Pop quiz: In your typical James Bond movie, who is the protagonist?
Seems like a strange, obvious question, right? It’s obviously Bond. He’s the hero. He’s played by the top-billed actor. The franchise is basically named after him. So, clearly, Bond is the protagonist. Right?
Put a pin in that, and we’ll come back to it.
Now, here’s a similar question: In the new Avengers: Infinity War, who is the protagonist?
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t worry; there won’t be any significant spoilers here. It’s safe to discuss the protagonist of the story, if all you know is the marketing and the general premise. You know that Thanos is the main villain, taking center stage after having made a handful of cameo appearances in prior Marvel movies. You also know the movie features a panoply of good guys, all sprinkled throughout the story as they oppose various aspects of Thanos’s plan. You may even have heard discussed, in filmmaker interviews or from people who have seen the movie, that Infinity War is basically Thanos’s story.
So let’s just say it straight out: Thanos is the protagonist.
That may seem counterintuitive, because when we use the word “protagonist,” we usually mean the hero of the story. (This applies even when it’s not an action blockbuster with a conventional hero. When I describe Elisa as the hero of The Shape of Water, you know what I mean.) And Thanos, inarguably, is not the hero; he’s as villainous as villains get. And yet, equally inarguably, the movie is his story. He’s the one with the vision, the plan, the overarching objective that holds everything together. By pursuing his goals, he drives the plot; Thanos’s narrative is the movie’s narrative.
On the other side, the conceptual corollary to the protagonist, we know, is the antagonist. This is the character, or characters, or the unpersonified force that stands in opposition to the protagonist, blocking his or her progress toward his or objective, attempting to foil his or her plan. Conventionally, the antagonist is the villain, standing in the way of the hero.
But Thanos is the protagonist. So that makes the Avengers… the antagonists?
This structural ambiguity has confused many viewers, who habitually conflate the concepts of “protagonist” and “hero” (and “antagonist” and “villain”). By making Thanos the hero of his own story (despite his decided lack of heroism), and by centering Thanos’s tactical perspective and moral justification, exactly as a conventional story centers the usual heroic protagonist, many commenters are trying to reconcile the resulting cognitive dissonance by processing Thanos’s character in something approaching a typically heroic way. “Obviously his conclusion is horrific,” goes this line of reasoning, “but the argument he’s making to reach that conclusion makes sense.”
No, actually, his argument does not make sense, not at all, on any level: he’s a monster, and his case is illogical gibberish. Deconstructing Thanos’s philosophy to dismantle his absurd rationale is outside the scope of this article; the much more important point is understanding that the reflex to process Thanos this way is a direct result of our perception of him, even subconsciously, as the protagonist. If he’s the protagonist, then ergo he is the hero, ergo we have to digest his point of view differently, compared to the easily-dismissable conquer-or-kill mindset of the typical villain.
Thanos isn’t the first protagonist baddie, either, if you think about it. This is a common model in the crime story, where we follow a mobster or a gang lord as they rise in the lawless underworld, until, usually, they are toppled by their ambition, and meet their well-earned comeuppance. Sometimes this is purely indulgent, as we thrill to see how far this mad dog can go before he’s brought down, as in White Heat (1949) or Scarface (either 1932 or 1983). Other movies use the device with more nuance, as in American Gangster (2007), which deliberately contrasts the near-corporate professionalism of the drug kingpin with the messy corruption of law enforcement, blurring the lines between protagonist and antagonist, and between hero and villain. And some movies consciously subvert the entire model; The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) presents itself as a prototypical rise-of-the-villain story, but then lets him stay mostly risen at the end, thereby challenging us to consider how our culture actually celebrates fame and success by any means, in stark contrast to the tidy and unrealistic moral parables our movies usually promote.
A story, then, that puts a villain at its center is not a new idea; we’ve seen it before in other genres. We just have have a little trouble processing it in Infinity War because we’ve never seen an evil protagonist in a superhero blockbuster.
