Biff: the multiple faces of evil
(First in a series of essays on the Back to the Future trilogy)
For me the most amazing character in the series is Biff.
Regardless of how cool Marty is, Biff is many times more complex – this partly because we are confronted not with one Biff, but a half dozen(if you discount Biff’s grandson in 2015 and Mad Dog in 1885), all of them representing changes in time and conditions that give him complexity nearly all of the other characters lack.
For me evil is more interesting and complex than good because of the tendency towards better characterization. This is particularly true with Biff – although I would not go so far as equating him with Milton’s Satan. Yet if you look at all aspects of the character over the sixty year span between 1955 and 2015, we get something close.
Let’s examine each Biff in the order in which they appear.
The first Biff we encounter sets up the theme opposition in the film series. He is a classic bully and in the scene at Marty’s father’s home, he sets up a pattern of behavior that will vary only when we finally get to Mad Dog in the western portion (although even Mad Dog appears to have the bully genes).
We are greeted by an adult Biff who is Marty’s father’s boss. He borrowed and wrecked the family car just when Marty needed the vehicle for a weekend date and is blaming Marty’s father (McFly) for having a car with a blind spot -- which if you do not know all cars have – and not warning him. The accident also caused this Biff to spill the beer he happened to be drinking while driving thus incurring a dry cleaning cost he no doubt wants McFly to pay.
This Biff reminds the adult McFly about the report McFly promised to write for him which Biff needs to have typed. It would not do for him to turn in a report in McFly’s handwriting. We will see this again when the teenage Biff makes a similar demand for homework from the teenage McFly in 1955.
We get our first glimpse of the conflict to come when the adult Biff confronts Marty in the house and asks the boy what his problem is.
We immediately see the frustration Marty feels as if barely holding back from a fight he knows his father should fight and won’t.
The adult Biff does not have the same power over Marty that he has over McFly since Marty is clearly not the dork McFly is. So we can anticipate Marty’s hot headed response should Biff have tried the “look your shoe’s untied” routine on him as he does repeatedly with McFly.
The Biff Marty encounters in 1955 is merely a younger version of the one we encountered in the opening 1985 scenes—repeating the abuse heaped on the younger version of McFly. But we get a couple of additional character traits in the younger version such as the 1955 Biff’s inability to get a cliché straight. “Why don’t you make a like a tree .. etc”
We also see for the first time Biff as the leader of a gang of incompetent thugs, a gang that we will see again in the modified 1985 in the second movie, as the following to Biff’s grandson in 2015 and as the gang who couldn’t shoot straight in the old west of 1885.
As mentioned earlier, the younger Biff abuses the younger McFly in the same ways the older Biff abuses the older McFly, using the shoe string bit, and requiring McFly to do his homework.
In what Freudians would most likely call wish fulfillment, the relationship between this Biff and Marty changes. Marty is no longer confronted by an elder, someone he may or may not have been taught to respect, but an equal – just another Bully about Marty’s age. So when Biff calls Marty a chicken, Marty slugs Biff.
This begins a chase sequence we will see again (with variations) in the second movie. Unlike most sequels, the follow-up Back to the Future movies play off the repeated routines rather than merely repeating them the way most sequels do. So when Marty takes a soap box racer from one of the girls in 1955 and turns it into a skateboard for his escape, we get a similar but not exactly repeated routine in 2015 which advances the plot while giving us a teasing reference to the first instance. Yet one routine is consistent in each film, Biff or a relative, manages in each movie to get himself under a pile of dung.
The 1955 Biff of the first movie gets the most screen time of any of the Biffs we are to encounter in the three movies – and makes a return in the second movie. But we are confronted with so many Biffs in the second movie that he seems less potent than in the first – a mere shadow of the Biff we love to hate.
Biff in 1955 is a classic high school bully – a jock with a flair for violence and a brutal sexual appetite. He is also apparently stupid, arrogant and lazy. Yet he is just tough enough and intelligent enough to attract a clutch of equally brutal but slightly less intelligent followers.
This Biff is hardly more advanced than an animal – lacking any sense of ethics as he stomps through scene after scene on a perpetual hunt to satisfy his most primitive needs.
He is such a pure “type” that you can easily picture him alive today hunting beat in the mountains of New Jersey or driving his Humvee (or some other massive vehicle) through every red light in the most densely populated neighborhoods.
He is big, cumbersome yet not without cunning, a fitting opponent for Marty who is depicted for us as 1985’s “ordinary or everyday man.”
Marty’s ability to pump up Biff’s victim, McFly helped to permanently deflate the 1985 Bill when we return to the altered 1985 at the conclusion of the first film. Without McFly to abuse, Biff’s potency evaporates and he becomes what all bullies really are: pathetic, helpless failures with talent enough to put one coat (not two) of wax on other people’s cars.
Yet as similar as the Biff at the end of the first movie is to the Biff that begins the second movie, they are not the same.
The buffing Biff of the second movie comes out of the McFly house just in time to see Marty and the Doc taking off with the time machine and this vision transforms him, providing him with a memory by which he can alter the future and the past.
This is a remarkable moment in the series because it furthers a theme established in the first movie concerning the power of memory.
In the first movie, memory serves as a road map back to the future – although not the same future Marty left, instead a better one. Marty recalls what was supposed to happen and through this memory brings about a resolution.
In the second movie, memory becomes a tool of evil, allowing the 2015 Biff to alter the universe so that mere memory can no longer act as a guide to save our heroes. What Marty and the Doctor remember no longer exists and can never exist without their taking some other step beyond recreating what once was.
