Of the pillars that build a successful story, one that requires significant maintenance is the character pillar. If it isn’t sturdy, the film’s concept, world building, and pacing will amount to a lot of good looking rubble where a good movie might have been. That architectural allegory is just a fancy way of saying if the characters don’t work, neither will the movie.
Below are films and TV shows where the flaw lies in the main character. In these cases, it’s not necessarily the character causing the problem, but rather his or her placement at the center of the story. These stories could have worked if a supporting character had been pushed up to leading status.
To be clear, this is not just a list of supporting characters who’re more interesting than their leading counterparts. Fitting the bill of protagonist doesn’t mean having interesting qualities, but rather the right qualities. Imperator Furiosa might be a more interesting character than Max Ruckantansky, but that doesn’t make her a better fit for Fury Road‘s protagonist. Since the movie begins and ends with Max’s arc, whereas Furiosa’s has conviction throughout, he is better fit for the leading role.
With that out of the way, keep reading to see 15 Supporting Characters That Should’ve Been Leads.
15. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War
With any vast ensemble, it seems unfair to hand one character protagonist duty. And honestly, Captain America: Civil War features so many current and future Avengers, the film is practically an Avengers movie. There’s even a line when Tony Stark expresses his goal of keeping the Avengers from splitting up, signaling the movie’s true stakes. So shouldn’t the main character be somebody who understands those stakes?
Steve Rodgers’ alter ego claims the title of this film, and that’s far from outlandish. But as the Sokovia Accords bring out everybody’s true colors, it’s Stark’s character development that stands out as the most nuanced. In classic Tony Stark fashion, the billionaire, philanthropist, playboy genius is facing extreme guilt for his actions and, debatably, overcompensating for it.
Whether Captain America is the lead or Iron Man is, you get more or less the same quality movie. And if we look at this like an Avengers film, it’s easier to imagine them both as co-leads. But when pressed to pick one, Stark would be the logical choice. Even Black Panther could’ve made a great lead for this movie, but he’ll have his day soon.
14. Jess (Lauren Lapkus) in Crashing
With Girls over, HBO has a new Judd Apatow venture in its place. After discovering his wife’s infidelity, standup comedian Pete cruises around New York looking for temporary shelters (Sarah Silverman’s couch, T.J. Miller’s bean bag chair, the usual). Crashing had a good first season, but a great one could’ve been made about Pete’s wife.
Jess makes the decision to cheat on her husband, and allows disorder into her balanced life. Throughout the series, Jess consistently proves to have a more interesting perspective on situations than Pete. At a dinner with Pete’s parents for example, when she endures Pete’s disgusting, codependent relationship with his mom. At the baptism of Jess and Pete’s friend, Jess is the one who makes a bold, disruptive decision. Until Jess does something at the ceremony, Pete remains a bystander.
Crashing obviously wanted to be a show about stand-up comedy, since both Pete Holmes the actor and Pete the character are comedians. And the premise of a main character leaping from one friend’s place to the next lends itself to a solid episodic formula. But a much richer story could have been mined from Jess’ post-affair decisions, because she’d be driving her own narrative.
13. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The argument over who is or isn’t the protagonist in The Phantom Menace will always be up for a debate nobody wants to have. Determining a main character for George Lucas’ return to Star Wars would only be one step towards fixing Phantom Menace. Still, a solid lead character could have kept the the story afloat for at least one movie, delaying, or maybe even preventing, the moment when the trilogy would capsize.
Many have voiced the perfunctory nomination for Obi-Wan as Phantom Menace‘s lead role, from the Mr. Plinkett reviews to Belated Media. It’s a redundant claim that, admittedly, never lacks honesty. A younger version of Obi-Wan, given clear start and end points marking the character’s growth, could have made for a fine protagonist, especially in Ewan McGregor’s hands.
The obvious arc for Obi-Wan would be the journey once given to Luke. He starts the movie craving an adrenaline rush, and then realizes there’s more to life than just adventure. If Lucas had gone an alternate route, say keep Obi-Wan as a stuck up Padawan to a weirdly brazen master, that might have worked as well. Provided the filmmakers gave him a definitive point A and point B.
12. Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) in 45 Years
Charlotte Rampling got an Oscar nomination for her lead performance in 45 Years. The award went to Brie Larson for Room. While Larson deserved that honor, Rampling’s work deserves praise for effortlessly conveying several decades of one woman’s emotional baggage. But strangely, it seems Rampling’s character isn’t the correct choice for 45 Years’ lead.
Andrew Haigh’s film follows an elderly couple, played by Rampling and Tom Courtenay, in the days before their 45th wedding anniversary. Everything goes according to plan until Geoff (Courtenay) receives some shocking news. The body of his ex-lover, who fell to her death on a hike years ago, has just been located. This information creates a sudden rift between Geoff and his wife, Kate (Rampling).
While Kate tackles plenty of challenges throughout the film (with Geoff indisposed by grief, she alone handles party preparations), the movie spends most of the time in her present, neglecting details of her past independent of Geoff. Meanwhile, most of the film is spent alluding to Geoff’s history independent of her. A more bountiful story could be told about Geoff reconciling the direction his life took, rather than one about Kate putting on a strong face through it all.
11. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) in Kong: Skull Island
This year’s King Kong reboot fostered many potential main characters (each of them played by a bona-fide A-Lister). But though the obvious choice was right in front of the filmmakers from the very beginning, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team made the odd decision to diminish the character of Hank Marlow (played mostly by John C. Reilly).
Kong: Skull Island begins during World War II, right at the moment when two fighter pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash land on the film’s eponymous land mass. On the ground, they engage in a vicious brawl, only interrupted when a humongous ape pokes out his head. After their encounter with the 8th wonder of the world, it’s mentioned the soldiers go on to survive on the island together, and ultimately become like brothers.
That’s a lot of story to just mention, and it certainly would’ve been more interesting than the plethora of half-baked character arcs spread across Kong‘s needlessly large cast. Though Vogt-Roberts captured a unique feel with a post-Vietnam setting (and though pursuing young Hank Marlow’s story would’ve meant no John C. Reilly), he missed an opportunity to weave a compelling tale of soldiers from opposing sides.
10. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio/Robert Redford) in The Great Gatsby
Some might argue that Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway share protagonist duties. But Nick is the true main character. Gatsby’s certainly the star of the show, but because we meet him through Nick, and see little of him beyond Nick’s field of vision, it’s reasonable to crown the bright-eyed college graduate as leading man. Still, it’s equally rational to think Gatsby himself was more deserving of that title.
For those who skipped the book in high school (or have an aversion to Baz Luhrmann/are unaware of Robert Redford’s version), The Great Gatsby chronicles the adventures of former Yale student and WWI vet, Nick Carraway. Upon moving to New York City, Nick hears word of an elusive man, and frequent party host, who uses the name Jay Gatsby. The story shows us Nick as he acts as intermediary in Gatsby’s affair with Daisy, Nick’s married cousin.
Gatsby is a literary classic, so it’d be absurd to propose a better version to F. Scott Fitzgerald (both because his novel is timeless and because he’s dead). Nonetheless, it’s exciting to imagine a version of Gatsby that unquestionably tracks the life of its titular character, from his impoverished beginnings to his bootlegging career.
9. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in X-Men: Apocolypse
You might not have noticed, but X-Men: Days of Future Past told a successful Wolverine story. The umpteenth X-Men movie crafted an arc around Logan, transporting him from a short tempered fighter to an unlikely motivator for, of all people, Charles Xavier. There’s an attempt for something similar in Apocalypse, only this time with Mystique. But Mystique’s journey became muddled in the film’s disastrous third act.
At the beginning of Apocalypse, Mystique finds herself unwillingly perceived as a hero for the mutant cause. It appears Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg were setting the stage for a Mystique arc. Whereas Logan hesitated to become a mentor, Mystique would hesitate to become a leader. Both characters needed to change. However, Mystique’s journey loses focus very quickly.
In the movie’s climax, Mystique’s most impactful motion is a passive one, when she’s strangled by Apocalypse. The image (largely criticized for its prevalence in advertising), inspires other mutants to defeat Apocalypse. This unifying moment would have worked better had Mystique actively done something noble, like she did at the end of DoFP. Combine this missed opportunity with an abrupt focus on Charles and Erik, and you have a failed attempt to make Mystique the lead.
8. Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) in Girls
As mentioned before, HBO’s divisive comedy, Girls, has now ended. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the show based around anybody but Lena Dunham’s self-centered, barely self-sufficient, Hannah Horvath. For six seasons, viewers watched Hannah from one controversial incident to the next, and everybody had their own way of reacting to her. But as compelling as Hanna’s character is, her friend Shoshanna Shapiro could have made for a more pronounced coming of age story.
When viewers first met Shoshanna, she was still in college and playing host to her estranged cousin, Jessa. Soon Shoshanna is roped into Jessa’s social circle of (slightly) older women, including Hannah and her friend Marnie. While all four have a lot of life experience yet to acquire, Shosanna, who feels insecure, and almost ashamed, that she’s a virgin, had the longest road ahead of her.
Throughout the series, Shosanna loses her virginity to an older man, graduates late due a failing grade, and even takes a job in Japan. Girls would have gained a lot from making Shoshanna the central story of the show, capturing a young woman’s growth as she follows the examples set by three wildly different role models.
7. The Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco) in Now You See Me
Now You See Me lacks a true north. Watching the movie, you ascertain that Mark Ruffalo is the protagonist. But the final twist completely cancels out Ruffalo’s arc, making every obstacle he faced purely decorative and turning him into a weak protagonist. So either the writers should have revised the twist or attributed leading status to people with genuine difficulties.
Ruffalo plays an FBI agent tracking a team of magicians/burglars. He hunts them obsessively, but they constantly stay one step ahead of him. The team, known The Four Horsemen, formulates plans off-screen, meaning we never know what they’re up to. If Ruffalo was a good protagonist, this wouldn’t matter. But he isn’t, so it does.
NYSM should have written the Horsemen as leads and made their plans more transparent. The main crew of a heist movie should hide a few tricks up their sleeves, but not so many that their end-goals are shielded from confused viewers. Ocean’s Eleven does this perfectly. We understand what the team ultimately wants, but they can still surprise us in the end. But Now You See Me misses the mark, and feels like Ocean’s Eleven-lite, created by people who’ve never seen Ocean’s Eleven.
6. Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) in Halt and Catch Fire
In its recent seasons, Halt and Catch Fire has actually remedied this problem. The show started as what many jokingly considered the story of Walter White working under Don Draper. It didn’t help that Halt premiered on AMC. But for season two, the drama adjusted focus to a couple of female characters on the sidelines. As a result, Halt is now one of the best shows on TV.
The first season of the period tech drama was primarily a show about entrepreneur Joe MacMillan and computer engineer Gordon Clark. With the aid of a programmer named Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, soon to appear in Blade Runner 2049), they spent the season building a more advanced personal computer. But season two took a welcome turn when it portrayed the rise of Cameron’s gaming company Mutiny, run by her and Gordon’s wife, Donna.
An “opposites attract” angle on Cameron and Donna felt much fresher than the same approach towards Joe and Gordon. The former two held a powerful, if occasionally complicated, bond that would steer Halt to far better storytelling opportunities. Joe and Gordon also, benefitted from their counterpart’s newfound prominence, fleshing out better away from the spotlight rather than under it.
5. Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in Passengers
Please give this Jennifer Lawrence person a leading role! Kidding, obviously she’s the girl from The Bill Engvall Show. Leading up to its release, Passengers sported the perfect package: two major stars, an Oscar-nominated director, and a unique concept. But Passgeners’ appeal withered soon after it hit theaters. However, there’s a good movie hiding in Passengers. Jon Spaith’s script was on the Black List for a reason.
A lot of this has already been said in a recent Nerdwriter video. And to be fair, this project spent ten-odd years in production (it almost starred Keanu Reeves). Any fixes included here were probably toyed with during that period. Bottom line, the movie, which is about a mechanic (Chris Pratt) waking from an intended 110 year sleep on route to another planet, could’ve done better had it focused on the writer he wakes up for company (Lawrence).
