Back to the Future is one of my favorite all-time movies. Over thirty years since it came out in theaters in the summer of 1985, it remains a popular film that some regard as a classic and a few even regard as “perfect.” It’s hard to classify, delivering a science fiction adventure that’s also a grounded dramedy of someone realizing how human his parents are, as well as a buddy comedy between a witty rock & roll teenager who befriends a reclusive scientist and gives him the incredible gift of knowing that his struggles and experiments will one day lead to success. Plus, the soundtrack and score are great. But one of the most interesting things about Back to the Future for me (not counting its sequels), is that the hero doesn’t have the typical heroic arc.
Just about every hero in a story has an arc. They have a dream, a goal, they embark on a quest that either promises reward or parallels their struggle for that goal, they learn things about themselves, then they emerge from the quest as a changed person. But does this apply to Marty McFly, as portrayed by Michael J. Fox?
When we meet Marty, his life and personality is laid out pretty quickly for the audience. He’s an easy-going, clever kid more interested in becoming a musician than in being a good student, but who fears the risks that might be involved in pursuing music as a career. He’s involved in a romance that may be his first experience with love as well, with a girlfriend who isn’t afraid to challenge him. He wishes his parents were less embarrassing, and he hangs out with a scientist of dubious reputation.
It’s been argued that Marty doesn’t have a hero’s journey. He goes back in time, screws up how his parents met, and then does his best to reconnect them so that history isn’t altered and he (and his siblings) are not erased from existence. This does not help him with his music career. This is not a moment where a selfish character learns to be altruistic, since Marty is doing this specifically to save his own life. Marty is not on a quest to gain knowledge or change the world for the better, he is instead actively trying to restore the status quo. When he returns to the future, he realizes that history has still changed in some ways, as his parents and siblings are now all somewhat different, but he doesn’t talk about any plans to take his life into a new direction nor does he have a moment where he reflects on how wrong his actions and approach to life were before he made his time travel trip.
So on the surface, it does look like he doesn’t have an arc and doesn’t learn anything about himself. But I’d argue this is a shallow viewing. If you delve deeper, changes are happening.
At the beginning of the film, Marty and his band the Pinheads audition to be the starring band of an upcoming school dance. He’s obviously nervous, as evidenced by his body language and his voice when he introduces the band with little confidence. The band then starts playing and Marty starts pulling out all his tricks, acting as if he’s doing a guitar solo instead of beginning a song while accompanied by a band. He’s so focused on this strategy to seem impressive that he doesn’t realize the judges aren’t enjoying the performance, never looks in their direction even, until one (played by Huey Lewis) tells him to stop. It’s not a good audition. And maybe the judges wouldn’t have liked it even if it were. But Marty doesn’t consider where he went wrong or if the audience wasn’t right, he immediately takes it as possible proof that he’s not talented, telling his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) that there’s no point in mailing an audition tape. Even though this action would cost him nothing more than the effort of mailing something, he just fears further rejection too much. Jennifer reminds him though that his friend Doc Brown once said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
When he journeys back in time, Marty finds that his father also had creative talent and artistic dreams as a kid, but never pursued them due to a similar fear of rejection. Marty is taken aback by this. Later, Marty gives his father George the same advice that Doc and Jennifer gave him. This time, it’s not a remark he shrugs off. He believes it and he recognizes that he needs his father to believe it too, even if only for one night. When Marty goes back to the future and sees that his father is not just different, he is more successful and much happier. Ut would be foolish to think he doesn’t realize how this happened, that his father accomplished greater financial followed the advice Marty had scoffed at earlier. He’s not an idiot.
Along with this, we should think about Marty’s experience performing at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in 1955. He’s asked to fill in for an injured guitarist, but we see that he is scared. His parents are supposed to kiss and fall in love during this dance, and he no doubt fears that if he and the band don’t set the mood right, then this won’t happen. That is much greater stakes than auditioning for his own school dance earlier. But Marty gets through it and at the end of the song the goal has been reached. Then he decides to stick around for a performance of Johnny B. Goode.
Here, Marty is not focused only on himself as he performs, as with the audition earlier. He is looking out into the audience and connecting with them, and such connections are necessary to be successful in music. He is now giving a great performance, and when he takes it too far in the end and realizes he’s alienated the teenagers who were enjoying his music just moments before, he doesn’t collapse under this new rejection. Instead, he remarks, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that. But your kids are gonna love it.”
It’s a funny line, but it also shows a new maturity. Marty didn’t question if the judges he auditioned for were the right audience, he took their rejection as law. Here, in 1955, Marty sees rejection and decides ok, this didn’t connect to you, but somewhere out there is an audience that will appreciate this and so this isn’t a defeat. That’s great growth.
Finally, there’s Marty’s relationship with Doc. The friendship is so interesting. A reclusive scientist often told that his dreams are stupid or crazy, and a kid who’s conflicted about his dreams. No wonder these two outcast dreamers found each other. The adventure begins when, moments before he travels to 1955, Marty witnesses Doc’s murder, prompting him to escape in the time machine. This is a traumatic event, followed by the bizarre experience of hours later (relatively speaking) Marty meeting another version of Doc that is not only still alive, but thirty years younger and totally unaware of their connection. It’s jarring to say the least. But Marty doesn’t focus on the awkwardness of the situation, he’s glad to see his friend alive again.
And here yet again is a sign of Marty’s maturity. He learns that even after he’s seen all the dangers of time travel, seen firsthand that changing history can erase people from existence and alter who knows what else, Marty makes a decision that his friend’s life is worth such a risk. But he’s also learned not to act rashly, as he did when he saved George from an oncoming car and thus prevented his parents from meeting. This time, Marty considers the consequences, then takes action in a way that will greatly reduce the risks while still possibly achieving his goals. By giving Doc a letter that can’t be opened until 1985, and by only giving Doc enough information to take a precaution against being shot, he leaves Doc’s history intact except for the night of his murder. He’s thinking fourth dimensionally when a week ago he didn’t even think time travel was real. And it pays off. Doc survives.
Add to that the fact that Marty agrees to a plan that involves him driving into a lightning bolt, and that’s a lot of fearful, uncomfortable, and dangerous situations he had to deal with during his week stuck in the past. Do you think Marty still fears having his demo tape rejected after he just spent a week facing all that?
All of this puts Marty into a position where he seems that intelligent risk-taking and hard work will lead to success after success. Doc is alive, his parents have a happier marriage and are happier people, he now owns a truck he loves. When he tells Jennifer at the end of the movie, “Everything’s great,” this is not a celebration of the status quo being restored. It hasn’t been. Everything’s great because people changed their lives through risk taking and choice. George chose to pursue writing. Doc chose to read Marty’s letter even knowing the risk of paradox. This is now a Marty who absolutely will send out his demo tape, and if it’s rejected he’ll send a copy to someone else or make another, better one first. Marty will now choose to be a braver, smarter person in his own future. And that’s a heroic arc.