Characters We Love: Captain Malcolm Reynolds

I know, I was supposed to post this yesterday, then I said next week, but I felt bad for not keeping my own schedule. I’m covering the feature length film Serenity and not the series Firefly in my description of Mal. I found it interesting how Mr. Whedon managed to effortlessly weave in bits of Mal’s back story from the series into the film. Forget the snore fest that was the Avengers, this is Joss Whedon’s best work. The writing, characters, everything comes together in perfect harmony.

Serenity was released in 2005 and takes place after the final episode of the series Firefly. It tells the story of a captain and crew of a “Firefly-class” spaceship named Serenity and their fight for survival outside Alliance control. The captain, Mal, and first mate, Zoe, are veterans of the Unification War having barely survived the battle of Serenity Valley, due to Mal’s bravery and intuition. Their lives of petty crime and hindering The Alliance are thrown for a loop after one of the crew, River Tam, The Alliance’s experimental weapon and psychic, goes berserk after a run in with the Reavers (cannibals from the Outer Rim).

The first time the audience is introduced to Mal, he’s wondering if the primary buffer panel just fell off his ship. Wash, his pilot, agrees the primary buffer panel did indeed fall off. What does Mal do? He calmly grabs the radio and tells the crew to expect turbulence and they may explode, all the while checking on preparations for their upcoming robbery.

What does this scene show us about Mal? It shows us he remains cool under pressure, he has a sense of humor (or a bit of a smart-ass), easily adapts to stressful situations, and obviously has dealt with spaceship problems before. We learn all this in the first five minutes. Mr. Whedon wastes little time conveying many of Mal’s traits. The more movies I watch, the more this seems to pop up. Good directors establish their main characters as soon as possible. Good writers should find a way to do the same through action, as a way to keep the reader interested.

A few minutes later, Simon, the ship’s doctor, gets in Mal’s face about taking his teenage sister on the upcoming robbery. Mal makes it very clear he gives the orders on his ship, to which Simon objects. Mal calmly explains his position and the two men seem to find a common ground, at least for now. Mal says, “I look out for me and mine. That doesn’t include you less I conjure it does. This job goes south, there may not be another. So here we are on the rageddy edge. Don’t push me, and I won’t push you.”

During the robbery, Mal tells the people in the bank he’s taking the payroll and not what belongs to them. We learn that even though Mal is a thief, he has honor. To further this point he convinces the guard to take a bullet in the leg to make it look like he put up a good fight. Basically so the guy will keep his job. Mal clearly doesn’t have to do this, but only wants to take from the Alliance and no one else.

When the Reavers arrive, Mal tells the guard to get everyone down in the vault and not to come out as long as there’s air. The Reavers mindlessly murder, rape, and eat their victims, and all while they are alive. Mal could have simply left with the money but we see that he cares by insisting the innocent people survive. One guy runs after them begging they take him too. Their vehicle won’t go fast enough with the added weight. Mal refuses. The Reavers grab the guy and Mal puts a bullet in his head as an act of mercy. Later, Zoe asks why they couldn’t take the guy. Mal asks if he should have left Jayne, or her. She wonders why they didn’t drop the money. We can see from the look on Mal’s face that the thought never crossed his mind. Remember, he said he looks out for him and his people. We learn Mal may not be as honorable as we first thought.

After the Alliance learns Mal has their weapon, their agent looks up Mal’s record. In about a minute we learn Mal was the son of a rancher and born on the planet Shadow. He was bound by law five times for smuggling, tariff dodging, and transporting illegal cargo. Mal was never convicted. We also learn he was a Captain in the Independent Army, 57th Brigade as a volunteer, and awarded a Commendation of Valor for the Battle of Serenity Valley. All of this information is presented as the agent reads Mal’s file. To the astute viewer, this information is vital to Mal’s character. We learn he was probably a simple, hard-working man before the war. He volunteered to fight for independence and was one of the best soldiers they had to offer. He probably doesn’t believe in the Alliance and being forced to live under their control doesn’t sit well, thus all the Alliance robberies.

