"The Social Network" and the Issue of Protagonist Likability

Do you have to like a movie's main character? How essential to a film's success is what Hollywood sometimes calls "likability"?

As much as we admire The Social Network as an important and engaging film, we had big problems with the main character, Mark Zuckerberg. As we read it, Zuckerberg's an antisocial creep unable (or unwilling) to empathize with anyone else. He's so self-absorbed and driven that he rarely cracks a smile in the whole movie. He's a genius, true, but a genius very much aware of his genius-ness and thus uninterested in hiding his impatience, scorn, and contempt for those not his perceived equal.

Does this sound like the sort of person you'd want to spend two hours with? Maybe, maybe not.

If it were just these irritating character quirks, we might have let him slide. But Zuckerberg (the character in the movie, we mean - whether any of this actually involved the real person is apparently subject to debate) allows his only genuine friend to be screwed over in so ruthless and cruel a fashion, that we found ourselves actively disliking him and hoping for a dramatic comeuppance. We wound up rooting for the friend, not Zuckerberg.

The question is: is that okay? Is it a problem that we had such a negative reaction to the Zuckerberg character? Did the filmmakers push the warts-and-all approach too far?

Hollywood executives make a big deal out of creating "likable" protagonists. It's essential, the thinking goes, that audiences like the main character and and root for him to get what he wants. One famous screenwriting guru even coined a phrase for this tendency: "save the cat." As in, somehow in the first few minutes of the movie, the main character must say something or do something (like save a cat from a tree) to give the audience permission to like him. This is particularly true for darker, edgier characters. In The Town, for example, scary bank robber Ben Affleck shows his softer side in the first sequence by treating one of his hostages with kindness and sympathy. That's his "save the cat" moment.

Some consider this a needless simplification. People are evil and abrasive and petty, so why shouldn't our movie protagonists be the same? Why must Hollywood dumb everything down? Why can't a main character like Zuckerberg be a shameless jackass?

For one, most Hollywood movies are multi-million dollar enterprises most often designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This means don't alienate the customer with main characters who are completely unpleasant.

Two, it's not as simple as that.

To us, it's absolutely okay for a movie to tell the story of a shameless jackass, so long as he also...

1. Displays some charisma - After much reflection, we believe that this is our main problem with The Social Network. Zuckerberg is a complete wet blanket. There's not even a little zip or zing to his personality. He speaks in a monotone chatter, can sometimes barely focus on the person talking to him, and seems completely humorless. Think Scarface's Tony Montana or The Godfather's Michael Corleone or Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter or Inglorious Basterds' Hans Landa. All very bad men doing very bad things, but still charming and charismatic enough to engage you. They pop. Zuckerberg fizzles.

2. Generates empathy - There's often a lot of confusion between sympathy and empathy. We think it's okay to tell the story of a bank robber like Ben Affleck in The Town. You don't have to like what he's doing (sympathy) - shooting at cops and robbing banks and lying to his girlfriend. But you do have to understand why he's doing what he's doing (empathy). You have to get a glimpse into his thinking and understand that, "Yeah, I might do the same thing if I were in his shoes."

At first, we had no inkling why Zuckerberg was behaving so cruelly to his friend or why he had to undertake a scorched-earth strategy in pursuing Facebook (as much as we enjoyed seeing the Wiklevi get screwed, there's no denying that Zuckerberg strung them along long enough to get his rival site up and running). But after some spirited conversations/arguments with fellow film geeks, we've changed our thinking. In fact, it's all right there in the opening scene (perhaps a "save the cat" moment after all) as Zuckerberg worries about getting into one of Harvard's finals clubs. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin clearly sets up Zuckerberg as the outsider desperate to belong. But... one look at this guy and it's clear he will never fit in for the reasons we described earlier. He's brilliant, yes, but socially incompetent. And in a place like Harvard, social awkwardness seems to be a big handicap. Zuckerberg's many jackass moves are motivated solely by the need to succeed and prove that he does belong. We don't like what he does, but we begrudgingly can understand why he does it.

3. Comes to an internal understanding - If "likability" is a Hollywood dirty word, the word "arc" is even dirtier. Put simply, audiences respond best to a main character who undergoes some kind of transformation. He learns a lesson and corrects a past misdeed or flaw. Or, in the case of someone like poor Tony Montana, he is destroyed by his inability to learn a lesson or correct a past misdeed or flaw (in that case, through a spectacular cocaine-binge shootout). This is called the "arc." How do you know if a character doesn't change? If you leave the theater wondering what was the point. We had this reaction to the True Grit remake. An engaging, compelling Western full of charismatic outlaws (#1 above) and empathy for some dastardly deeds (#2 above). But in the end, we're not sure if anyone learned anything. So what was the point? The non-arc ending of True Grit undermined what was otherwise a pretty solid movie.

In The Social Network, Zuckerberg seemed fairly static to us. He doesn't change. His friend Eduardo certainly changes, learning a hard lesson about the way power and money can corrupt friendships. But this is Zuckerberg's story. He's the first character and the last character we see. So... does he change? It's hard to tell, thanks mostly to Jesse Eisenberg's inscrutable performance (which is either brilliant or lazy, we can't tell). We thought perhaps there was a glimmer of something in Zuckerberg eyes when Eduardo says to him at one deposition, "I was your only friend." Could that be his realization of how far he's fallen? Or are we just imagining things?

The moment seems to involve the infamous last shot of the movie as Zuckerberg tries to "friend" the girl who dumped him in the first scene. He pathetically hits "refresh" over and over again, desperate for a reply. At first, we thought this proved that he hasn't changed. After all he went through and all of the success, he's still hung up on that one dumb girl? He hasn't changed at all. He hasn't learned anything. Or has he? It was suggested to us that the act of "friending" by someone as introverted and closed-off as Zuckerberg might be the most profound statement of change he could make. Maybe seeking out his ex-girlfriend on Facebook suggests he is trying to make amends for the past and become more sociable. So which is it? Both? Neither? In a strange way, the ambiguity of the ending may be the best part of the movie. As with any good art, the meaning often involves how the viewer reads it, not what the creator intended.

So what does this all mean? Even though arguments with fellow moviegoers helped convince us that Zuckerberg is not as bad as we thought, we still don't like him. But we do like his movie.

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