TENET and The Art of The Protagonist

What makes a good protagonist? It’s not all that many steps removed from the question “what makes a good character?” but you might be surprised how often a protagonist is the least interesting character within their own story. Think of your favorite story. It can be a movie, a drama series, a battle shonen, etc. Is your favorite character the central protagonist, or one of the side characters?

I’m betting most people rally behind the mysterious side character, or a fan-favorite jokester, or some super adorable lad/lass/non-binary ass that steals your heart. And this never is necessarily a condemnation of the protagonist in question. Most times, it’s a case of the protagonist being “good” but a certain character just being “better.”

But the tenets (ha) of creating a compelling main character seem to be graded on a different curve than other characters. The protagonist is the central character of a story after all. They serve as the vessel for either the audience to inhabit or otherwise follow from a distance. There are as many ways to frame a protagonist as there are ways to tackle a character, period. But when a main character seems uninteresting, the reasons as to why are fascinating to me.

Consider the late Chadwick Boseman’s performance as King T’Challa in Black Panther. Very often, even among die-hard fans of that film, you will find people criticizing T’Challa as a boring character in his own film. It was a pretty staggering shift, considering that the character’s cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War saw many people praising him as the best part of that film.

It seems the general consensus was that T’Challa seemed dull and lacked charisma compared to his debut. He was also overshadowed by other characters and the performances offered by a spectacular cast therein. In my own assessment, I would say that people were more interested in T’Challa in Civil War for the dramatic irony of his role. In that movie, he sought vengeance for his father’s death, a murder that was blamed on Bucky Barnes, putting T’Challa in opposition to the film’s protagonist, Steve Rogers.

His motives are understood and his mission is presented with the flare of a force of nature, but it’s an arc more suited to his role as a secondary character than as the main hero. What I find fascinating is that T’Challa in Civil War and Killmonger, the villain in Black Panther are very similar. Both seek vengeance, both ooze intimidating presence in each scene, and both teeter on the edge of self-destruction due to their anger.

The difference is that T’Challa learned the truth and gave up vengeance in exchange for justice in Civil War. So in Black Panther, it makes sense that he would be a far more composed and less emotional hero who appreciates the gravity of their responsibility, even if they might falter. Regardless, people still felt underwhelmed by T’Challa. So was this direction a mistake? No, not in the slightest. Characters should always grow, even in slight ways. The difference is that they should always “have character.”

“What the hell does that mean Matt?” I hear you ask at such a redundant-sounding statement.

The way I see it, “being a character” is a status. It’s what you say when someone asks what kind of person a character is. But “having character” is an act of screenwriting. They are learning more and changing. They are growing or regressing. They are developing, or the mask is being pulled off of them and the audience sees the kind of person they are.

Why have I spent five paragraphs and about 387 words talking about Black Panther in a post with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in the title? Because I think there are more subtle ways to create a compelling protagonist, and after reflecting on Tenet, I think the unnamed Protagonist, played by John David Washington, is pretty damn cool.

But why? How? And what can be learned from this character?

Part I | “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago”

Putting aside Tenet’s incredibly ambitious science-fiction trappings, the entire film is Christopher Nolan’s love letter to the spy films of yore, the same films he grew up watching. I love this and not just because I grew up loving spies too. I love that Nolan is expressing a genre so dear to his heart in a way that tries to capture the feeling of watching those movies back in the day, but for a modern audience.

I think a lot of people forget that. They don’t go into Tenet as a spy movie. It’s a genre film in the truest sense, but Nolan has this reputation for making films with such a distinct style that many likely treat his films as a genre in and of themself. What kind of films does he make? It might be a war film or a space film, but before any of that, it’s a Nolan film.

And that’s fair. After all, a director is the maestro of the art. Give a director enough time and they will craft their own style. But Tenet is a spy film and homage to the genre. If you have yet to see it, I recommend going into it with that thought at the back of your mind. I think Nolan truly captures the mysterious sexiness of espionage films, and the success lies in the main character.

