Michael is cold-blooded, ruthless, smart, and determined. His ability to think clearly under fire, to be decisive, and to command respect makes him an excellent Godfather. Of Vito’s children, he is certainly the best candidate to take over the family. But Michael was never supposed to get involved in the Mafia. He was supposed to become a senator, perhaps even president. Even when he does begin working for his father, he doesn’t seem fully reconciled to the decision. He promises Kay before they marry that the family will become “legitimate” soon. Over twenty years later, in The Godfather Part III, he still seeks this legitimacy. Unlike Vito, who appears at ease in the role of Godfather, Michael is burdened by the responsibility. One senses that he views himself as a sacrificial hero, slaving away for the rest of the family, sacrificing his soul for the well-being of those around him. In many ways, Michael’s story is a familiar one in American mythology: that of the immigrant’s child. He achieves great heights of success, just as his hard-working immigrant parents hoped for him, but at considerable personal cost. In Michael’s case, this cost is to his family life, as he loses his wife and children.

Michael can also be seen as a classical tragic figure. Immensely talented and powerful, he is undone by tragic flaws: his insatiable desire for vengeance, which creates a web of violence and recrimination that he cannot escape; his illusions of omnipotence, which blind him to the fact that achieving legitimacy is impossible; and his sense of being perpetually at war, which never allows him a moment of rest. At the end of Part III, Michael dies alone in the yard of his Sicilian villa. The death of his daughter, Mary, has sealed his fate, severing his ties forever with the rest of the family, the family that he tried to save and bring to legitimacy. Instead, he brought them only pain and death. If Vito is an ideal, almost romantic figure who might make the naïve viewer want to live the gangster life, Michael’s tale has a corrective effect. His life is tragic and his pain immense.