Inert Heroes: Why some of cinema’s best films have passive protagonists

I’ve written before about how in Goldfinger, the film that many consider the “Gold Standard” for the series (pun intended), James Bond really doesn’t really do much. He gets captured, he learns about Goldfinger’s plan, and  kills Oddjob (he doesn’t even disarm the nuke Goldfinger set to blow up Fort Knox). Other than that he sips mint julips, and.. watches. He is inactive, inert… And I think that this is a prime reason the movie works so well.

Bond is the passive observer – he is a proxy for the audience. Because we see things through his eyes we are able to empathize with him more effectively. We have all had a drink on a porch, or drove a fast car, or flirted with a lesbian stunt pilot (OK, maybe not that last part). Some critics have said that Goldfinger is when the Bond films became cartoons, and I disagree – Goldfinger has Bond at his most normal, a skilled practitioner who we could all aspire to. The situation and surroundings are more fantastic, and that is how Goldfinger changed the series.

The more the Bond films move away from a grounded real Bond – real in his abilities, not his surroundings – the less effective they are. And it’s not just Bond films where that applies.

Another of my favorites, Raiders of the Lost Ark, features another inert protagonist – Indiana Jones. As many have noted online (this was even a joke on The Big Bang Theory, Indy is completely incidental to the plot to a great extent – he reacts to situations, and if he was not involved in the events of the film things would have ended up exactly the same (except maybe the Ark would have been delivered to Hitler directly, therefore preventing World War II).

Indiana Jones in the first film is an interesting but unexceptional man – he is a professional, with deep knowledge of his domain, but there is nothing “super” about him. And again, we see the world through his eyes, and his reactions make the film so entertaining. “I don’t know, but I’ll think of something” he mutters when the Ark is being taken away – and we have all said or thought something similar when we have to deal with new unexpected situations.

(Ironically, Indiana Jones was envisioned by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to be “an American James Bond” character – so Goldfinger may have been in the back of their minds as they were forming the film).

And, again, the more “super” Indy becomes, the less the movies work. Crystal Skull had not only a fantastic situation, but it had an Indiana Jones that was hardly the same character as the one we saw in Raiders. He was “Super Indy” – doing things that were completely unrealistic.

(This is one of the problems with the Superman films – because he is so powerful if he is too active the movie is over in ten minutes – and so the scripts never find the right balance between proactive intervention and passive observation).

I can name off other films with similar inert heroes – Casablanca, Forrest Gump, Rear Window, the original Planet of the Apes – but I think my point is made. The screenwriting cliché is that the protagonists have to move the plot forward isn’t necessarily a hard and fast rule – and sometimes the best movies have main characters who are simply there to represent us. Characters we can aspire to be.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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