We’re having a roundtable about Mary Sues, with Noah leading the way here. I never heard the term before, but I think I can add an example: Michael Corleone. When the writer seems to gloat over how wonderful a character is, you’ve got a Mary Sue, and the Godfather novel does a lot of gloating about Michael; the movies, though more classy and understated, also adore him. Book and movies remind us over and over that Corleone is cool, controlled, lucid, unflappable, and (when it comes to business) infallible. I was writing here about the character:
… he is a born leader, a paragon of competence and nerve, a decorated war hero and cool-headed tactician. He is the dream self-image of Mario Puzo, that poor shambling yutz who wanted to pretend he was hard, compact and capable.
I think Michael Corleone works as a Mary Sue for a whole lot of people, for myself and a ton of other men born a little before, during, and a long time after World War II. Maybe the younger fellows have lost interest in him; I don’t know. But we’ve got decades’ worth of American males who dote on the Godfather films and the special punctilio of its characters, and especially on Michael Corleone, the paragon and epitome of the Godfather style.
Notice that Michael Corleone doesn’t quite fit either Mary Sue category described by Mandy in a comment to one of the posts here. Unfortunately I can’t find the post/comment, but if I remember right Mandy says there are two types: the winsome, wonderful Mary Sue who’s adored by his/her fellow cast members, and the brilliantly resourceful Mary Sue with his/her endless bag of gadgets and skills.
Batman and James Bond were examples that came up for the second group. Michael Corleone belongs with them because of his competence, but at the same time he marks a difference. Batman and James Bond know how to do all sorts of things, and they carry all sorts of gadgets, and that’s supposed to be what a second-category Mary Sue is all about. Michael Corleone doesn’t master birdcalls or fingerprint analysis or carry around a laser suitcase. He’s always on top of it, but he doesn’t really do anything. Starting out, he kills Sollozzo and McCluskey; the act condemns him to a criminal career and proves his competence at the basics of the family business. But after that Corleone is strictly management.
The winsome Mary Sue is all about others’ reactions: the whole reason she exists is to be found charming, courageous, sexy or whatever by the rest of the cast. To borrow a phrase from sociology, she’s outer-directed. The second kind of Mary Sue, the endless-skills variety, is more inner-directed. A second-cat Mary Sue has to know judo and safecracking whether or not people admire him for it. (In practice, of course, people do admire a second-cat MS, but that’s icing as opposed to cake.)
Michael Corleone is something different, an outer-directed second-category Mary Sue. Operationally, he does nothing but plot strategy and interact with his colleagues, and according to the series he does these things in glorious fashion. But follow along closely and the strategizing starts to look a bit thin. How does he know Tessio sold him out? Because Tessio is smart and selling out the family is the smart move. But if Tessio is so smart, doesn’t he realize that being smart will automatically make him Michael’s prime suspect? Well, no, he’s not that smart. Michael is a master strategist in a world where the author makes sure everyone else spots him 10 points. Michael’s great master strokes are presented as triumphs of brainpower, but all he does is send people to kill his enemies. The brilliance involved here is not too advanced: “I know, dress our guy as a cop! And for Roth, have the guy carry a newspaper under his arm! Nobody will suspect!”
That leaves interacting, which technically would mean how he deals with other people. But in practice the focus is just as much how he comes across to other people, and also to us. Michael Corleone’s competence is so ideal that it transcends specific abilities and becomes a matter of temperament, and his temperament is right in front of us, on display. He sits there, keeps his poker face, coolly meets our gaze, and you know he’s a competent kind of guy, a “man of respect.” But what if nobody respects him? Like the winsome Mary Sue, he’s a failure unless enough other characters give him the proper reaction. But, boy, they sure do, and for the ones that don’t there’s a hard lesson headed their way.
