Of all the characters in a story, how do creators choose which one is the main one? This question comes up often in writing workshops. Sometimes writers switch around which character is in focus in order to determine who should be framed as the main character. When deciding, I find it helpful to ask, “Who has the most at stake? Who is propelling the action? It’s their story.” However, some creators fail to place focus on that character. What happens when they pick the wrong main character? Let’s look.
Spoiler Notice: The Phantom Menace, Captain America: Civil War, and Guardians of the Galaxy
1. The Phantom Menace
Trick question: Who is the main character of the Phantom Menace? Take a moment and think of your answer. Did you say Anakin? Or Qui-Gon? Obi-Wan, maybe? All reasonable choices. But, according to the advice above, none of them should be the main character. Who should?
Padme Amidala. She is the character who has the most at stake in the story and whose actions drive the plot.
This is the plot of the Phantom Menace:
- Padme Amidala’s planet, Naboo, is being blockaded by the Trade Federation. They are pressuring her to sign a treaty. She refuses, instead asking the Jedi Council for help.
- The agents sent by the Jedi Council fail to alleviate the situation. So Padme teams up with those Jedi, escapes from the planet, and sets course for Coruscant to talk to the Galactic Senate directly.
- Padme’s ship is damaged in the attempt, and they can only make it as far as Tatooine. Disguised as one of her own handmaidens, she accompanies a Jedi master into town in search of parts to repair her ship.
- She meets a boy who is a genius with mechanics, and he offers to enter a pod-racing competition to get the money for the parts she needs. Reluctantly, she agrees to the deal.
- The plan works, and she gets the ship repaired and sets off. She arrives at Coruscant and pleads her case personally in front of the Senate.
- The Senate is not moved, so she puts in a vote of no confidence in the High Chancellor. Then she gathers her allies, flies back to her planet, and sneaks through the blockade.
- Back on her home planet, she makes an alliance with a neighboring species and convinces them to lend her military aid. She comes up with an attack plan and personally leads a group to reclaim her capital.
- She surrounds the leaders of the Trade Federation and strong arms the viceroy of the Trade Federation into changing the treaty to suit her terms rather than his. By the end, she has restored freedom to her planet.
All of those events happen in the movie. However, the filmmakers show no understanding that Padme has the most at stake. Her role is sidelined by the cinematic choices. Instead, the movie frames itself around other characters. Because the filmmakers decided not to tell the story from her perspective, the film feels disjointed.
Phantom Menace begins with the focus on Qui-Gon—the camera shows us what happens to him, follows where he goes, and tells most of the story from his perspective. However, external events most often compel Qui-Gon’s actions. He is ordered to go to Naboo, he is attacked by the Trade Federation and has to escape to the planet, he is followed by an annoying Gungan, he follows the queen’s orders to get the ship fixed, he watches the pod race, he witnesses the drama at the Senate, and he follows the queen’s battle plan. He does not have the most at stake in the plot. Sure, he could die at many times, but that’s part of his job. Nothing about the overarching plot is personal for him, except for his decision to take on Anakin as a Padawan. This is a subplot—it has little to do with the climax or overarching story goals.
Once the characters reach Tatooine, the narrative focuses on Anakin. Yet most of the plot is not driven by his actions. He doesn’t even appear until halfway through the film. Even after his arrival, we see many events where he is not present. After he leaves Tatooine, his movements are controlled by the adults around him. Even his fight at the end of the film starts because he is ordered to get into the cockpit of a plane and accidentally sets off the autopilot while trying to defend himself from attacking droids. His discovery by the Jedi, freedom from slavery, and introduction to the Jedi Order are subplots upstaging an overarching plot that’s utterly unconnected to him.
Nor does Anakin have the most at stake. He wants to win the pod race, but if he didn’t compete, nothing would change for him. So long as he survives the race, his life remains the same whether he wins or loses, at least as far as he knows. The stakes are higher for Padme. If he loses, Padme will be stranded, her people left without a leader, and her only plan to save her people will have failed. At the climactic final battle, assuming he survives, Anakin’s life will remain the same whether or not he destroys the Trade Federation ship. He risks his life, but so does everyone else—he has no more to lose than they do. In contrast, the destruction of the ship will materially change Padme’s life and help accomplish the overarching story goal: the liberation of her planet.