So now, with that in mind, let’s come back to our original question. Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War because he has the plan, the overarching objective, and he drives the story; and the Avengers are the antagonists because they oppose him. Therefore… in a James Bond movie, is each story’s supervillain the protagonist, and Bond the antagonist?
To untangle this conundrum, let’s look at the actual origins of those concepts, deep in theatrical antiquity.
In the original Greek, “protagonist” (from πρωταγωνιστής) means, literally, “primary actor.” The term as we now understand it was established and elaborated on in the 16th and 17th centuries, drawn from the commentaries of ancient Greek and Roman dramatic and literary theorists, starting with Aristotle’s Poetics from around 335 BCE. According to these ancient texts, it was the Greek playwright and actor, Thespis, who broke with the established tradition of collective choral performance by having a single actor step out and speak, alone, representing with the aid of masks and other implements the point of view of several individual characters in turn, as he interacted with the chorus. Later, the playwright Aeschylus brought out a second actor who would speak singly with the first, making explicit the concept of the individualized character, and introducing what we now recognize as theatrical storytelling. That first solo speaker, and thus, by implication, the most important character? The protagonist.
Also included in Poetics is discussion of a number of narrative conventions which result in a satisfying story, which we have come to refer as the Unities: Unity of Place (the story is mostly set in a single location), of Time (everything happens in a day, more or less), and of Action (there is one central plot with a core dramatic question). Aristotle probably didn’t intend to lay these out prescriptively, as rules; indeed, he barely even defined the first two, focusing most of his attention on unified Action. Rather, he simply seems to have been offering a description of qualities which, in his view, tend to make drama more satisfying. Paraphrased: “If you do these things, the story seems to work better.”
However, French classicists in the mid-to-late 1500s took Aristotle’s words literally, and treated them not as the useful guidelines he presumably intended but as axiomatic dicta which the “properly formed drama” must observe and rigorously follow. This led to a strange period in French theater where playwrights were obligated to compress and manipulate their stories in order to satisfy the unities, or be subject to mockery and artistic ostracism. Decades were spent trying to boil down the rules, with writers and artistic philosophers arguing strenuously about what Aristotle and his contemporaries actually meant (does the Unity of Place require the action to be confined to a single room, or is it satisfied if it’s a house, or an estate, or even part of a city?), and dozens of plays were written to explore and illustrate different thinkers’ views on the subject. While some writers struggled to produce stories that rose above the purely mechanical, masters like Racine thrived in this environment, creating work with a severe economy that we still find powerful and effective.
(And of course the English, as per usual, looked at what the French theorists were doing, rolled their eyes, and cheerfully carried on with their sweeping un-Unified theatrical epics, which the French then derided as amateurish, clumsy, and unworthy of serious attention.)
“You empty-headed animal food trough wipers!”
The intention of the French classicists seems not to have been to dictate absolutely the rigid rules of drama, at least not at the outset. Their aim, initially, was to help the writer, by laying out instructions for making a satisfying story. By studying Aristotle and his examples, they wanted to reverse-engineer the model of a good narrative; thus the hopeful writer would not waste time on an approach that had already been proven to be less enjoyable, and could work more efficiently by structuring the story “correctly” right from the top. But of course, as usually happens when one tries to systematize objective rules for anything, the whole thing got away from them, leading French drama into a cul-de-sac of sternly inflexible prescriptivism which would not be escaped until Victor Hugo blew up the whole thing with Hernani in 1830.
The drift into artistic dogmatism and theoretical monocracy aside, the French classicists did make one valuable critical contribution, in their refinement of the concept of the protagonist. They took Aristotle’s casual nod at the notion of the primary actor, and then drilled into the word itself, deconstructing its etymology for clues. There are two senses of actor, they said: the one who performs, and the one who takes action. The protagonist as primary actor, then, is not simply the central performer, but the character who is the focus of the Unity of Action.
