Why would anyone expect or want the audience to root for a psychopathic evil maniac? That’s not really the point of this post but my bet is that Joaquin Phoenix didn’t want to play a character completely bereft of morality and the studio wanted to make more money. But Todd Phillips has publicly insisted that the Joker is not someone you should root for. The point of this post is to refute that claim.
Writers and Directors (often the same person but certainly not always) manipulate viewers to feel a certain way about a character. When a person is emotionally invested in the success or failure of said character, the story becomes compelling and much more interesting. This, I hope, isn’t news to anyone.
The silver and small screens have frequently guided their viewers to root for morally reprehensible figures. I’m going to call them baddies for the purpose of this post.
Now don’t come to me with people aren’t simply good or bad. No shit. But it is far beyond the scope of this post to do a deep dive into the cohabitation of good and evil in each person.
So how do baddies become beloved? There are six tried and true ways.
(1) Surround the monster with even WORSE monsters. This is pretty much “the lesser of two evils”, or as Homer called it “between Scylla and Charybdis”, or its modern version “between a rock and a hard place”. Except it is usually more than two evils in this baddie versus followers dynamic. X is bad but did you see what Y did? Did you see what W and Z did?
(2) I heard someone say once that “we all have to recover from our childhoods.” Give the heel a chilling childhood and you’ll find a lot of viewers nodding their heads in sympathy. No one reading this is surprised that physical and mental child abuse can lead to a myriad of adult problems, from adult depression, aggression, hostility, anger, fear, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. Sound like someone? Sure, X killed all those people. But he was horribly abused and they were holding his family hostage or a horde of zombies was about to eat him and his friends! These myriad extenuating circumstances will color the viewer’s opinion.
(3) Make them attractive. Not necessarily in the physical sense but that is certainly employed and good looks have real advantages. But it could be that they are wicked smart. Or it could be that they write stunning prose or that they discovered the cure to some horrible disease. Something about them has to rock.
(4) The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This strategic proverb was first presented in Sanskrit, just about 2400 years ago. It goes like this: X kills Y. But Y is even more despicable than X. And Y has done and/or is doing horrible things to W (a fan favorite good guy). It doesn’t matter this act makes X a killer. All that matters is who he killed. No one is calling these “good” actions. But they have the lightening effect of assigning temporary “goodness” to the baddie. Until the baddie does something evil to someone the audience likes, he wears this goodness like a bloom on the rose.
(5) Music: the right song or score can affect a person’s emotions. If you associate an awesome or triumphant song with the baddie, even if he is doing a terrible thing, a person can very easily find themselves smiling at a character doing something terrible or celebrating the same act.
(6) Unreliable narrator: this narrative technique has been around since at least 405 B.C.E. The writers adjust the world to fit the baddie’s perspective and we get only one interpretation or a very slanted version of events and characters. Rashomon would not have even been a movie if there was only one version.
You don’t have to be a film critic to recognize these techniques. It doesn’t matter that they don’t fool everyone. It matters that the writers employing these techniques WANT you to like someone that you normally would not (or should not?) like.
Ok, enough theory. Let’s get into practice.
Now let’s look at 5 examples of baddies the audience is clearly to supposed to root AGAINST.
Cersei Lannister: sure, you could argue that Game of Thrones at least makes an effort to add context to a baddie. Cersei has an evil father. All her kids died. She’s in love with her twin brother. This is all shit that would fairly turn most people evil. But if you ask the average GOT fan who they hate the most, Cersei is #1 or way up there. She reeks of smugness. She is an absolute elitist. She kills scores of innocent people with no remorse. She abuses characters the audience is clearly guided to love (Tyrion, Sansa). Even though she has suffered a lot, on balance, she is painted in a way that is in no way meant to engender sympathy.
Emperor Palpatine: This is a very thin character (I am ignoring the prequels because they are horrible and I like to pretend they never existed). He is physically very ugly. This is a choice. He has no sad backstory. He is good at evil magic. He is awful to the good guys and even the bad guys the audience loves. There’s not much dimension to his character but there’s clearly no way we’re rooting for him.
Bellatrix Lestrange: another very thin character. We don’t know much at all about her background. The makeup artists tried to make her unattractive (no mean feat as Helena Bonham Carter is a lovely woman). And she kills two of the most beloved characters in the Harry Potter universe. And she does this with absolute glee and not a twinge of remorse. We’re supposed to hate her.
Annie Wilkes: Yes, this character clearly had mental health issues. But the storytellers here chose an actor who, by the narrow and outdated conventions of physical beauty in 1990 in America, was not attractive physically. This was no accident. She was also very dumb. And, let’s not forget, she violently tortured a person she professed to love. There was no significant backstory proffered to explain her choices. There were no other baddies around to point to. She was not good at anything. She is straight-up crazy, violent, and mean. This is someone we are guided to hate.
