The Reason All Modern Movie Protagonists Have To Be 'Likable'
Welcome to Cracked's Secret Rules Of Movies, a series where we will someday reveal the singular Secret Rule of Movies (it's “everybody involved in the production had student loans"). Check out our previous installments on the three-act structure and the hero's journey.
Hello, and welcome once again to my column, Old Man Yells About Movies. I’m actually not that old, but I’ve seen the demo breakdowns for this site and I know I’m practically ancient compared to you kids. Please don’t Logan’s Run me during the climate apocalypse. I’m affable and funny! You might even think of me as a likable protagonist, which is what we’re here to talk about today, rather than my rapidly failing familiarity with youth culture.
What’s the Rule?
In the era of leaded gasoline and trans fats, it was common to make movies about a guy who sucks. No corollary, no redemption: just an unabashed jerk of Wagnerian proportions. Literally last night I watched a film called Sisters of Death (1976). It’s about a group of sorority girls slowly being killed off one by one in a mansion. The “heroes” of this story are two dudes who sneak into the mansion – not because they want to help a group of young women who are trapped in an Ominous Humphouse, but because they want to perv on them and see them naked without their permission. “Boy, you really are horny, aren’t you?” says one to the other. These are our protagonists. They’re not here to help, they’re here to satisfy their polyester-clad peens. Helping is just something they do begrudgingly on their quest to commit sex crimes.
But Why, Though?
This kind of thing used to be common, and not just in the 70s. But then something happened. If you’re a fan of mine, a real Will Head, you probably know where this is going: that’s right, I am once again invoking screenwriting guru and frequent villain of my columns, Blake Snyder. I won’t spend too much time on this since I’ve written about this before, but in 2005 he published a screenwriting manual called Save the Cat!. It’s hugely popular in screenwriting circles. There’s a lot of advice in there I find questionable, but none moreso than Snyder’s exhortation that a protagonist be “likable.” Having a protagonist that’s “likable” is kind of a loaded term, since it can mean someone who is charismatic, or interesting, or compelling, or whatever. But in a post-Save the Cat! world, Snyder’s emphasis on a likable protagonist has been (mis?)interpreted to mean someone that you, personally, like.
It’s actually what he meant by “save the cat:” Snyder says scripts should have a moment where we see the protagonist do something unequivocally nice, like saving a cat stuck in a tree or other things that only seem to happen in 1930s cartoons. Perhaps removing the scourge of banana peels from sidewalks or roping off areas where inept moving-men are hauling a piano up on a rusted winch?
I should probably note here that creatives I know, professional writers, frequently use Snyder’s writing to help with their own work. These are my friends, people whose creative abilities I respect deeply, so maybe I’m in the wrong here. (History has shown that this is likely the case.) But, in my estimation, Snyder’s insistence (or people’s misinterpretation of his work) has been an unmitigated disaster for the film industry on par with Walt Disney naming names before the HUAC or the Hays Code making it illegal to make movies cool.
The theory is that by having a protagonist that audiences like on an interpersonal level, it’s easier to make them invested in what happens to said character. My own personal theory is that how much audiences require written down has been grossly overestimated over the years, and also that if you just write interesting stuff they won’t care what the moral qualities the hero possesses. And if they do, just use the oldest filmmaking trick in the book: cast someone super hot to play the character. Is Eva Green busy? What about Joanna Kulig? Is Kat Dennings still under that contract with Marvel where if she acts in anything else they legally get put her in cryostasis? Yes, I, like a Disturbed cover band whose singer has a lisp, am down with the thickness.
Just look up JuggLover69’s (an account NOT made by me, definitely not) IMDb list of “Most Breastacular Actresses” and nobody will care how much casual murder your protagonist gets up to – this is essentially Russ Meyer’s entire raison d’etre and something European cinema has understood since at least the French New Wave. Just ask Roger Ebert if you think I’m BS-ing you.
Sorry, this took a weird turn. It might seem like I’m being unnecessarily vulgar here but I’m a strong proponent of more nudity in film. It’s not just horniness if it’s art, and it’s not just lurid showcases of people being horrible if they have hot accents!
Don’t believe me? Look where having a likable protagonist has gotten us in mainstream cinema. Polemic morality plays of trite Aesopian simplicity. And, worse than that, a quick ‘n’ easy shortcut to ‘likable’ protagonists is to make them snarky. Whedonesque quips rule the mainstream. And here’s the thing about quips: they’re never even really quips anymore. They’re just reactions! “Uh, that just happened” is not a joke, it’s just a twinge of genre-shame. There’s no pun or juxtaposition or wordplay. Remember this?
I’m sorry, “puny god?” That’s it? That’s the tag on the scene? Not “god is dead” or “HULK A KANTIAN THEO-NIHILIST AND NO BELIEVE IN GOD!”? Or, even better, why does the Hulk need a walkoff line at all? Isn’t he supposed to be a horrifying ragemonster? Isn’t that, like, the whole point of the Hulk? He doesn’t need zingers, but if you really feel like he does maybe at least put some effort into them.
Okay, But What if You Didn’t?
Luckily you don’t need to look too far to find examples. TV especially seems to have been at the forefront of the anti-likable protagonist crusade. Walter White, Don Draper, Nucky Thompson: these guys are all huge pieces of crap. Don Draper wouldn’t save a drowning man if he just got the Thompson’s Life Jacket account and had gotten a lifetime supply of Thompson’s Life Jackets as a signing bonus – but he would probably reflect on the futility of changing one’s nature afterwards. But here’s the other thing about those guys: they’re all compelling. We don’t like them because we want to be their friends. Maybe this is a simple semantic failure, but we “like” them in the sense we can’t look away.
The sea change in television likable protagonists probably started, like the popularity of the ‘car cigar’ and the Internet’s fascination with gabagool, with Tony Soprano. We can debate Tony’s morality all day, but for my money we pinpoint where the change started: Season one, episode five (“College”). This is the episode where we see Tony strangling a snitch who had gone into witness protection. HBO was so worried that audiences would stop liking Tony that they made showrunner David Chase include a minor plot point that the snitch had begun selling drugs to children to make the garroting go down a little easier. In retrospect, it’s kind of comical how hamfisted it is – usually the most hamfisted things on The Sopranos are Tony’s fistfuls of ham. But audiences didn’t stop tuning in to The Sopranos. In fact, it became more popular than ever, proving that audiences are hungry for morally complicated protagonists and also yearn for fantasy worlds where Italians are real.
Of course, it’s also not particularly hard to find films without a likable protagonist if you look outside the Disney bubble. Morally gray characters are one of the hallmarks of film noir, as the protagonists are often traumatized from what they saw in war. This leaves them cynical, nihilistic, and often with crippling addictions to Rotgut Rudy’s Whiskey-By-The-Gallon™ and dizzy dames with jumbo bazungas that could blind a Bronx pimp. And if you want a more modern example, check out Nightcrawler.
Jake Gyllenhal brings a manic “I-just-haven’t-found-the-right-cult-yet” energy to his role as a news videographer. I don’t want to spoil too much, so suffice to say this movie is a commentary on “hustle culture” and possibly how much cutthroat competition exists under the veneer of community in Los Angeles. It’s not a story of redemption: it’s the story of a dude who keeps gleefully falling to new lows to get what he wants and is rewarded for it. Or as we know it today, “freelance writing.”
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: HBO