Obviously, the protagonist cannot be passive, they said, because then the story has no engine. And the protagonist cannot be actively concerned with or pursuing something unconnected to the play’s key dramatic question, because then the protagonist’s actions are irrelevant, which violates Unity. Thus, the protagonist’s actions and the play’s Action must be closely related, or, better yet, one and the same.
In particular, they defined the story proper as truly beginning with what we have come to call the “inciting incident,” which is where the primary dramatic question is clearly identified and the plot’s machinery begins to turn. In modern storytelling theory, this is considered the “hook,” the event or decision that launches the narrative, when something “thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.”1
But for the classicists, it’s not enough for something simply to happen to the protagonist, for him to be dragged into the plot; he has to make an active choice to participate. In other words, in the classical sense, the inciting incident occurs either when the protagonist independently decides to pursue a goal (“I will usurp the throne!”), or when an event occurs which triggers the protagonist to respond by making the choice to pursue a goal (“This prophecy you have given me inspires me to usurp the throne!”). The protagonist, in short, wants to change something, and, in a properly structured story, the antagonist wants to prevent the protagonist from achieving that change. None of this has anything to do with hero or villain, or good or evil; it’s purely a functional definition, identifying who’s driving the story, and who’s standing in the way.
For example, in Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers desperately wants to fight for his country. Almost from the moment we meet him, he is doing everything he can to achieve this objective, but he’s thwarted at every turn. When he’s given an opportunity to participate in the super-soldier project, he jumps at it. The inciting incident, then, is not his transformation, but the moment Dr. Erskine recruits him, and he accepts. However, even after the procedure works and he becomes a muscular superman, he hasn’t succeeded, because the Army doesn’t want him to fight, they want to use him for publicity. He must still pursue his goal of true actualization as a soldier. His objective defines his actions, and his actions define the movie’s Action. He is the protagonist.
“Follow me, boys.”
Note, also, that the narrative slack some people perceive in the movie’s final extended act is a direct consequence of the wonkiness of its dramatic structure. Red Skull is the movie’s villain, but for the first half, he doesn’t function as the antagonist, because none of his actions have anything to do with opposing Steve’s quest to be a fighting man. Instead, Steve’s antagonist is the resistance of the Army to allow him to be a real soldier. For most of the movie, Red Skull is off on a parallel plot, pursuing his own plan, and Steve isn’t even aware he exists. In fact, once Steve abandons the touring show and single-handedly liberates the prisoner camp, he as the protagonist has achieved his core goal, the movie’s original dramatic question is fully resolved, and the Action of the story is concluded. At that point, Steve finally encounters Red Skull, and the movie has to pivot to a new structure, but because Steve has had his triumph, some people feel that everything from the camp rescue onward is an anticlimax. If you share that feeling, you can invoke the classical French theorists to explain why.
As an even better example, look at the first Avengers movie. You’ve got half a dozen characters jockeying for position, but none of them is particularly more important than any other, and none of their separate objectives corresponds to the central dramatic question of the film, which is whether or not these competitors can set aside their differences and fight as a team. But as it turns out, there is a character whose objective corresponds to that question: as this site has previously observed, Nick Fury is, functionally, the unifying protagonist of the story.
So then who would the classicists consider the antagonist? That’s a fascinating question, because the movie is very clever on this point. It seems obvious that it should be Loki, except his plot is about invading and conquering Earth, which is at right angles to Nick Fury’s team-building story. Then it occurs to you: to some degree, the Avengers themselves fill this role; they bicker and squabble and won’t play ball with Fury’s program. You could say that by opposing Fury’s objective, the Avengers function as antagonists. But that bickering is amplified by Loki’s manipulations; they fight more fiercely with one another, and break down more violently, than they would without his influence. So, yes, Loki is the ultimate antagonist in the film, but not because we wonder whether he’ll succeed in conquering the Earth; he is the antagonist because he actively opposes the unification of the Avengers, which is the movie’s driving story question. That’s just plain good writing, reflecting a solid awareness of proven dramatic structure.