Miranda Priestly: She is portrayed by an attractive woman. She is clearly very intelligent and successful. But she is also a monster. She is the devil. She is silver-tongued but treats her subordinates (which to her are the world) with zero respect and complete contempt. She even betrays her closest friend. Even though we are given her brains and beauty and personal travails, we are rooting for her assistant to free herself from her. She is a spider. Yes, she has a moment of humanity at the end of the movie but throughout the rest of the film, we hate her.
Now let’s check out some baddies that the creatives want us to like.
Don Draper: the protagonist of Mad Men is smart, handsome, and selectively principled. But he also is a serial philanderer and guilty of very significant though morally fraught fraud. He leaves a wake of emotionally battered women behind him. Sounds like someone no one would root for, right? Wrong. But he was also the only one who defended his secretary when she had an abortion and the only one who visited her in the hospital and he insured no one ever said a word to her about it. This might seem like nothing today but this show was set in the late 50s and early 60s when abortion was a reputation and life destroyer. Further, he shepherded her to professional heights that were not common for women at that time. He also stood up for a female coworker and told her that the awful thing she as going to do to help the firm financially was not worth any amount of money. And to solidify the audience’s support, he was given a horrific backstory that was certainly used to dull the impact of his offenses. Those factors along with his looks and dazzling professional acumen made a lot of people root for him to win in the end. And in the end, he did.
Walter White: This middle-class high school science teacher is diagnosed with terminal cancer and, like most Americans, doesn’t have savings. So his pregnant wife and disabled son are going to be left with not only the emotional loss but also the very real financial loss. In this desperate situation, Walter decides to become a meth cook so that he can leave some money behind to help his family. If I were in his shoes, I would do the same thing. So would a lot of people. Good guy, right? You couldn’t ask for a more compelling backstory. His attractive quality is his (it’s complicated) devotion to his family and his genius-level intelligence. The writers also surround Walt with vicious associates and adversaries that further to make him look noble in comparison. But Walt also kills innocent people, almost kills a kid, rapes his wife, lies to his family, has other people kill and commit crimes for him, kills trusted associates, and psychologically tortured and manipulated his partner. Despite all that, there were multiple columns written about how people hated his wife whose only crime was to be horrified at his horrific crimes. The show’s creator had to go on record to say that people were not meant to root for Walt. A lot of people still, until the bloody end, rooted for Walt. And the show’s creators absolutely designed the plot and context to garner this support. I don’t care if Vince Gilligan claimed otherwise.
Tony Soprano: for those living under rocks, Tony is the mob boss of the New Jersey mafia. He’s not conventionally attractive but he became a sex symbol (which is a post in and of itself). He’s very good at leading his men. He’s a doting father. He loves animals. The first scene of the series shows him, still wearing his undershirt and robe and boxer shorts, in his swimming pool up to his chest so that he can make sure a bunch of ducklings is fed properly. What a sweet guy! And, man, David Chase (the creator) parades a legion of violent and awful adversaries AND friends that both rock Tony’s life. He also adds a therapy relationship that serves the purpose of creating and reinforcing a terrible backstory full of a violent upbringing and one of the worst Mothers of all time. Sure he’s a mob boss but he’s way better than the rest, right? He was a victim of being born into this life. Sure. But Tony also murdered the innocent and guilty with no remorse. He violently beat people for innocuous transgressions. He cheated on his wife all the time. He lied to his family all the time. He killed his best friend and his closest cousin. He would have killed his mother if she hadn’t been rushed to the hospital before he arrived at her home. And let’s not forget all the crimes and violence he coordinated as a mafia don. But most people were rooting for him until the very unsatisfying end. People still love Tony Soprano.
Harley Quinn: one of the most popular comic book characters on the planet. What’s good? She’s hot. She’s bold. She’s funny. She’s tough. The bad? She’s in love with the Joker who is probably the most famous homicidal maniac in comics. And she shares a lot of his immoral code. And she violently kills and violently assaults people on the regular. And let’s not forget she commits no end of non-violent crime. And no matter what she does, she has no remorse. But, again, she’s one of the most popular comic book characters out there. There are millions of people rooting for her. Margot Robbie, one of the most beloved and charming actors out there played her in Suicide Squad and is set to reprise the role in James Gunn’s reboot of the same name and in the upcoming “antihero” team-up “Birds of Prey”. Because of her personality and because the Joker isn’t the most awesome boyfriend, she also gets sympathy. Her writers could make her go real dark but that would eat into her popularity.