While still the same liar he was at the end of the first movie, the Biff at the beginning of the second movie chows his cunning, a character trait we had not yet seen prior to this, a mental capacity that shows that the elder Biff is not the same mental midget we met in the 1955 Biff of the first movie.
This is a hugely important piece in setting up the second movie. It allows us to understand that even Biff is capable of growth, something we might not have imagined even when meeting the elder Biff at the end of the first movie. Without this memory moment at the beginning of the second movie none of what we see later in “gramps” of 2015 would be believable. Nor would be believe the Biff of the alternate 1985.
It is this moment at the start of the second movie that distinguishes Biff as human and distinct from the animal he so previously resembled. But it also ironically elevates him to a new level of evil, one that is thinking rather than instinct, and shows intelligence being used for create evil.
Instantly, Biff becomes a significantly more complex character and explains how the Biff we knew can develop the intricate scheme that allows for the rest of the movie to unfold.
Without going into the numerous inconsistencies the film presents by having Marty and the Doctor going into the future (these will be handled in a future essay), we get double vision: a duplicate of Marty (if you don’t count his son): an older Marty; a duplicate of his girlfriend, but most importantly we get only one Biff (discounting his grandson) as an old man now called “Gramps.”
Marty’s son and Biff’s grandson serve merely as plot devices, an excuse to get Marty into the future in order to advance the real plot. Marty’s son is a wimp worse than the 1955 McFly and serves the same role for Biff’s grandson as the original McFly.
The grandson is a buffed up version of the 1955 Biff single-mindedly bent on creating trouble – presented here as a punk in leather and a gang that clearly has broken the law and wants Marty’s son to join them. The grandson, however, also has the pleasure of picking on Gramps – putting him to the same chore of buffing cars as McFly and Marty did in 1985. But the grandson’s role – as does Marty’s son’s – pretty much ends after he chases Marty on high tech hover boards (Marty’s will eventually play key roles in the end of this movie as well as the conclusion of the third) and the grandson crashes though a window. While Marty’s son continues on screen for slightly longer, he is no longer significant.
But the Biff of 2015 is amazing.
He is by far more accomplished and the most sophisticated purveyor of evil of all the Biffs in any of the films.
He remembers and from memory acts.
He is a plan-maker and uses his formal knowledge to create havoc only the most extraordinary feats by Marty can undo (though there are some logic gaps here.)
This Biff remembers when he saw Marty and Doc vanish from 1985. Then he overhears their talk of time travel and about Marty’s aborted plan to bring back to 1985 a sports manual that depicts sports winners for the second half of the 20th Century.
This Biff follows Marty and the Doc, after the police pick up Marty’s knocked out girl friend (mistaking her for the older version) and brings her back to the place the elder Marty and his wife call home.
While they are distracted by the rescue, this Biff steals the time machine and takes the sports manual back to 1955 giving it to his former self, rushing back to his own time just as Marty and the Doc rescue Marty’s girlfriend and rush back to 1985 before anything else can happen.
How the 2015 Biff managed to get back to 2015 remains one of the central inconsistencies of the film trilogy. Once he gave the sports almanac to his 1955 self, the 2015 he knew ceased to exist.
Once this Biff accomplishes his mission, he vanishes from the film and we travel back to 1985 where we soon encounter yet another Biff, distinct from any we have encountered so far.
In some ways, the alternative 1985 Biff is a compilation of all other Biffs, although not quite as crafty as the Biff of 2015.
This Biff is a gangster. And what we get here is largely a retelling of the traditional Christmas story: “It’s a wonderful life” in which Marty’s actions leads to a world in which he largely ceases to exist (in truth he is off at some school or the other being as pathetic as Marty’s son of 2015 was). Marty plays the James Stewart character, the Doc, plays the angel waiting to get his wings.
As in the Christmas story, Marty and Doc arrive back to a world that is largely decay and decadence.
This Biff is an example of the average bully whose wishes had been fulfilled, a gun-totting over-sexed man in love with himself. This Bill has build around him a stable of irons and women to glorify him. He is still selfish, still pigheaded, but with the capital to make his most perverse and tasteless wishes come true. He is a kind can be found in Atlantic City, Las Vegas and countless strip clubs throughout the nation.
As with the Biff of the future, this Biff remembers and through this memory, the heroes find the risk of failure, but also a means to salvation. This alternative reality Biff remembers what the Biff of the future told him in 1955 and fully attempts to kill Marty. But this Biff like all the Biffs before him sews the seeds of his own demise by talking more than he should, arrogantly believing Marty will soon be dead and beyond doing anything about the condition. By escaping death, Marty uses Biff’s memory as a new road map that allows him to travel back to 1955 with the hopes of undoing the damage the elderly Biff from 2015 caused.
Yet despite all surface appearance, Marty does not come back to the same 1955 Biff he left at the end of the first move, but to a Biff already in the process of growth, a slightly wiser Biff who has become slightly more crafty as a result with contact with his future self.
More than merely the incredible comic interweaving of characters from Marty’s first visit with those who arrive with him the second time, this new aspect of buddy crafty evil in Biff give texture to the sequences that transpire. Marty is confronting a clever evil counter force that must be overcome in order to reverse the evil done in 1985.
One suggestion of Biff’s growth as an evil character comes when he uses the cover of the sports manual to hide the girly magazine.
This Bill also isn’t the same sucker for the petty slights Marty pulled on him during the first movie. He responds with more intelligence to Marty’s attempts to take the magazine once he realizes this has become the subject of Marty’s quests and in the final scenes in the car, we seem him responding with more complex threats than the chase scenes in the first movie – even if the end result is the same: Bill beneath a pile of dung.