No franchise is more integral to grasping the spy genre than 007. Those films are notable for their exotic locales, sinister villains, and gorgeous, complex female characters, but none of those things would be half as fascinating without the man himself, James Bond. So what exactly makes James Bond cool?

Beyond the obvious “shooting people and getting laid” checkmarks, Bond has a strong and iconic presence. I’m realizing as I write this that the word “presence” is essential to understanding strong protagonists. As such, Bond exudes confidence that can be either explained as his natural charisma or simply an occupational hazard. Determining “which is which” is half the fun and the answer varies depending on the era of the character.

Added to that, he’s suave and has a remark for every occasion. It can be anything from seduction to getting the last laugh after a hard-fought victory. Whether the films are showing him to be an infallible saboteur or a vulnerable scalpel in a game of spies, his confidence is his weapon.

How exactly is this presence achieved in Bond’s case? Well, on a base level, there is action versus reaction. Action: he acquires intel sneakily and dispatches enemies with precision. Reaction: he responds to danger calmly and collectively, using his brain to get out of tight spaces.

Going deeper, there’s dialog. How does he talk? How does he penetrate people’s defenses before he’s even had to draw his gun? Finally, and arguably, most importantly, there is how the picture frames him. I think it’s fair to say that cinematography is a crucial part of creating cool characters. The cameraman is as in love with the subject as they are critical of them. They are the window into the character. They dictate the truest vision of what that character is.

There are likely others, but for now, the key features are:

  1. Action/Reaction
  2. Dialog
  3. The Cameraman

With Tenet, Nolan couldn’t simply mimic the aesthetic of spy films. He had to go a step further and remedy the kind of character audiences gravitate towards in a spy movie. That meant creating a hero with a consistently felt presence. And with that, Nolan constructed what I would consider the very heart of that idea, simplified and arguably, perfected.

The main character without a name: “The Protagonist.”

It all begins in the Opera House. A group of terrorists storms the place right at the beginning of a performance, taking the entire building hostage. The police show up, pump the building with sleeping gas, and start an assault. In reality, the entire raid is a diversion to kidnap an undercover agent who’s recently gotten their hands on an artifact of some kind.

The Protagonist rescues them, retrieves the artifact, and meets up with the team. However, things get complicated. The police are planting bombs to cover up the operation.

“Not our mission,” one of the team says.

“It’s mine now,” says the Protagonist.

He sends the rest of the team to extraction and along with one other, gathers the rest of the bombs, almost dying in the process, before disposing of the bombs and letting them detonate away from people.

In the end, the Protagonist is kidnapped but takes a cyanide pill to avoid giving up his teammates. When he miraculously wakes up, he’s told his team is dead, the artifact is gone, and that the fake cyanide pill was a test. He passed.

Yay?

Nevertheless, within that opening scene, before even the title is revealed, we know the kind of hero this guy is and what he’s willing to do. He puts the mission first but doesn’t let it supersede the necessity to protect the innocent. He has respect for his team and clearly has their respect in return. With this scene alone, he’s already noble, but he isn’t exactly a character I have a lot of attachment to. But, as we sink deeper into the first act, he lacks nothing in swagger.

Spy movies always exist in these worlds where anyone and everyone could be “somebody.” The waiter, the valet, the woman sitting alone at the bar – anyone could be a contact. The introductory act of the film fully embraces this unspoken rule to give the Protagonist a means of transportation, a new objective, or an entrance where there once was a locked door.

A man gets out of his car and the Protagonist just hops right in and drives to the address already in the GPS. It’s naturally assumed that the man who got out of the car is also a spy. The connections the Protagonist has access to are vast and that fact in itself is accepted because it is such a staple of the spy genre.

All of that was cool, but it informs the world more than the character. The Protagonist’s time to shine came soon after his introduction to his new assignment. He goes and visits a contact who informs him of the film’s villain, Andrei Sator. The venue? A high-end restaurant in London. The contact? A British government worker by the name of Michael Crosby, played by Michael Cain.

