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HERO WORSHIP: The Ever-Evolving Protagonist

Does a hero always have to be likeable and noble? Jon James Miller explores the evolution of a complicated, ever-evolving protagonist.

Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.

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I’ll never forget being in film school and watching The Godfather for the first time. Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent feat of filmmaking blew my mind. Everything from the cinematography to the soundtrack was exquisite. But the one standout above all else was Al Pacino’s epically heroic performance as Michael Corleone. I just couldn’t get over how a “bad guy” could be the hero.

Some might quibble and say that Michael Corleone is an anti-hero. A character, while sympathetic, does not qualify as a hero if they are not on the side of good and right. Still others, of which I am one, consider Michael to be a hero (at least in Part I) in that he keeps his family together. He is a hero because he fights those that would have his father the Don assassinated and wipe out his entire family line. His arc is no less heroic as any other protagonist simply because his family comes first.


I can see the point of view of both hero vs. anti-hero camps when it comes to The Godfather. What is fascinating, however, is the sea-change in narrative film The Godfather would make back in 1972 when it premiered. Contemporary films might as well have been shot in black and white for how clear-cut their hero portrayals were depicted. But immediately following The Godfather, cinematic heroes came to become more complex, complicated, and often times unsympathetic to the point of blurring the line between good and evil.

So what does the term “hero” mean in modern cinema today? Well, in the context of the story that the screenwriter is telling – a hero can mean anything from a demon trying to redeem his soul (think, Hellboy) to a family of vigilantes who attend grade and high school by day (Kick Ass, anyone?). But maybe a better, more accurate term for hero should be protagonist. Because a protagonist can literally be anyone as long as they are the leading character of your script. The only real requirement is that they command the audience’s attention. And, I would say, end up at least somewhat heroic in the end.

Michael Corleone was the protagonist of The Godfather because he was willing to sacrifice everything for his family. And while his intentions may have been good, his methods gradually became something else entirely. I tend to look at Michael’s character arc spread out over Part I and Part II. I consider Michael still “good” by the end of The Godfather. It is only in The Godfather, Part II that he becomes compromised, devoid of redemption and as a result - evil. That is what makes the The Godfather, Part II one of the best ever conceived and executed; the hero from the first movie becomes the villain of the sequel.

So what is a hero in today’s complicated cinematic universe? Since The Godfather Parts I and II filmmakers have been upping the ante when it comes to their main protagonists. Movie franchises from Mad Max to Silence of the Lambs (the Hannibal Lecter movies) push the boundaries of whether their main protagonists are heroes or villains. Even superheroes can’t simply rely on wearing colorful spandex to make them heroic anymore. Their backstories are exponentially more nuanced than the heroic main characters of yesteryear. And the more messed up their personal lives the more compelling they seem to be. Some are more anti-heroes than villains. Some are villains redeemed by their heroic efforts to protect and save the ones they love. Still others are evil except for one saving grace – the audience’s love them.

Looking back on the last decade in popular film, I can point to several heroes who have benefited greatly by once having been evil. Tony Stark aka Iron Man has become a classic example: an arms merchant who is transformed into a heroic figure, first out of the necessity to save his own life and then when his eyes are opened to the world of evil he helped create. Stark’s arc is a brilliant, modern-day take on a traditional anti or reluctant hero. The fact that he uses his powers for good not evil is a consequence of his conscience being raised to another level. His redemption is hardwired to the life he led before. It is the duality of Stark’s personality that elevates him beyond your average, costumed vigilante. And Tony looks positively heroic compared to many of his fellow Avengers.

Protagonists in contemporary cinema will never go away entirely. That’s because drama requires a central conflict between a protagonist (someone we root for) and an antagonist (someone we root against). That said there may be a very thin line separating them. What I love about Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, especially The Dark Knight, is that Batman and the Joker are very much alike: they are both social outcasts who go to extremes to achieve their desired outcomes. The fact that The Batman refuses to kill (and his belief that people are inherently good) really is the only true delineator between them. Neither will yield and/or kill the other because of both their character’s closely held beliefs. To a fantastic degree, their very existence is defined by the actions of the other. Their battle is never one-sided. But what makes The Batman the protagonist in The Dark Knight is not his fight to stop The Joker. Batman’s struggle is to save a city and a population that holds his very existence in contempt. And that is what makes him a hero.

Heroes will always be defined by the times. Our society has evolved since the 1970’s when Michael Corleone reflected the ambiguity of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Coppola would go on to delve into that ambiguity on a much larger scale in Apocalypse Now. Forty years on, popular cinema still mirrors our society’s moral and ethical vagaries through our heroes. More than ever, we want to believe in right over might on the screen when so much of our reality feels like the bad guys are constantly winning. We want to cheer someone on, no matter how flawed or messed up they may be – simply because they’re trying to right the wrongs of the world. Even though their actions may not be considered heroic by the standards of a bygone era.

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