Civil War Films
A different perspective on the protagonist and antagonist
The most basic question in storytelling is: “Who is your protagonist?”.
That protagonist embarks on a quest to achieve his goal and learns more about himself. Throughout his quest, he fights antagonistic forces and their most known agent: the antagonist.
This template is not mandatory, but the majority of films follow it. They bring a relateable protagonist that the audience roots for, and puts him against the antagonist that the audience roots against. It’s the virtuous hero against the evil villain. The good versus the bad.
A structure like that allows constructing the theme more easily. The theme claims something is good, so the protagonist (and value character) follows it and win, while the antagonist goes against it and loses. A very clear dichotomy that emphasizes the truth of the theme. But as we all know, life isn’t black and white, and this is why Civil War films shine.
In order to explain what Civil War films are, let me start with a story. Shortly after Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” came out, I watched it with a friend. After the film ended, we both praised and glorified Captain’s virtue and Ironman’s vicious betrayal. A week later I met another friend, and after the mandatory praising of the film, his first comment was: “Yea, but Captain was such a jerk”.
This story really shows what a Civil War film is all about. Both my friends enjoyed the film. They both thought the protagonist was great, the antagonist was relatable, and the journey was intriguing. The only difference between them was describing who the protagonist (and antagonist) is. The film splits his audient into two groups who fight over their protagonist in a fan’s “civil war”.
Despite the strong name, and the namesake, Civil War films were always around. A good dramatic, non-epic example is Derek Cienfrance’s Blue Valentine. The two main characters have directly opposing goals, to the point where only one of them can get what he wants. Throughout the film, both characters are treated as the “good protagonist”, and the ending brings a half-open conclusion, leaving the audience to decide which side they support.
The idea behind these kinds of films can help aspiring screenwriters improve their craft. Putting away the dichotomic protagonist-antagonist view can generate a new novel script that talks about the theme in a more balanced conversation. It doesn’t fit for every script, but even in a more standard journey, looking at the antagonist as his own protagonist can definitely improve the antagonist’s characterization.