John David Washington, who plays the Protagonist, carries the film in these scenes. His charisma and wit give him a magnetism we expect of Bond, but the intent of his remarks and the dynamic between him and those around him is wholly unique. Even though we don’t know his name or where he’s from, we can tell so much about the type of person he is from how he talks to those of the upper class.

“I’m Mr. Crosby’s lunch,” says the Protagonist.

“I presume you mean Sir Michael Crosby’s lunch?” says the waiter.

“Presume away.”

There is a disdain for myopic formality; an assault against snobbery. Our protagonist is an American whose quips disarm those with a presumptive sense of superiority to him. He doesn’t lose his patience or temper, but quietly disrupts the order of the establishment. This confidence is his weapon, but through this antagonistic relation to wealth, it’s clear that our protagonist doesn’t come from wealth, and he’s not the best at pretending otherwise.

It comes up first when Sir Michael brings up the cut of his suit and how it’s lacking as a disguise as a billionaire. The second time is during the Protagonist’s meeting with Kathrine Barton, this film’s equivalent of the “Bond Girl,” the name for a female lead in a James Bond film. Before learning about her imprisonment within her own marriage, the two quip about her selling Sator a fake painting at an auction.

“He knows and he’s never done anything about it?!” says the Protagonist.

“Why would he?” says Kat.

“He paid nine million dollars for it-”

“That’d barely cover the cost of the holiday he just forced us on.”

“Where’d you go? Mars?”

The Protagonist feels more relatable and not simply because he’s American. Granted, he carries a particularly American swagger, but the relatable element is his more down-to-earth roots that shine through the mask he puts on. Yet, he was also able to identify a Francisco Goya painting – albeit a fake – within first sight of it. I mean, I’m not up to date on late 18th century painters myself, but our protagonist seems pretty well-traveled at the least. He’s a spy with years of inferred experience, but nothing that can quite prepare him for the world he’s been thrust into.

If I may break from the theme to comment on the quality of this film for a moment, the dinner scene between the Protagonist and Kat was where I personally began to fall in love with this movie. The music by Ludwig Göransson is simply breathtaking and the track during Kat’s backstory, titled “Betrayal,” just conveys the depressive stress bearing down on her.

It’s the moment the audience begins to feel for her, and when the Protagonist starts to pity her. That pity is what motivates the B plot between the two, as Kat desires freedom and the Protagonist teeters between the mission and helping her. And, if you haven’t seen the film, the title of this part refers to the single greatest line in the film, given right after the dinner scene between Protag and Kat, when Sator’s men prepare to rough him up in the kitchen.

After this scene, the film resumes the A plot, following the Protagonist and Neil – the film’s deuteragonist, infiltrating the Freeport in Oslo, where Protag fights the inverted man. When that turns up a dead end, he meets Sator in person, avoiding execution only by playing the role of a potential business partner. Even as the A-plot thickens, the B-plot with Kat is the Protagonist’s personal motivation for defeating the villain.

Not that he is particularly without fault in his approach. He fails to get rid of the painting, the evidence Sator was holding over her. There’s tension between them because she feels like she’s been used by him. Adding insult to injury, the Protagonist saves Sator’s life after she tries to have him drown.

The whole time on the antagonist’s lavish boat, I felt like I was watching a Bond movie through the lens of Nolan’s direction. The hero is in the lion’s den, constantly watching their back. Both parties are suspicious of each other, and there’s a thin facade holding them back from violence. However, even when that facade is torn down, the Protagonist manages to talk his way out of death.

The villain, the setting, and the aesthetic all create a story true to the magic that lovers of spy movies will remember. But I think that all of that would be nothing without the leading man. People always toss around ideas of an American Bond. We often think of someone like Ethan Hunt from the Mission Impossible movies, but that’s a very different kind of hero and a very different kind of spy story.

Perhaps Mission Impossible appeals more to the sensibilities of an American audience, judging by the broadest and blandest generalizations. However, I genuinely believe that the Protagonist from Tenet is a perfect vision of what an American Bond would be. He has the swagger, the determination, the attractiveness, but everything behind it all is all his own.