I’m going to stop there. Nathan Fillion does a great job bringing this character to life. Malcolm Reynolds has many layers, as do most of us. He isn’t just a hero, or anti-hero. He is a damaged man who holds certain ideals dear. He is a man who will fight for what he believes, even if it means his death. This is the character Han Solo wishes he could be. Yep, Jae, I said it. Star Wars, Star Trek, no thanks. I’ll take Serenity every time.

What can Mal, and Joss Whedon, teach us? It’s a good idea to have a layered character. We can also establish certain traits only to test them in our story. External conflict will only take us so far, we need internal conflict as well. Mal may not want to be a petty crook, but like he says, “I have a powerful urge to eat sometime this month.” He rationalizes the outlaw lifestyle by only taking from the Alliance, the government he never supported in the first place. We should never shy away from tension created from our character’s beliefs. When Zoe questions Mal about not taking that desperate guy and saving him from the Reavers, she helps Mal take a step back and wonder if the criminal lifestyle has affected him more than he realized.

If you haven’t seen Serenity and enjoy Star Wars or Star Trek, you really should check this movie out. Firefly as well. You’ll get a better appreciation for these characters and world.

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7 comments

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I think Serenity, Firefly, and all of their characters were very well written. Probably some of the best writing television has ever seen. It’s a shame FOX couldn’t see that before they gave them the axe. At least we got a great movie like Serenity to send them on their merry. If only Joss would film another…

  1. You don’t break one of the cardinal rules of the geekverse. You don’t insult Han Solo. Ever. Han Solo is the whole reason Malcolm Reynolds even exists. Star Wars inspired Joss to make Firefly. In a convention panel, a fan asked Joss, “So did Firefly happen because you saw Star Wars and you said, ‘That’s pretty cool, but it would be even cooler if it were a western?'” Joss said, “Not exactly, but I’m going to use that line from now on.” Sorry, but Star Wars and Firefly are tied together. I like Mal, but Han is just a little more dashing. But in the end, they’re both thieves with hearts of gold. But if you want to throw Star Trek under the bus, meh…

    And wait, did you just say that Joss Whedon’s Avengers was a snore fest? I’m sure what you meant was Jeremiah S. Chechik’s The Avengers, and you’d be right. I couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes of that drudgery. It really could have used some Tony Stark love, sprinkled with Hulk awesomeness, complimented by a little more Tony Stark love. But we all can’t be awesome directors like, say, Joss Whedon, can we? 😉

    1. We’ll have to debate this one day. Hulk awesomeness? The Hulk is a joke in these newer movies, The Avengers included. Hope I didn’t ruffle too many feathers. These are merely one man’s opinions. I grew up reading comics. My uncle, who is about ten years older than me, would buy comics and give me his old ones. We’re talking comics from around 1977. I’d get them five years later. Avengers was my favorite. I really hope they include Black Panther, or Hank Pym in the next one. Those guys are real Avengers, not the Hulk. I really liked the look and design of the movie, but the script dragged, then dragged some more. And they put way too much emphasis on the Black Widow, solely for the catsuit she wore I’m guessing. She’s not even a real Avenger!

      Where I think Mal outshines Han is in the motivation department. Han is out for some money, chicks, and whatever other trouble he can get into. Mal fought for what he believed in, and even though he lost, holds on to those same beliefs. At his core, Mal is an honorable man, and a guy you want on your side. Han didn’t have an ounce of honor, not until he was forced to. Mal is a leader. Han is not. I could go on and on. Now I may have to do a Han Solo character post, or a Mal versus Han post. The writers didn’t have Mal do an about face after the popularity of the first movie. Let’s just say Han wasn’t Han by Return of the Jedi. See? I can’t stop.

      Thanks for the opinions. Careful, your awesomeness is showing!

      1. Or is it that Han arcs better than Mal? Just sayin’. But I will consent that one was written by a better director than the other. No denying that.

        So the Hulk has never been very interesting for me, and he got all heaps of interesting in Avengers. My two favorite characters were obviously the Hulk and Ironman. Everyone else was just dressing to the delicious salad.

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