An aspect of this premise that makes it so exciting (and frustrating) is the myriad of potential tones, paces, and dramatic situations the filmmakers could have pursued. But of all the hypothetical avenues, the best ones always begin with Lawrence’s Aurora.
4. Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) in Inglorious Basterds
Something about Shoshannas. Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s return to form after the mildly received Death Proof, set out to invent a brand new men-on-a-mission film. Something in the vein of The Dirty Dozen. Basterds certainly does what it meant to do, but a more lasting movie could’ve arose from focusing mainly on the story of Shoshanna, putting the Basterds themselves in the story’s peripheries.
Plenty would argue this is already the case, as the movie gets going immediately with Shoshanna’s traumatic origin story. After Hans Landa (Oscar-winner Cristoph Waltz) brutally executes Shosanna’s family, he mysteriously lets her escape. While it might bear too much similarity to Kill Bill (albeit set during WWII), a movie about Shoshanna life specifically could’ve been much more cathartic than what Basterds actually is. Especially if it culminated with Shoshanna personally taking vengeance on Landa, instead of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) scalping just another Nazi.
Inglorious Basterds is what it is, and it has an abundance of fans for that reason. But if you stop for a minute and ponder the idea of an unequivocal Shoshanna-based movie, you’ll end up lingering on the thought during repeat viewings of the actual film.
3. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) in Godzilla (2014)
As with most monster movies, Godzilla (2014) didn’t really need a great main character to satisfy. All things considered, neither did Kong: Skull Island. But, like with Skull Island, Godzilla had a part in place that was so evidently the right choice for protagonist, and decided to ignore him. You don’t brush aside a character played by Bryan Cranston, especially when that character is the best part of your movie.
This rendition of Godzilla started off with Cranston’s Joe Brody living in Japan with his wife and son. He loses his wife to a freak accident at the nuclear plant they both work at. Years later, Brody has to prove to the world, and his disapproving son, that his wife’s demise was no accident, but instead the work of something far more powerful.
And then he dies. Just as they movie is getting started, propelling Joe Brody on his road to redemption, the movie kills him. Right after his untimely exit, Joe’s leading duties are transferred to his less interesting son, played by Aaron Taylor Johnson. Because of this, audiences felt robbed of a movie that could have been engaging besides the fighting monsters
2. Cameron (Alan Ruck) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ignoring ludicrous fan theories (is Ferris just a figment of Cameron’s imagination??), Ferris Bueller is undoubtedly the main character of the movie that bears his name. Ferris slacked his way into comedy history with John Hughes’ teen movie masterpiece. But what if Cameron, Ferris’ timid hypochondriac friend where the lead in this story?
Usually moviegoers are used to meeting a character at a low point in their lives, and finding the promise that great challenges lie ahead for him or her. Cameron starts Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at a particularly low point, living under the rule of a strict father and essentially wishing he was dead. In a different world, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could have centered on Cameron, enlisting Ferris as the Peter Pan to his Wendy, somebody who carries him from the known world to the unknown world.
OK, you can get that weird image out of your head now. The point is, while Ferris is a scene stealer, Cameron has a lot more going on in terms of character development. A Cameron story might have given audiences a more substantial arc. Then again, it doesn’t really matter. The movie is perfect as is.
1. Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them received mixed reviews, from Potter fans and non-fans. A key complaint regarded the main character issue. Supposedly it was Newt, as he was portrayed by hot commodity Eddie Redmayne. But a lot happened besides Newt’s hunt for magical creatures. In this realm, a particularly darker story was waiting to be told.
In this spinoff of the Harry Potter films, Credence Barebone is a sad, confused boy living in the house of a magic-hating lunatic. He starts hoping for better when Graves, a powerful wizard, recruits his help. Graves promises to help Credence become a wizard, because he very well may have the potential. Potential he’s been repressing for years, certain to yield horrifying results.
Credence is a shadowy reflection of Harry Potter, somebody who possessed magical abilities but never got his owl. In its absence, Credence felt he had to bottle up his power until it got nastier and nastier. In what could be interpreted as an allegory for closeted homosexuality, Credence’s journey tells the story of a tortured soul, from his starting point as Grave’s accomplice to his end point as something far more powerful than the villain he served.
Which supporting characters do you wish had been leads?
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