This is a Star Wars story. George Lucas wanted to focus on the Jedi in general and Anakin Skywalker in particular. But the plot doesn’t justify that focus as it stands. So why was it told that way? If framing the story as Padme’s rather than Anakin’s could have made a better movie, why didn’t the filmmakers do it?
Could it be because Padme is a woman? We are only now beginning to break down the popular misconception that female protagonists aren’t relatable for male audiences and therefore don’t sell movie tickets. Think of the backlash to Rey, who is basically a co-protagonist with Poe and Finn in the new Star Wars trilogy. Outside of the Star Wars universe, consider the vitriolic reaction to the new Ghostbusters and to Wonder Woman. Obviously we can’t know what the filmmakers were or weren’t thinking, but given the culture we live in and the sexism embedded in the movie industry, we can extrapolate from overarching trends.
If the filmmakers had been more open to the idea of a female main character, they might have realized that their story already had one. By framing the film accordingly, they could have provided a cleaner and more focused end product.
2. Captain America: Civil War
Who is the main character of Civil War? Steve Rogers, obviously. Why? Because this is a Captain America movie. But who has the most at stake in the plot? This one is murkier, mainly since they tried to cram so much into one film. Still, I would argue that the character who has the most at stake, whose choices compel a logical chain of causality, and who experiences the fullest character arc is Black Panther.
This is the plot of Civil War:
- Reeling from the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the world is recovering from massive devastation, collateral damage, and civilian casualties caused by superheroes. So the king of Wakanda and his son, T’Challa, go to an international conference to try to put some control on these super beings.
- A terrorist attacks the meeting, killing T’Challa’s father. All evidence suggests the killer is the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes. So T’Challa assumes the mantle of his country’s national superhero, Black Panther. He hunts his father’s killer in a classic revenge quest.
- Along the way, he teams up with Iron Man and various governments. He butts heads with Captain America, who is protecting this criminal.
- Due to T’Challa’s single-minded pursuit of this suspect, he accidentally creates a schism within the Avengers. By the time evidence emerges that the Winter Soldier wasn’t to blame, it is too late. Still, now he has another suspect to chase down, and he does so.
- T’Challa finds and corners his father’s killer. However, once he stops and listens, he realizes that this man was reacting out of grief and revenge, just like he was. He shows mercy and delivers the killer to civilian justice. This ends his arc in a way that is clear, logical, and thematically consistent.
Yes, a lot more happens in Captain America: Civil War. But it muddies the plot. Unlike in Phantom Menace, the filmmakers shoehorned in a bunch of storylines to try to make Steve and Tony have a stake in the plot, but none of those are as consistent as T’Challa’s.
Steve feels bad about the collateral damage caused by superheroes, but then he forgets about it. He wants to protect Bucky and keeps his friend from the authorities. But when he has the chance to give Tony proof of Bucky’s innocence, Steve instead starts a pointless fight among the Avengers. At the end, he ignores the whole reason for this trip—finding the real terrorist who killed the king of Wakanda—and gets into another fight with Tony, one-on-one this time. Then, instead of proving his friend’s innocence, reconciling with the other Avengers, or confronting the collateral damage issue, he runs away with Bucky and his half of the Avengers.
Meanwhile, Tony feels bad about the collateral damage too. He tries to make up for his past mistakes by advocating for the Sokovia Accords. Then, he forgets about that while trying to chase down Bucky, who he thinks is a terrorist. Then he fights Steve and half of the Avengers because he wrongly thinks they’re protecting a terrorist. When Tony realizes he was wrong about Bucky, he chases after Steve to help. Then, in a bizarre twist, Tony learns Bucky killed his father while under mind control. He reacts by attacking Steve and Bucky, completely ignoring the terrorist they came to find.
The filmmakers could have broken this into multiple movies, but instead they tried to wrap up the Winter Soldier plotline from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while starting the Civil War plotline, while introducing Black Panther. This is a problem that can happen with franchises. Ideally, a movie should stand on its own, and if Civil War had been told with Black Panther as the main character, it could have. As it is? You need to see it in context, knowing where these characters have been and where they’re going. You are so distracted by the excitement of seeing your favorite characters that you don’t notice the plot doesn’t make sense.
This lack of plot focus also leads to a lack of thematic focus. The way the movie is presented, the audience comes out with no clear message. Is this a story about collateral damage? Yes, for the first ten minutes, but then the subject is abandoned. Is it about government control versus autonomy? Yes, for the middle half; the climactic fight has nothing to do with that. Is it about protecting an old friend versus turning him over to the law? For a while. Is it about forgiveness versus grudges? For the last ten minutes. Then what is it about?