And now for the main event. Please welcome to my post, Batman’s main dance partner, the villain who tops the most comic baddie rankings, the crown prince of crime, the master of disaster, the man who just wants to watch the world burn: the artist formerly known as Arthur Fleck, the Joker!
If people are horrified by the Joker’s actions in the movie, they would be blown away by the stuff he has done in the comic books. You name the violent crime; he’s done it. And he loved doing it. And he didn’t regret it for a millisecond. There is no desire for redemption. There is no possibility of redemption. This is a lost man. Looking for a rationale for his actions? In the comics, hardly any is given. In fact, one of the reasons the Joker is so popular is that he is chaotic evil on two feet. He has no desire to take over the world, Pinky. It’s evil for evil’s sake. There’s a beautiful purity to that. No other villain comes close though there have been many pretenders. There are certainly people who root for the comic book version of Joker but I would wager they are in the minority. Most readers reasonably respect the challenge he represents. But most don’t want him to win.
But we’re not talking about the comic books. We’re talking about the #1 movie on earth right now (and this without a China release!). I was on the fence about seeing the Joker because it seemed so bleak and Todd Phillips’ asinine comments put me even more off. But I have a life goal to watch EVERY comic book movie, including foreign language films. Also, it’s *the* movie being talked about and it’s hard to be a movie fan and ignore something lighting up the zeitgeist. So I went. I loved it. I was mesmerized. I saw it twice and I’m planning to see it again. If Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t win Best Actor for this performance, I don’t know what more an actor has to do.
I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. But it sure did seem like the media and a lot of film critics had it in for this movie. Before the film was released, a prominent narrative was that this movie was encouraging violence and these same outlets all but predicted that an incel would shoot up an entire theater of moviegoers. This has not happened. Phillips and Phoenix had to go on the record to confirm, as if the contrary was not completely absurd, that the Joker was not someone to root for. They had to do this multiple times. But, to paraphrase Bill Shakespeare, “the creatives doth protest too much, methinks.”
Do I really think Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips want people to love and root for a homicidal killer? Are they really advocating the Joker as a role model? No. But their narrative choices say otherwise.
Remember the six-pronged plan to get audiences to root for a bad guy? Let’s see if it applies.
(1) worse monsters: Arthur Fleck’s coworkers are a mixed bag. One is nice but one is an ugly bigoted asshole. To be fair, most men are ugly compared to Joaquin Phoenix. But this particular ugly coworker is also ugly inside. There are also violent Wall Street bros. And there are violent teenagers. And you could call the cruel society that has abandoned Arthur as another monster, too. None of these characters are as horrible as Arthur Fleck AFTER he has transitioned into his Joker persona. But before he does, they are definitely worse than him.
(2) sad backstory: it would be impossible to argue that Arthur Fleck’s childhood was not a nightmare. He was brutally abused by his mother’s boyfriend which left him with severe brain damage and doubtless contributed to his mental illness. Yes, I know. Millions of people who have mental illness lead law-abiding lives. And mental illness and its place in criminal justice are far beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say, a person can know the difference between right and wrong and still be mentally ill and said illness can absolutely contribute to their worldview and choices. Does that excuse it? No. Will I attempt a deeper dive into that complex psychological thicket? Hell no. As the movie progresses and Arthur Fleck’s already fragile life is torn down, the movie is clearly guiding the audience to sympathize with his plight. And before he turns violent, I don’t see how a person could not be sympathetic. And a lot of the terrible things that happen to Arthur Fleck are things, in varying degrees, that a lot of people are dealing with. Again, delving into the socioeconomic issues is light years beyond the scope of this post and, contrary to some bizarre criticisms, well beyond the scope of a comic book villain film. Even a comic book film that is so different from the recent typical fare.
(3) make him attractive: Joaquin Phoenix is an attractive man. So, physically, aside from a large amount of weight he lost for the part, he’s not repulsive. Further, before his life’s walls come tumbling down, he’s a nice, quirky guy. He has a job as a clown and he seems genuinely happy to do it. He does live with his mom but they get along and he’s taking care of her. He’s a nice person and that’s an attractive quality. We learn early that he spent time in a mental health facility so we know he is dealing with serious problems. He’s not a bad person. But then the walls came tumbling down.
(4) enemy of my enemy: Joker murders some innocent people. There is no way unless you’re a psychopath yourself, this is going to make you root for the Joker. But he does also kill a bigoted, cruel coworker and two Wall street bros who are viciously assaulting him for no good reason. That takes the edge off the heinous act.
