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The Antagonists of BACK TO THE FUTURE: An Analysis

Few films are as influential and iconic as the Back to the Future trilogy, with the first—as is the case with many trilogies—being the strongest. A lot comes with creating a great franchise, particularly its ability to craft an iconic antagonist for us to root against.


Although Biff is the apparent answer to the antagonists of Back to the Future, which we’ll discuss, there’s more to the film theme-wise that gets in the way of Marty. So, let’s discuss the film's antagonists and how you can learn from it.

Still from 'Back to the Future'. Photo credit: Variety


Biff Tannen


Buford "Biff" Howard Tannen is the central antagonist throughout the Back to the Future trilogy. His character is deeply rooted in his antagonistic relationships with various members of the McFly family, particularly George McFly, and his infatuation with Lorraine McFly.


Biff's lineage connects him to the notorious Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, and he also plays a pivotal role in the life of Griff Tannen, his future grandson. In the series, Biff emerges as the primary adversary of Marty McFly, George McFly, Doc Brown, and Lorraine Baines.


In the original timeline, Biff Tannen's bullying of George McFly commenced during their childhood and persisted relentlessly. Biff went to great lengths, even coercing George into completing his homework while he reveled with his friends, Match, Skinhead, and 3-D.


Over three decades, Biff's bullying and domination of George continued unabated, culminating in their shared employment at the same company, where Biff ascended to George's supervisor, a position acquired mainly through George's uncredited efforts. Biff's affection for Lorraine McFly remained a constant, despite Lorraine being married to George and Biff likely having married as well.


However, a significant turning point in their lives transpired when Marty McFly, the youngest member of the McFly family, inadvertently traveled back in time to 1955 using Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine. Marty, operating under the alias "Calvin Klein," found himself on the receiving end of Biff's aggression but took a stand against the bullying, a rare occurrence for Biff.


Biff and the Tannen family had a history of using intimidation to achieve their goals. In his youth, Biff lacked intellectual prowess, often stumbling over metaphors and relying on George to complete his homework. Instead of focusing on his studies, Biff preferred to coerce George into doing his academic work while socializing with friends.


Although he struck fear into most of his peers, his bravado waned when he was without his gang, comprised of Match, Skinhead, and 3-D. The only figure at Hill Valley High School who could keep Biff in check was the stern Mr. Strickland.


In the original timeline, Biff's bullying persisted throughout George's youth and adulthood. However, this pattern was disrupted when George's newfound confidence, instilled by Marty's interference in 1955, led him to confront Biff, ultimately knocking him out during an altercation with Lorraine.


This event marked a turning point in Biff's behavior as he treated George respectfully, even addressing him as "Mr. McFly." Biff also displayed genuine happiness for George when his novel was published, signaling a transformation in their relationship.


Destiny and Time


As you can infer from the film’s title, much of the film revolves around destiny and time. As goofy as the film is at times, the theme of time highlights how seemingly minor and inconsequential decisions made today can yield significant and enduring consequences tomorrow.


For example, if Lorraine had chosen Marty over George, the entire course of the McFly family's history, including their marriage, children, and ultimately their destined future, would have been entirely different. Many refer to this as the butterfly effect and how every decision leads to more prominent life points.


It becomes evident that seemingly innocent or insignificant choices can lead to rather significant outcomes in our personal lives and within organizations. What you pursue today, its decisions, and the markets it targets all play a crucial role in determining its future performance.


Back to the Future is about recognizing the cause-and-effect relationships in our professional and personal lives. As comedic as the film is at times, this is a much heavier theme that may feel overwhelming to some. It’s a reminder that even the silliest movies are at their strongest with robust themes.


Consequences and Change


Every time travel story relates to consequences and changes in some fashion. It’s common knowledge that you’d significantly change the present day if you were to travel to the past. In real life, managing change is essential for building flexibility, agility, and resilience.


From a theme perspective, you can't purchase a time travel device in a store. The film details how the key to personal, professional, and organizational success lies in developing methods and techniques that empower you to navigate and adapt to change effectively. Did Marty do that well?

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