I consider Michael Corleone to be the best character ever written. Learn why below.
I saw The Godfather for the first time when I was, like, 13. I downloaded it because it was an R-rated mafia movie, and I figured it was going to be every 13-year-old's dream. Instead, I was treated to an exceptionally deep look at the American dream, a treatise on family, and probably the greatest film ever made. But that's just my opinion.
Since then, I've become a big Godfather fan. Not the kind of fan who hangs posters in his basement or gets a tattoo, but the kind who loves to drop a quote here and there and spends $20 on a bottle of Coppola's wine to seem classy once in a while.
You know, a normal-level fan of the movie.
After recently rewatching the entire trilogy, I feel comfortable saying I think the series protagonist is the best-written character of all time. Check out this video from Just an Observation and let's talk after the jump.
Obviously, there will be spoilers for the trilogy below.
Michael Corleone's Arc for All Three Godfather Films Proves He's The Best Character of All Time
It's hard enough to get a character to arc over one movie, but imagine consistently changing someone over three of them!
When Francis Ford Coppola sat down to write the original Godfather movie with Mario Puzo, he never knew where the story would go. He had the original book to work off, but he didn't plan for all three movies to happen.
I think that's an important fact to think about when we look at this character. The first movie provided the foundation, the second movie gave us what he thought would be the finale, and the third he chose to revisit to show the family's end.
All of these arcs were written only with the ability to take with what came before, which is crucial when you write your ideas. Don't spend hours writing three movies. Write one great one, and then build from there.
Let's go movie by movie and see how Michael evolves as a person and takes his place in the annals of movie history.
In the first movie, Michael Corleone is introduced separately from his family. He openly admits to his girlfriend, Kay, that his family is part of the mafia, but it's not him. That important distinction is why she falls in love with him and sticks around. Michael's family is wealthy, and Michael reaps the benefits without ever getting his hands dirty. He's a war hero, and his father, Vito, has plans for him to maybe be a senator someday.
But Michael is sucked back into the family after his father is nearly assassinated. When he comes back, it's out of love and support, but Michael can't shake the feeling of obligation to do something. That something involves murdering two people and fleeing to Italy. While there, he sees that his name will follow him no matter where he goes.
He will always be a Corleone. And violence will inevitably accompany him.
Michael's arc in the first movie is not only going to the dark side, but also becoming the leader his brothers never could be. One ready to follow the great Vito Corleone and take the family onto bigger and better ventures.
At the end of the film, Michael orchestrates a hit on the heads of the five other families, thus taking over New York and solidifying himself as the head of the most powerful crime family in New York City. This changes who he is as a person. He arced into the guy he promised Kay he would never become. From someone separate from his family to the leader of his family.
The Godfather II
When it came time for the second movie in the trilogy, Coppola had to figure out where to take Michael. You can't go backward and get him out of the family. He has Kay, he has money, where is left to go? As Kay mentions at the beginning of the movie, Michael promised her that the Corleone family would be legitimate in five years. It's been seven years, and that end seems nowhere in sight.
In the second movie, Michael's arc is much less defined than the first. I think it's more of a character study on what the idea of "family" means. In the first film, we saw that Vito Corleone defines a man by the time he spends with his family. In this movie, Michael is losing his family. Fredo has turned on him, Connie only wants him for money, and Kay aborted his son to make sure this mafioso legacy ends with Michael.
This is Michael's burden to bear. If in the first movie he was a man stretched to have it all. In the second movie, he becomes a man okay with cutting out some parts of his life to preserve the control he has over the others.
That means getting custody of the kids and pushing Kay away. It means killing Fredo to watch his back. And it means keeping his enemies close until it's time to strike.
Again, this is a subtle arc, but he changes as a man. He becomes the distillation of a vendetta and anger. Something more than his father ever could have imagined, with endless power and wealth. But still, none of that can buy happiness.
At the end of this movie, he's not just shutting Kay out of his life, but closing the door on family totally. He's proving that he's in this for himself. For the Corleone name to survive.
The Godfather III
Coppola returned to The Godfather in the 1990s in search of a hit. He had experimented a lot in the 80s and was in dire need of a blockbuster.
For me, this movie will always be the "what if" of the series. What if Paramount paid Robert Duvall's quote? What if Winona Ryder didn't drop out? Nevertheless, the movie did happen. Originally titled The Death of Michael Corleone, this is the end of the saga.
This is the story of blowback. Michael reaping what he's sowed for years and years.
“The power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” Michael observes. This film only has him in it. He is now the only godfather in this world, with no Vito as a memory or a man to balance him out.
Michael has stepped into his role, seemingly running a legitimate family. The Catholic Church bestows an award to him, and he finally thinks he can back out of the business unscathed by life.
As Michael openly admits, there may be no chance at legitimacy.
“The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.”
In this cynical final chapter, Michael finds out there is no happy ending for anyone. The mafia is just organized crime, but the rest of the world, even the Vatican, is obsessed with money and power. When he told Kay the family would go legit, he didn't anticipate that no one in the world was legitimate.
And as Michael cherishes his daughter and sees her lured toward this life, he fears that he's passed up the only things that matter—family. And when the assassins come for him and miss, they take the only thing he had left away from him. Michael would rather die than suffer without a family, and now he's condemned to do so for the rest of his days.
At the end of the original cut, Michael sits alone. He has paid all the family's debts with blood and money, but he has no family left. He is a man alone. Even his father died chasing grandkids. He dies in a chair, staring off into the distance. Alone.
What began at a table full of his siblings, waiting for his father's birthday, is now a man dying alone. He's powerful, he's rich, but he has nothing.
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