bested in very unoriginal way.
The Dragons from Reign of Fire, Reign of Fire
Numerous, awesomely rendered harbingers of the apocalypse from this quite amusing 2002 flick.
Natural 20: Perhaps their greatest weapon is Nationalist Hubris. Here are the Brits, thinkin’ they’re sooooo coooool with their rich, centuries-deep folklore. Not so funny when fire-breathing dragons are lighting up Trafalgar, eh, Tommy Atkins?
Critical Hit: Triangulation. Don’t worry about the specifics, just … triangulation. The best part of the whole movie is Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale and Alexander Siddig screaming about “setting the triangulator!!”
Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion, Game of Thrones
The funeral-pyre-birthed spawn of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targarayen and Khal Drogo, and focus of more than one inspired cliff-hanger.
Natural 20: The children of the Mother of Dragons are still small and scrappy enough to keep indoors, but definitely deadly if you need to engulf your enemies in deadly fire. Drogon wins extra points of the three for being a play on words (named after his late “father” Khal Drogo, but also, you know, a dragon).
Critical Hit: Easily dragonnapped by the Warlocks of Qarth. Also, they are clearly a budget concern for HBO, so they don’t get a lot of screen time. Ranking may change after upcoming seasons.
Dragon, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
Ray Harryhausen’s cave guardian from the 1958 classic.
Natural 20: It’s all about the razor-sharp teeth with this guy. Once he gets you in his maw, it’s all over. Even the mighty, braying Cyclops is no match — though the throwdown match between them is among the highlights of Harryhausen’s career.
Critical Hit: A bolt from a giant cross-bow to the jugular. Doesn’t matter how tough his scaly hide is, when Kerwin Matthews (Sinbad the Sailor) and his gang all HEAVE as one to pull back the enormous arrow, the dragon is a goner.
Celestial Dragon, Dragon Wars: D-War
The transformed Imugi serpent at the climax of the 2007 South Korean–produced special effects giant.
Natural 20: The battling Imugi are vicious and loud and don’t care how much collateral damage they cause. But once the Good Imugi takes its ultimate form, part of what puts him over the top, oddly, are his tiny arms. I guess the sharp claws are enough of a differentiator. Also: Tremendous whiskers give the Celestial Dragon a classic Asian dragon look.
Critical Hit: Becoming a celestial dragon takes a whole lot of work. You start out as a Good Imugi, sloshing around in the ocean, then you have to wait around for the Yeouiju spirit, encased in a reincarnated woman, to mature. The Yeoiujiu is the last step you need to change and, frankly, this all sounds rather complex.
Norbert, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Hagrid’s pet dragon that, if you read the books, turned out to be a girl (and was renamed Norberta).
Natural 20: In addition to having fire-breath and venom in his fangs, Norbert’s need to stay secret was among the first tasks that helped forge the Harry-Ron-Hemoine troika that later defeated Voldemort. Coincidence? If you say so.
Critical Hit: Ownership of a Norwegian Ridgeback like Norbert can get you fired from Hogwarts.
Chinese Myth Dragon, “Snorlax Owns” Video of 2006
While only seen for an instant, he makes quite an impression in that one “Pokemon” episode.
Natural 20: The two stoned knuckleheads from Staten Island (probably) are already freaking out before this airborne creature makes his appearance. His simple presence is enough to cause incredulity in observers. (The simultaneous cries of “what the fu*k?!!” are something to be heard.)
Critical Hit: The Chinese Myth Dragon from “Snorlax Owns” was just a little before his time. Yes, he inspired some YouTube remixes but just imagine if he were around now in the time of Vine, Instagram, and ubiquitous hashtags?
Falkor, The Neverending Story
A puppy-faced off-white winged beast that unites Gen-X and Gen-Y adult children alike. Also, a defendant in Troy McLure’s class-action lawsuit.
Natural 20: Falkor isn’t just a dragon — he’s a luckdragon. Others may rely on sharp talons or fire breath, but things just have a tendency to just work out for ol’ Falkor.
Critical Hit: Falkor had a real “teachable moment” on his paws with Bastian Balthazar Bux. But instead of expressing the importance of turning the other cheek, he succumbs to baser impulses and gives in to revenge — chasing BBB’s bullies into an alley, then a Dumpster, all the while giddily howling. This is not growth.
Spike, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic
A purple and green baby dragon and Consiglierie to Twilight Sparkle.
Natural 20: Spike has magic green fire breath, but uses this mostly to send scrolls back and forth between Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle. (Let’s call this D-Mail.) And the ability to burp smoke letters. Spike also eats gems and looks SOOOO CUTE with them stuffed in his mouth.
Critical Hit: He’s madly in love with Rarity, the snottiest and most self-centered of the Friendship Ponies. He totally twists his personality, acting like a real pill when she’s around.
The wise-crackin’ guardian Chinese dragon to a Disney princess, voiced by Eddie Murphy.
Natural 20: Looks very fearsome in silhouette. His fast-talking-ness comes in handy whilst scheming, or making breakfast in the shape of a happy face. Also, significantly less annoying than Robin Williams’s genie from Aladdin. Put these together and you may have something.
Critical Hit: Easily trampled. Mushu is, in fact, quite small.
Puff, the Magic Dragon, Puff, the Magic Dragon
The only Burgess Meredith–voiced marijuana joke.
Natural 20: His friendship has the power to turn the shy Jackie Paper into a more confident child through a magical journey to a land called Honalee.
Critical Hit: He’s naked except for a bow tie. That’s just weird.
Eliot, Pete’s Dragon
Cartoon best buddy dragon of a raggedy orphan in a live-action Disney film from 1979.
Natural 20: In addition to flight and fire-breath, Pete’s dragon can become invisible. Makes for moments of family-friendly hilarity.
Critical Hit: He lives in Maine, so forever in the shadow of Stephen King and Hawkeye Pierce.