He’s a mafia boss. He’s doing all the things mafia bosses do. Through lucrative endeavors that include everything from illegal gambling businesses to money laundering, extortion, and murder, Don Michael Corleone led the Corleone crime family to full American and international underworld success and domination. And we still like him.
No matter how bad things look on his professional and personal portfolio, generations after generations are still mesmerized by the main protagonist of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather novel. Al Pacino’s portrayal of Don Michael Corleone in the three Godfather movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola made the fictional character one of the most known and loved villains in modern popular culture.
But why are we so receptive and supportive of an otherwise negative character? What makes us mentally dissolve his aggressive traits and blend them into something more palatable? Here’s my take on it. A list of 10 Psychological Reasons Why We Like Michael Corleone.
1. He is powerful.
Not only is Michael Corleone the head of one of the Five Crime Families of New York, but he is also well connected to political and legal environments. He is respected not only by the members of his Family, but the other capi and their families also acknowledge his skills and the fact that he is a fit successor of his father, Vito Corleone. That doesn’t mean they like him, but they do recognize his power – they want to make business with him and sometimes even follow his lead.
High status is an attractive trait1. We want to be around powerful individuals and at times, we may even turn these strong characters’ lifestyle into goals of our own.
2. He is rich.
Like it or not from a moral perspective, mammals are attracted to pretty ornaments2. The more elaborate the ornaments, the higher the value we assign to the individual owning or displaying them. This is mainly valid for mating preferences, but it can be extended to other social contexts as well.
Just imagine a group of 200 individuals doing the things that were being done by the Corleone family and barely making ends meet. What would you think of them? Imagine Vito and Michael trying to give orders to these hundreds from a tiny flat in New York. Yeah, being a mafia boss kind of needs the glamour.
But it’s not just about the glamour. Money is actually the most important thing for the mafia. It’s what brings them power. Being able to make money for yourself and for the other families is what secures status.
Michael Corleone has money and knows how to make more for everybody. This is why being rich is a critical appeal factor and a thing that sets him apart from most on-screen villains. It’s not a vanity metric, it’s what makes him relevant.
3. He is intelligent.
He’s been dealt some great cards in the many games he’s playing, but the key is that he is playing them wisely.
Michael inherited the Corleone family businesses from his father, Vito. With them, the intricate relationships with the other families and their leaders. His understanding of the backstage, often with the help of his consigliere, Tom Hagen, allows him to nurture these connections and build new ones, as well as dodge the hits from his enemies.
He is a great strategist, an active observer, and a fantastic communicator. We admire displays of intelligence in all their forms3.
4. He has principles.
Mafia boss with a code. Michael Corleone and his crime family are not a gang of small, impulsive criminals. There are laws in this game and all must follow them – well, unless they want to end up sleeping with the fishes.
These laws reflect principles such as honor, loyalty, respect, recognition, and collaboration4. It’s only when these principles are stepped over and parties run out of friendlier options that aggressive solutions become a necessity and priority. At least for the Corleone family members – other families are less principled.
This idea, that they only resort to violent acts when absolutely necessary, makes their ways more acceptable to the audience. It also creates the illusion that morals somehow guide their affairs. False, but somewhat soothing to the viewers and readers.
5. He has reasons.
We see this in many contexts where we find ourselves cheering for the bad guy: we start seeing reasons why what they do is not as bad as our brain initially signaled. It’s not that anything actually justifies the horrible actions, but our mind plays a little trick on us. It’s called rationalization – a defense mechanism that allows us to find apparently reasonable explanations for things that otherwise would not be tolerable, with the goal to make them more acceptable to ourselves or others.
When it comes to Michael Corleone, our rationalization or justification mechanism kicks in many times during the story. We tell ourselves that he had reasons to kill Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey – they did organize the attempted assassination of Michael’s father – and that he’s been basically pushed into the Don role – he didn’t want to have anything to do with the criminal side of his family business – he was a former Marine, his father wanted him to go into politics, it just so happened that he was the only one who could deal with the men who wanted his father dead, and he had to act.
This whole mafia thing is what his family dragged him into and he was going to lead them out of it. It’s about honor and tradition. Right? Wrong. He’s a Don and does what Dons do, with no intention to stir his family away from his father’s legacy. It all makes sense for a second only because you rationalize while watching the movies or while reading the books.
