Tag: Sci-fi

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?

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