Snapshot of a Villain: Michael Corleone



I have a soft spot for bad boys. My philosophy is without a villain, the hero would not become heroic, thus we need an antagonist to bring out the good in the hero. Fortunately for my mother’s state of mind, my appreciation for the vast intelligence of literary anti-heroes does not carry over into real life, but that does not prevent me from being fond of them on screen or in the pages of a decent book. I am not alone. Most females have at least a little bit of an attraction to the bad boy. Maybe it is in our nature, but I think it says a good deal about ourselves.

Let’s talk about one of the most infamous men in history, Michael Corleone, from The Godfather.

Our introduction to him is as a young man who has severed all ties with his father and is pursuing a life outside the mafia. When Vito is nearly assassinated, Michael carries out a hit against those responsible. From that moment on, his life changes forever and through subsequent events, he sinks further and further into darkness. Many find it difficult to understand him, but if you realize all his decisions are based on logic devoid of empathy each choice he makes becomes clear, from how he deals with his family to his methodical tactics with the other Dons.

Michael is complicated. There are times his actions paint him as a hypocrite but in his mind, all his choices are justified. His decisions reveal his intentions and ambition: Kay was from a traditional background, which would have been useful if Michael had become a senator like his father wanted. He left behind those intentions in his flight to Sicily, where he becomes enamored with Appolonia. She fits into his new vision of his future as a proper, demure Sicilian wife. He is as drawn to her as a symbol of purity as he is thinking of the future. She is the opposite of Kay, who will challenge and confront him about her traditional role as a wife and the mafia.

Appolonia’s death plays a major role in reaffirming Michael’s initial belief that safety is synonymous with power—that to be secure, he must be so powerful that others fear you. This blunt philosophy causes him to become ruthless and cold. It is in this approach that he differs most from his dad; in the areas Michael fails, Vito succeeds. Michael is devoid of compassion but his father relies heavily on it and it weakens him as a Don as a result. Vito makes fatal errors in judgment, from his daughter’s choice of a husband to his inability to control his sons. He is loved by family and friends and respected by the Dons, who know his word is true. But Michael inspires fear in his enemies and hatred in his family. His decision to have his brother-in-law killed for participating in the murder of Sonny is rational; it sends a message that betrayal will not be tolerated but makes his sister a widow. After Fredo’s betrayal, Michael’s decision to have him killed is a warning to their enemies there  is no mercy for those who turn on the Family. Where Vito chose to offer reconciliation to his enemies to stop the violence, Michael hits them hard. In many respects he is a superior Don but Vito is by far the better man.

Yet it is his treatment of Kay that truly undoes him. It takes him over a year after his return from Sicily to contact her, indicating uncertainty in her ability to fit into his life and a lack of interest in her. He marries her out of need more than desire; he must have heirs and she can provide them, without him wasting time finding a new wife. He makes a tragic mistake in underestimating her. He is accustomed to Sicilian girls who do not question his methods and content being uninvolved in his affairs.

Their story involves a reversal of naivety. Kay is naïve as to the methods of the mafia and Michael’s involvement. Her love for him blinds her to the truth, but as the consequences of his actions become evident, she distances herself to the point where she feels “no love for [him] at all.” Her affection fades during his preoccupation and he fails to realize the extent of her disapproval and dislike.

Where Vito participates in violence for the ultimate preservation of the Family, he remains a loving father and husband, Michael uses violence to achieve power in order to protect them, at the cost of all relationships. He becomes so focused on his goals that the discovery of how much Kay despises him and the Family take him by surprise. Learning she has aborted their son, Michael banishes her from his house and his life. Kay blames him for the murder of their child, saying that if he had been a better man she would have gladly given him another heir. His reaction reverts back to his Sicilian code of honor: it’s not personal, it’s business. Killing an unborn child to prevent it from becoming like its father is personal. Thus Michael can justify his murders while hating Kay and her rejection not only of his Family but him as a husband and father.

“Fascinating” is the one word that best describes The Godfather. All find it interesting even if it is not to their taste. The Sicilian emphasis is on protecting the Family; if a matter does not impact its safety, then it is unimportant. In the novel Michael’s sister goes to her father with a complaint that her new husband beats her. Vito coldly answers that she should “stop giving him a reason,” implying he is within his right to correct his wife with brutality. Her older brother Sonny is far more protective of her and retaliates against Carl, who eventually ends up dead… but not for spousal abuse. Yet there is a strong sense of loyalty and affection in other relationships.

The contrast of the sons with their father is terrific, each revealing a different virtue or strength of Vito: Sonny is his emotional side and love for his family; Fredo has his innocence and kindness; Michael has his intelligence and drive. Their fates revolve around the success and survival of the Family, and all survive or perish based on their ties and the strength of loyalty.

Though we would never condone Michael’s actions, he fascinates us and we want to save him. We want him to make the right decisions. We want him to avoid evil. We want him to be safe and his family protected, so entering his world provides us with a moral paradox: our fondness for him and his family fight against our belief in right and wrong.

Michael is attractive because he is wealthy and powerful, driven and intelligent, certain of what he wants and unafraid to go after it, masculine, and respected, an unchallenged protector and provider. These things are attractive to us because normally they are virtues, but unfortunately Michael is a twisted version of what God intended a man to be: a powerful spiritual leader.

Francis Ford Coppola says the films are about the deaths of the brothers and their impact on Michael but I think the series is about his spiritual death. It is his initial attempt to be a good man that makes his gradual descent into an angel of darkness a tragic thing to watch unfold. ■

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!


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