It must be mentioned that this classical approach to structural analysis does not always shed light on a movie’s inner workings. In Star Wars: A New Hope, for example, we don’t even meet the protagonist, Luke, until seventeen minutes into the movie. He doesn’t say, or even know, what he wants until past the forty-minute mark (“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father”), and the focal point of the film’s final conflict — the idea that Luke will self-actualize as a hero by destroying the Death Star — doesn’t come into view until he sits through the technical briefing at the beginning of the third act, and brags about bulls-eyeing womp rats back home. As a crystallization of another classical structure, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Star Wars works like gangbusters… but it would drive the French theorists bananas.
And yet, even when a movie isn’t specifically adhering to these formal ideas, you can still refer to them for insight and illumination when you perceive the movie isn’t working. Following on the example from above, let’s consider the Star Wars prequels. Although they are widely agreed to be narratively nonfunctional, there is just as much disagreement as to what specifically is wrong. Let’s use what we’ve learned above to see if we can shed any additional light.
To begin with: Who is the protagonist across the trilogy? Is it Anakin? If it is, what is he trying to achieve? He barely has an objective in The Phantom Menace, because he’s a child. He wins the hand of Padme at the conclusion of Attack of the Clones, so what’s left in Revenge of the Sith? To become Darth Vader? He isn’t pursuing that goal in any way; it’s merely a name that’s handed to him. Many say that the arc of the trilogy is Anakin’s path to Vader, but that’s not a dramatic question, it’s simply a framework.
No, the protagonist of the prequel trilogy, the character whose objectives and actions define the Action of the films, is Palpatine. Think about it: he’s the driving force behind everything. He sets the whole story in motion, and he’s the one who has the overarching goal which everyone else is effectively responding to, even if they’re unaware. He’s the character who is pulling all the strings in pursuit of… well, of:
The thing is, though, that protagonist Palpatine is not really seen being the protagonist, directly, on screen, until very late in the trilogy. He’s operating in secret, not just from the other characters, but from the audience. We aren’t privy to his aims or tactics except by inference after the fact, with the exception of very brief appearances in his Sidious guise. Instead, we watch the downstream effects of his maneuverings, seeing his plot unfold second- and third-hand, with other characters and stories being foregrounded to provide the on-screen action of the film.
This choice to put the protagonist mostly offstage should not be perceived as simple incompetence on Lucas’s part, by the way. He was fully aware of what he was doing, as the Phantom Menace title clearly conveys. The problem is not that hiding the protagonist is dumb; the problem is that Lucas is not a good enough writer to make this idiosyncratic, consciously experimental structure work. He needs to tell the story indirectly, creating action that we perceive as the primary action without it actually being so, until he finally tips his hand and allows the true overall structure to come into focus. He also needs to create characters who can function as antagonists, standing in the way of the protagonist, even if they have no idea what Palpatine is actually up to.
But he can’t quite pull it off, and we watch the movies with the nagging feeling that the real story isn’t in front of us, and that what we’re seeing is weightless and irrelevant. And, in a formal sense, that’s exactly true, not least because there is no clear antagonist, even inadvertent: Palpatine proceeds inexorably toward his goal without meaningful opposition. What we’re watching isn’t really a story, so much as just a bunch of stuff that happens. We might find that stuff interesting, and it’s almost always fun to look at, but dramatically, it’s kind of broken.
Thank you, classical French theorists.
Incidentally, it should be repeated and emphasized here that the concepts of protagonist and antagonist merely describe functions in the story, and are neutral as far as values and morality. As we’ve seen, the protagonist doesn’t have to be the hero, and the antagonist doesn’t have to be the villain. In fact, it’s even possible for the protagonist and the antagonist to basically both be good guys, as far as the audience is concerned. Consider Frozen as one extreme example: Elsa, despite her popularity and merchandising omnipresence, is not the protagonist — Anna is, with the story-driving objective of bringing her sister and herself back together. And the antagonist, surprisingly, is actually Elsa, who spends the movie actively opposing Anna’s goal. (Hans is only a secondary antagonist, emerging late and dispensed with before the central dramatic question of sisterly reconciliation is addressed.) It’s partly from this unusual structure that Frozen gets its dramatic weight, and it’s why the movie will age beautifully with its audience, as children move past their youthful fascination with Elsa’s power and realize that Anna is the true active hero of the story, the princess who literally saves herself.