Who James Bond is will always be something that is hinted at or explored through introspection projected onto a threat in the here and now. But as the films have gone on, it’s been easier to have an idea of the kind of person he is. The same applies to the Protagonist. He’s a selfless and clever spy with a fondness for disruption and though he’s not infallible, he’s persistent.

Part II | Save the Kat

Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book from 2005, Save the Cat!, lays out numerous writing tricks for endearing the audience to a character, creating dilemmas for them to overcome, and creating an outline for a story. It’s a book that is lauded for its insight into how films are written and how successful movies win the audience.

One of the biggest lessons, which the book is named after, is about having a moment early on, where the protagonist does something heroic or nice to make the audience want to root for them. It’s an elementary concept but an important moment, in the long run, to get a viewer invested. The Protagonist going above and beyond to save an entire opera house full of people is a pretty big cat to save. It certainly got me hooked.

Let’s break the movie down according to the outline put forth by this book.

Our Protagonist is a spy willing to sacrifice himself to save his friends and the innocent. He proves himself worthy of being rooted for by the audience and the test he passed literally grants him the title of “Protagonist” within the mission and, by extension, the story at large. They begin their journey, and after being briefed, he starts the investigation.

Next, a B plot is introduced with Kat. The Protagonist now has a personal motivation beyond his sense of duty. The plot thickens with the fight against the inverted man and the larger yet still nebulous scale of the threat. More espionage follows. The Protagonist has an uneasy partnership with Sator and tension with Kat.

As the story approaches the midpoint, the Protagonist and Niel execute a heist on the freeway. Suddenly, things get weird. A car going backward accosts them. Sator and the car’s driver are inverted. Kat is a prisoner. From here on, the science of inversion dominates the narrative.

The Protagonist is immersed in the antithesis of the world he knew. Everything is turned on its head. According to Snyder’s outline, there would typically be a false victory or false defeat, but here, it seems like both occur simultaneously. Take for instance the fight against the inverted man. We see both perspectives of this fight at different times in the film, and from both of them, it could arguably be a victory or a defeat.

The A and B plots combine, and the third act commences. A huge battle coinciding with a more personal confrontation somewhere else. The Protagonist faces off against the intimidating henchman that’s leered in the background behind Sator the whole film, not before an exchanging of words with Sator himself, condemning him and his plan. The whole affair ends in a bang and the Protagonist ends the story far more in control than he was previously.

With all this said, I don’t want to pretend that this adherence to formula alone makes the film that much more interesting. Following a set pattern for creating a story isn’t grounds for praise. That’s like praising a meal just because the cook followed the recipe. It’s not about following a plan, it’s the act of replicating the plan.

If you’re a cook, the factor defining whether you fail or not is human error. There will always be generally agreed standards that something must reach, but to meet those standards or go beyond them takes talent. Often, the corners cut or the small touches added to a formula make it special. It gives something a personal, human touch.

Filmmaking and storytelling are the same way. I’m not praising Christopher Nolan for following the method, which I’m certain wasn’t even the intention so much as it was the learned methodology behind crafting a story, of which that book was clearly inspired. I’m praising him for making an entertaining film that follows that method so closely while adding something that keeps the film somewhat original, modern, and new: the inversion of time.

More accurately, the characters and objects that move backward in time have had their entropy inverted using technology from the future. It’s an extremely fascinating concept, the mechanics of which likely alienated a lot of viewers because of how confusing it can be at first glance. Characters move backward and forwards through time, and we typically see major events twice. Once in normal time and a second, inverted.

But nothing ever is necessarily changed by experiencing the events again. Instead, we simply learn more. But if the result is the same, were the characters not trying to change things, or is there no way to change events? When the Protagonist is introduced to the inversion by picking up a bullet without grabbing it, he asks a very important question right away.

“What about free will?”

To which the scientist replies…

“That bullet wouldn’t have moved if you hadn’t put your hand there.”

The phrase “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” is the single most important line to keep in mind while watching the film. Answers don’t always come easily. There will be explanations, but some things are left up to interpretation. This is a film meant to be watched multiple times to pick up new things.