The film’s plotline had all the makings of an origin movie for Black Panther.* Why didn’t the filmmakers choose to make Civil War the first Black Panther movie and then make the actual first Black Panther movie be the second one? We can’t be sure, but clearly the creators wanted to focus on Captain America, Iron Man, and the Avengers, even though this wasn’t an Iron Man or an Avengers movie. Steve and Tony have something in common with Qui-gon and Anakin: they’re all white men.
Yes, we have a Black Panther movie now, but he was upstaged in his first movie appearance, and the studio took their sweet time waiting to produce his film relative to the number of white-superhero-led movies. Judging by the backlash against Finn in Star Wars, race is still an issue in the pop culture of the United States. We are still fighting the false “common wisdom” that movies with POC protagonists don’t sell as many tickets as those with white ones. If the filmmakers weren’t held back consciously or unconsciously by biased assumptions, they might have realized that they’d written a movie about T’Challa and framed it accordingly. Instead, they sidelined him in a film where he drives the plot.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Hear me out on this one. I know it is arguably the best movie on this list, and perhaps the neatest storytelling-wise of the three. But it is still part of a larger cultural trend. Who is the main character? Star-Lord, obviously. Who else? Who has more at stake in this story than he does?
How about Gamora?
Let’s look at the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy.
- Gamora and her sister are raised by Thanos, an abusive tyrant who is trying to murder half the galaxy. He sends Gamora to retrieve an object that will help him do that: an infinity stone.
- She sees her chance to finally thwart his plans by keeping the infinity stone from him. But, on the way to retrieving said item, it is snatched by a space pirate.
- While trying to get it back, she and a bunch of others are arrested and put in prison. She teams up with them to stage a jailbreak and escape.
- Gamora convinces the others to help her stop her father. They plan to sell the infinity stone to a third party, preventing Thanos from getting his hands on it.
- Their plan goes wrong, and an ascended pawn of her father, Ronan, gets the stone. This new villain tries to take over a planet, just like Thanos was going to do.
- Gamora and her new friends team up, risking everything to stop him.
This movie flows more smoothly than the other two because the filmmakers focus closely on Star-Lord rather than jaggedly shifting the focus between characters. The other guardians are framed as secondary characters, and their arcs are depicted as subplots.
Despite the clear effort to focus on Star-Lord, he isn’t the best main character for this movie. Why does Star-Lord want the stone? It’s just another job to him. What happens if he doesn’t get it? Nothing major—he loses one client and goes on with his life as usual. At many points, he could turn and walk away. The fact that he stays makes him heroic, but the same can be said of the others. Drax and Rocket have the same arc as Star-Lord, growing from self-serving or revenge-driven loners to heroic team members. Sure, Drax wants revenge for his family’s murder, but Ronan’s death is not enough for him—he shifts to blaming Thanos and ends the movie with his major goal unfulfilled. And Groot… is Groot.
No one has more at stake than Gamora. She is giving up everything in her old life to finally rebel against her father. Her last mission from him led to a potentially catastrophic mess, and now a planet’s worth of lives are at stake. To even begin redeeming herself, she has to prevent that destruction, even if it means fighting her sister. And, guess what? Against all odds, she succeeds.
Given that Gamora’s arc drove the movie’s plot, why might the filmmakers have been reluctant to cast Gamora as the lead? Why choose Star-Lord? What does Star-Lord have in common with the previous leads mentioned above? If you said “white male,” you get the “stating the obvious” prize. And, oh, look, the actor playing Gamora is both a woman AND black, so, two for one bonus on the conventional fake wisdom asking, “Who will watch a movie with a black female superhero lead?”*
Again, who knows what the filmmakers were thinking. All we have to go on is the product. A product that, once again, spotlights a white male character even though doing otherwise would have made more narrative sense.
As these three movies show, not only have movie companies created films focusing on white male leads, but also they have done so even when their plots hinge on characters who don’t fit that mold. Movie makers need to recognize which character has the most at stake and find the courage to focus on them even when they are not white males. Main characters from marginalized groups can be engaging and vivid for everyone. Spotlighting those characters would not only improve the final movie product but also might combat racism and sexism in popular culture and in society.
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