Action isn’t Michael Corleone’s thing; he behaves, and the behavior itself has got a twist to it. He’s a forceful, dominant personality, but he keeps quiet, sits still and doesn’t throw his weight about. He just takes what’s being given and turns it back, his face unblinking, and in the end he decides all. Senator Pat Geary sneers at him and tries to shake him down, and an hour of screentime later we see Geary broken, a bloody dead girl next to him in bed, and he’s nodding as Tom Hagen tells him the way things are going to be. Michael never raised his voice, never lifted a hand. But he’s deadly, you can tell by looking at him, and his deadliness takes practical form in his command of a deadly organization. His fitness to head that organization is signaled by the cool (no, “steely”) self-command he shows as he faces his enemies and underlings.
Which is convenient for us (for me and my fellow Godfather fans as I imagine them). If we had to be like Sonny Corleone, big James Caan stomping about and shouting, the mismatch would become a bit too much. Michael Corleone does what we do, which is to sit still and watch our mouths, and he turns it into strength, not weakness. The time comes for him to flex that strength, put it into effect, and, well, other people do that for him. Meanwhile, Michael keeps sitting around and coolly measuring out his thoughts and being careful about what shows on his face, and we’re happy. The deal hangs together even if a certain amount of stupidity is woven in. We buy the gimme that Michael is a tough guy who never does anything tough, and the one that has him beating opponents at checkers-level strategy contests. He helps us get by the way we are, which is a powerful incentive to buy a fantasy. And the disincentive, the implausibility, has to do with work, and work is a vague thing to us.
Nowadays most of us work in offices doing jobs that are fairly pointless when considered by themselves. Even if the details can be explained to a nonpracticioner, there’s not much reason to do the jobs themselves, not on their own. They make sense only as component actions of a vast process, one that’s undertaken by no one in particular and benefits nobody we know. We don’t expect to understand other people’s jobs, and we don’t expect them to understand ours. If they did understand, we wouldn’t expect them to be interested. Everyone has his compartment, and what we share outside the compartments is just us, making small talk. Michael Corleone works just fine for us, a dream version of ourselves that is 90% demeanor and 10% a vestigial work element.
The same slippery ground of unrealness travels from beneath our feet to the world of the Corleone family and its operations. It’s all “them” territory, as in “They”ll take care of it.” In our work lives we’re “them,” in the Godfather series the “they” work falls to buttonmen and we’re off with Michael Corleone, lounging quietly in our chair, in command. As the Godfather series goes on, the actual work of the Corleone family becomes hazy. The killing of Luca Brasi early in I is a big deal because he is an exceptionally good assassin; lose him and the family is crippled. By the time the movie is over, Michael can engineer a string of simultaneous deaths, a miracle round of killings, and we’re barely aware of who does what. Apparently the talent grows on trees. In fact when II ends Michael throws away one of his top assassins to get at Hyman Roth, an enemy who is on the ropes and trying to flee the country. The loss of the assassin is not a huge deal: a setback, possibly, but the family continues right along.
You can’t be proud of a fantasy like that. A bit of narcissism can work wonders in fiction, but a little too much is way too much. People get cloyed and disgusted, or else they see thru the whole deal at once and recognize how the same old dumb desires are being catered to. The selfishness and tunnel vision built into the deal are pretty awful when you stop to think: the killing of that girl so that Senator Geary can be blackmailed doesn’t even rise to a Barbara Gordon moment; the characters and movie wad her up like Kleenex. And if the Godfather series was just about a brilliant, cool-nerved Mafia leader who always gets his way, it would wear out its welcome pretty quickly. But Michael suffers. Though he’s a Mary Sue step by step, day by day, his big story is all about how he screws up, how he throws away his life. He winds up nowhere, sitting by himself and feeling bad, much like some of us on particular Sunday afternoons but in a far grander edition. He’s not moping, he’s bleak; he’s looking at the devastation he’s wrought, not job interviews he bungled. He has carved his way thru the world, made giant choices (an empire over love, vengeance over family), and now he takes the measure of the soul his actions have given him. It’s really not the same as me on a Sunday afternoon; but it looks the same, and the feelings have a lot in common, and if Michael is suffering I know there’s some kind of seriousness to outbalance and neutralize the vanity of his story’s appeal. His mistake was to love his father too much and to fight too hard in the world, and these are nothing like the mistakes I’ve made, or most people make, but his story still becomes a tragedy, and told well enough the whole dream becomes beautiful.