6. He is relatable. No, really, he is.
You empathize, because Puzo and Coppolla tell you to.
Michael Corleone is a villain by actions, but a tragic hero by story. When you isolate him from the whole mafia context, what you’re left with is a young man who finds himself obligated to renounce his dreams and continue the family tradition instead. Many can relate to that part of his story.
He is a family man doing everything he can to protect and provide for his loved ones, he is a loyal friend to many and a fair leader. His struggles make him relatable as well.
He seems to have everything, but he is not happy in his personal life. His first wife died, his second wife left him, he was chronically ill, and he also lost his daughter as a result of his own decisions and chosen life path. It can hardly get any more tragic than that. Some may say “karma”, but nevertheless these unfortunate life events mainly make the audience empathize with the mafia boss instead of hating him.
His story makes you sad, you feel his pain. Point, Puzo and Coppolla.
7. He is skilled.
You probably wouldn’t like Mikey as much if his path to becoming a Don would have been a straightforward one. “Young son inherits dad’s business empire” isn’t as appealing as “Underdog son saves family honor and takes over father’s business”.
It’s through skills that Michael proves himself worthy to be his father’s successor and lead the Corleone family. He finds and delivers solutions, and this makes him a better fit for the Don role than his brothers (Santino – “Sonny” – is too impulsive, Fredo is unskilled and disloyal, and Tom Hagen is seen as a brother, but not really).
We like it when we’re being rewarded for our skills and results and we feel the same way when it comes to fictional characters. We also admire people who display traits that we find desirable, even when we do not – yet – possess them.
8. He is a sophisticated, classy Italian.
That’s part of his charisma. The suits, the cars, the art, the jewelry, the entourage, the role his family played in the entertainment business, but also in religious and international affairs – all of these elements make Michael Corleone a fascinating, stylish character.
True to his roots, he also speaks Italian even though he was born in America. This adds to his agreeability.
9. He can control his emotions. Most of the time.
Michael Corleone’s poker face is one of his critical traits and strengths. He is able to keep his cool in incredibly tense situations – before killing Sollozzo, while discussing with Hyman Roth and Fredo, etc. This is both a skill and a clue about his underlying antisocial traits.
Family is the only thing that triggers powerful emotions in Michael, all culminating with his pain when losing his daughter, Mary.
10. He shows [some] remorse.
This is what mainly absolves Michael Corleone from the sociopath label, he did show remorse related to the things he did as a mafia boss – especially regarding the fact that he did order the murder of his brother, Fredo.
It’s not often that we see a negative character that regrets doing the very things that kept him in his dominant position.
However, don’t necessarily jump into thinking that he felt bad for losing his own brother in this way, it’s about principles again. He says he is sorry he killed his mother’s son. He wanted to be a good Italian son. This was about principles. Fredo betrayed him and he had to kill him. That was business. And family business trumped family.
Michael Corleone is a fascinating, complex character. His many and often diverging traits build a curios image into the audience’s mind, one that enhances the available positive aspects just enough as to obscure the severely negative ones and push them into the background. It’s a bias, but an incredibly effective one.
1Dunn, M. J., & Searle, R. (2010).
2Krasnec, M. O., Cook, C. N. & Breed, M. D. (2012).
3Buunk, B. P., Dijkstra, P., Fetchenhauer, D., & Kenrick, D. T. (2002).
4Tracy, J. L., & Beall, A. T. (2011).
Photo Source: IMDB.com. Copyright (C) Paramount Pictures.
Buunk, B. P., Dijkstra, P., Fetchenhauer, D., & Kenrick, D. T. (2002). Age and Gender Differences in Mate Selection Criteria for Various Involvement Levels. Personal Relationships, 9(3), 271–278. doi: 10.1111/1475-6811.00018
Dunn, M. J., & Searle, R. (2010). Effect of manipulated prestige-car ownership on both sex attractiveness ratings. British Journal of Psychology, 101(1), 69–80. doi: 10.1348/000712609×417319
Krasnec, M. O., Cook, C. N. & Breed, M. D. (2012) Mating Systems in Sexual Animals. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):72
Tracy, J. L., & Beall, A. T. (2011). Happy guys finish last: The impact of emotion expressions on sexual attraction. Emotion, 11(6), 1379–1387. doi: 10.1037/a0022902