“An act of true love.” Sometimes the movie just comes right out and tells you how it works.
Which brings us back around to our original question. In a James Bond movie, the main villain gets the ball rolling. The story is defined and driven by his pursuit of his objective: to steal a cryptographic device, or to hold the world’s agriculture for ransom, or to blast London with an electromagnetic space weapon, or whatever. Bond is called to investigate some aspect of the plot, and upon uncovering the full story, works to upset the villain’s scheme.
So, knowing what we know about classical narrative structure, doesn’t that map onto the Thanos model, and make the villain the protagonist and Bond the antagonist? And if that’s the case, does it mean that every movie where the bad guy has a plan and the good guy is trying to stop him and restore order essentially has the same flipped arrangement?
For comparison, let’s look at another movie with the same basic format: Die Hard. Gruber takes over the skyscraper to steal millions of dollars; McClane has to stop him. Simple, right? Gruber drives the plot = protagonist, McClane opposes him = antagonist. Yes?
No. Because McClane isn’t there to stop Gruber; that’s just happenstance. McClane is at the party because he wants to try to repair his relationship with his wife: that’s his original, overriding objective. And that objective is paid off when Holly socks the nosy reporter in the schnoz at the end, thereby communicating that McClane has been successful and his wife has come all the way back to him, and bringing the central action of the story to its close. It may be simplistic in terms of emotional dynamics, but it’s also clever to add this layer of character story on top of the action story, getting us invested in McClane as a protagonist and not simply a responder. Without that, it could certainly be argued that Gruber is the protagonist and McClane his antagonist. But with it, we’re keyed into McClane as the active center of the story from the beginning, and our emotional investment, crucially, is not in the question of whether Gruber will steal the money, or whether McClane will stop him, but whether McClane will get past Gruber to reunite with his wife.
Thus we have to conclude: If a Bond story, or any story where a hero’s goal is to obstruct a villain’s plan, lacks this kind of framing device to shift our emotional perspective, if the hero is simply the active obstacle to the villain’s pursuit of his objective, then, functionally, from a classical perspective, the villain is indeed the protagonist, and the hero is the antagonist. The only alternative is to formulate a different storytelling model where it’s the antagonist who drives the story and wants to change the world, and it’s the heroic protagonist who must disrupt that effort for change and restore the status quo.
Which is certainly a provocative notion, if you consider the larger context of history, and the cultural needs of a superpower whose interest lies in defending its position and preventing interlopers and competitive aspirants from damaging its standing. From that perspective, it makes sense that the character who wants to effect change would be seen as antagonistic, versus the character who wants to ensure that things stay exactly as they are. Naturally, in the specific case of Bond, it’s a complicating factor that he’s British, the explicit symbol of a dying empire past its prime, who is perceived very differently at home than he is in the United States, where he’s equally as popular — though, perhaps, for different reasons. Nevertheless, it makes intuitive sense that a superpower at its peak would latch onto a story framework that labels the disruptor as the antagonist, and the defender of the steady state as the protagonist.
I don’t know that I’d be willing to go that far, not least because we lack substantial correlating evidence with other historical superpowers from which we can observe similar evolutions in storytelling trends. Most of the theatrical output from the Roman Empire, for example, has been completely lost; we have but a small handful of plays by a single writer of tragedies, and a few more comedies by two others, and everything else of significance is gone. Without more concrete basis for corroboration, it’s difficult to regard this idea as anything more than an interesting but highly speculative hypothesis.
But it certainly is tempting.
“Which one am I again?”