The Protagonist’s own arc is one of frustration, constantly trying to understand his mission and the earth-shattering spectacles he’s witnessing. The confusion is shared among the audience by design. We relate to him because we know as much as him about the inversion. He might be a world-traveled agent, but not even he can comprehend what’s really happening. It makes him the audience’s anchor while making the threat feel all the eerier.

And If I can get real for a second, I love how upfront Nolan is about his understanding of the fundamentals of the spy genre. When you have an unnamed main character who only goes by “The Protagonist,” whose personality is unknown beyond inference, trying to rescue a woman whose name is shortened to Kat, I’m gonna assume you’re trying to deconstruct spy movies. And that is how I would refer to Tenet: a deconstruction of the spy genre.

Part III | “I’m the Protagonist”

Back at the beginning, I mentioned Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Black Panther and while I do think that his performance wasn’t astonishing, I still love that character to death. They had a far more subdued character arc and he was outshined by others, but he wasn’t emotionless. He wasn’t without some inherent charm. He is a great hero and a solid protagonist.

What kind of story makes a character interesting? Can it be subdued or does it have to be dramatic, dripping with emotion at every turn? I mean, how was T’Challa supposed to compete with the powerhouse that was Michael B. Jordan’s performance? His character was a vengeful and prescient force that you couldn’t help but feel empathy for.

The truth is, either of those approaches to a character could work and I think people can all too often dismiss the worth of a protagonist, especially when they are overshadowed by others in the cast. I’ll be the first to admit that the comparison to Tenet doesn’t hold much significance beyond that point alone. It’s not like Black Panther suffered in ticket sales or critical reception for its lead taking the back seat.

Tenet, on the other hand, was not a universally loved film. It got good enough praise from critics, but the loudest and most critical of Nolan seemed to really dig into him for decisions made here. It gets flak for being hard to grasp and is mocked as such for its dense commitment to a brand of storytelling that doesn’t hold your hand.

I don’t blame people for not being a fan of the film. I do however blame people for not being willing to give it a chance. Yes, Nolan often mixes the audio in his films in a way that makes dialog hard to hear. Yes, his explanation as to why can seem stupid, but let’s think about his reasoning.

The hardest scene to hear in the film was when the Protagonist and Sator are discussing business while out sailing. The music and the sound of the water drown out their voices, but how much of that dialog is actually important? Not much. What’s important is either reiterated in the next scene or implied by the nature of the Protagonist’s cover as a business prospect.

Nolan sees dialog as just one part of the audio experience of a film. The dialog can play a similar role as the music or the sound effects. It’s not a genius take that should be echoed by every other creator, nor is it an opinion without some merit. And I don’t want to underplay an issue, but you can always turn on subtitles.

My point is that if you’re the kind of person who loves rewatching movies a second time so you can “pick up more details,” then you shouldn’t scoff at the very notion that Tenet might be a better movie the second time around.

The more that I’ve reflected on this film ever since I first watched it, I’ve come to truly love Tenet. To me, it succeeds in its chief mission: to rekindle some of that magic of older spy cinema, all while being gorgeous to look at and sporting an amazing soundtrack by a composer who just can’t stop winning.

And a lot of this has to do with John David Washington killing it as the Protagonist, a heroic character through which the audience is thrown into a bizarro world that only he can save. He has the attitude and presence that we admire in a hero, without it ever feeling like it needs to be pointed out or exemplified through laborious introspection.

There is so much more I could talk about. I could dissect the inversion science. I could talk about the crazy theories about what characters are actually different characters but older. I could even discuss Niel, the heart of the film’s subtle bromance that feels like Nolan taking inspiration from Doctor Who’s River Song storyline.

But I think I’ll settle on praising this film for demonstrating how to make a compelling and likable protagonist in a spy genre. John David Washington, like his father Denzel Washington before him, has the chops to be an iconic movie star, and this film is a great sign of what he can bring to the table.

Now, all we have to do is give him the credit he deserves.

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