Don’t get the wrong idea – Marty McFly and his journey back in time are pretty important to the overall scope and storyline. After all, he manages to save his own fragile existence by fostering the relationship between his disinterested teenage parents. Oh, and Doc Brown is crucial as well. He builds the flux capacitor which allows for movement across the space/time continuum, as well as concocting various ways to get the 1.21 gigawatts of power into the pod’s — read: DeLorean automobile’s — power core. And of course you could argue that George and Lorraine, the shapeshifting Jennifer, and any number of ancillary characters are just as imperative to the trilogy’s success as any other.
But the truth is, it’s really all about Biff. Biff Tannen. Bully supreme. Recognizer of Buttheads. Manure magnet. As played by the brilliant Thomas F. Wilson in what has to be the most starting compilation of familial facets ever to exist in one actor, Biff (and his various ancestral offshoots) is the mandatory villainy in Back to the Future‘s past/present adventures. He’s the threat to the plot’s promise, the angry buzzcutted fly in the Mc-ointment. While many have marveled at Robert Zemeckis amazing triptych of films (now out on Blu-ray in a magnificent 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release) for their excitement and entertainment value, the truth is that they’d barely have any of the aforementioned attributes if it wasn’t for Biff.
The main narrative element in all three films is the attempt by a teenage Marty (Michael J. Fox) to keep his entire parental precepts in place. After accidentally going back to 1955 in Doc’s (Christopher Lloyd) machine, he draws his mother (Lea Thompson) away from his geeky dad (Crispin Glover). With Biff in hot pursuit, he must reunite them at the school dance where a first kiss seals their fate. Next Doc returns to the present (the mid ’80s) with bad news about Marty and Jennifer’s future “kids”. Going forward in time, our hero thwarts a potential robbery but can’t keep an adult version of himself from getting fired. Picking up a Sports Almanac with the winners of every athletic event for 50 years in it, Marty sees a chance to get rich. Unfortunately, the book falls into the hands of old Biff, who takes it back to his ’50s self.
The 1985 everyone knew is then altered irretrievably. Biff is the big boss of Hill Valley. He has killed George and married Lorraine. Desperate to put things right, Marty goes back to the ’50s, finds the moment when old Biff gives his younger self the Almanac, and steals it back. Before he can return to the present, however, the DeLorean is sent even further back in time – to the Old West…with Doc inside! Marty gets an ancient telegram from his mentor, finds the dusty car in a cave, uses the ’50s version of the Doc to get it going, and heads to the Hill Valley of 1885. There, he must prevent another death as well as find a way to use ancient, antiquated “technology” to get back to his own time. In doing so, he will set everything right as well as, perhaps, make amends in his own personal destiny.
All throughout? All Biff. Remember, as far back as the old West he’s been chasing and harassing the McFly clan. In the guise of Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, the mega-mean spirit of Biff struggles against the less than understanding ways of vigilante frontier justice. In the ’50s, his personality splits. In the first film, he was an uncooked meatball trying to weasel his way into Lorraine’s fragile heart. In the sequel, he spun off into a gambling cheat success, eventually becoming a Las Vegas like tycoon with an even more terrifying temper (and an anti-McFly murderous streak). Eventually, Biff would sire an offspring who resembled the terminator’s mentally challenged human brother, a hoverboard riding reject with a gang of equally stunted cohorts running ramshackle over Hill Valley just like his Ike-era relative did.
If you think about it, Biff is the entire franchise’s fulcrum, the turning point for almost every event in the McFly’s life. In the original Back to the Future, he was George’s dictatorial supervisor in the present, his romantic (or perhaps, borderline abusive) rival in the past, and the main obstacle for an out of place Marty to overcome. He is constant motion – chasing, conniving, calculating. In Back to the Future Part II, he was and is, again, the bare-knuckle instigator from the past, but he is also a dangerous millionaire in the historically altered 1985 and his own criminal kid (Griff) in the Hill Valley of 2015. When everything heads back toward a true Western motif, he’s a territorial scourge, a deadly threat to Doc Brown, and the only out of place element in Marty’s manipulation of a train, some special tracks, and some sticks of supersized TNT.
In the Back to the Future films, Biff (in all his forms) is the Devil, the personification of the narrative’s necessary normative evil. He’s not just the Antichrist, he’s the AntiMcFly, a reflective rejection of everything the goody two-shoes family stands for. He’s fun but frightening, ferocious, but flawed enough to fail in almost all of his endeavors. His creation remains a genius move by Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale since he’s the near perfect amalgamation of all things a thrilling adventure requires. Without Biff – or even worse, if he had been played by anyone other than Wilson…say, by original actor J.J. Cohen? – the movies just wouldn’t work as well. We need his danger, his seemingly unsinkable force to get us invested in the maudlin, milquetoast McFlys. Once we are, Biff’s arrogant egotism adds a level of humor and comic comeuppance that is hard to beat.
Again, it is important to champion Wilson here. It’s a career defining – and sadly, stereotyping – role, the kind of acting turn which casts a powerful pall over everything else one does. There is never a moment when we see the ‘star’ shining through, never a second when the Method seems more important than the matters at hand. It is not a showboating, sinister bit of moustache twirling, but a real recreation of the archetypal bully from a billion cautionary tales. As part of the overwhelming amount of added content provided in the new Blu-ray box set, we get a great deal of insight into the casting and the character. Zemeckis and Gale definitely wanted a bad guy, but one with recognizable vulnerabilities and exploitable flaws. Wilson found the proper combination of cruel and coward, walking the thin line so well that he stole scenes right out of able hands of Fox and Lloyd.
It is. It’s all about Biff. Geeks and other BTTF nerds can argue differently, dissecting the difficult narrative tangents and plotpoint mechanics used to get the characters out of their particular plights, but without the Tannen clan and their apparently genetic desire to do bad (sometimes, very bad) we’d only have half the story…and a fairly average one at that. There is no denying the power in Fox’s friendly exasperation, or Lloyd’s leftover Rev. Jim lunacy. Zemeckis and Gale also deserve a boatload of kudos for taking a terrific idea, turning it into a blockbuster and then blooming it all into a motion picture myth. From the various casting missteps to the Herculean decision to film Parts II and III back to back, the Back to the Future films are indeed the stuff of legend. Without the masterful menace of Biff, they’d be minor at best. With him, they’re epic.