(5) music: Immediately after Arthur kills the bigoted coworker, the score, which had been a beautiful, somber, intense, evocative classical, black snow of atmosphere covering this world, switches to Gary Glitter’s ubiquitous stadium rock anthem “Rock and Roll Part 2”. I believe the producers knew that Gary Glitter was and is currently serving a sentence for pedophilia. But as with most of the negative press for this movie, it turned out this story was another farce. Gary Glitter will never receive any royalties for this song. Regardless, I don’t think it was the best choice for this moment. There are, I dunno, dozens of similar rock anthems that would have perfectly accompanied this scene. But on the other hand, Rock and Roll Part 2 was used for decades in sports arenas as a victorious chant to amp up the crowd. Millions of people have stamped their feet and clapped their hands while this song played as they watched their favorite team. That’s millions and millions of Pavlovian bells chiming. And after shucking off the remnants of his kind past, Arthur Fleck the loser is gone. Joker, the winner has arrived. Everything about this song choice says we should be happy for this bloody murderer. Everything about this song choice says we should be rooting for him.
(6) unreliable narrator: we see so much of the movie through his eyes. We are manipulated into feeling triumphant when he feels triumphant. We see him get the girl he’s been admiring. And she’s a nice woman so maybe we should heed her opinion of this guy. The fact that their relationship is a figment of Arthur’s imagination is not revealed until we have already felt sympathy for Arthur. Further, he only gets her after he kills three people. It takes a triple murder for him to feel seen. It takes killing three people (two very arguably in self-defense; one absolutely premeditated murder) for him to feel like a person. According to Arthur Fleck, this triple murder is a good thing. It has made him feel like a person for the first time. If that’s not an unreliable perspective, I do not know what is.
They give him a horrible backstory. They surround him with monsters. They make him live inside a monstrous society. They establish his fragility. They show that he was a nice guy when this story started. And then they apply ruthless pressure to transform him into a bloody diamond. The creatives aim his rage to characters we are designed to hate. But as they solidify his evil form with violent acts, they consistently provide atonal positive cues, especially the climactic musical choice. There is a very clear objective: root for Joker.
The creative minds behind this film absolutely and completely want you to ride along with this protagonist and root for him just as you would for a victory of good over evil. Except for this time, we stamp our feet and clap our hands when evil snuffs out good.
Despite his transparent public comments, Todd Phillips wants the audience to cheer for his Frankensteinian monster. But that doesn’t make the film any less incredible. The fact that he twists the viewer’s moral compass so that it points to hell is not a fault. It is a venerable tradition. It’s yet another remarkable, and terrible, aspect of this movie.
I’m rock solid on my assertion that David Chase, Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, Todd Phillips, and scores of storytellers before them absolutely intended for their audiences to cheer on their monsters. And I’ve certainly presented my case as much as I’m willing to do. But as I was proofreading this think-piece, another question occurred to me.
I can’t call this a think-piece. So I googled the opposite of think and a predictable antonym suggestion was “act”. But that definitely doesn’t feel right, either. The only actions here are me sitting on my ass, ranting, and adding links. Epimetheus, he opposite of his brother Prometheus, was said to act before he thought. But an “epimethian-piece” sounds like something an academic douchebag would write and I am not academic at all. But then I thought hindsight is a possibility. But it’s too long. So as the butt is the opposite of the head, where the thinking generally occurs, and hind is a butt word, and it makes me laugh, I have settled on hind-piece. Or hindpiece if you’re nasty.
Back to my “hinding”. Does it matter that Todd Phillips really wants you to root for the Joker? And further, does it matter to me? I realize the latter caters to a bit of a niche audience but it’s not like I promised to be fair and balanced.
Let’s start with Todd Phillips, him of the asinine false equivalencies and inability to craft humor that doesn’t rely on slurs or punching down. If you accept my conjecture that he is full of shit and directed the film so that the audience would root for the Joker, then you might wonder why.
Does Todd Phillips advocate for random murder and matricide? I don’t think so. Does Todd Phillips want people to beat up cops and riot? I doubt it. Does Todd Phillips want you to identify with his twisted protagonist so that you will enjoy the movie more and find yourself rooting for his chaos? The answer is yes. Does that get Todd Phillips a bigger contract next time around and some industry awards? Most likely.
Wanna drill deeper? No? Too bad. Is this a conscious or subconscious choice by Todd Phillips? If it’s the latter then I can’t throw that many stones at Phillips. Who among us hasn’t had horrific thoughts burst into our dreams without any invitation? But if it’s the former (and it IS the former), then we get back to the question of does that matter?
That’s hard. On the one hand, is guiding the audience to root for a psychopathic killer ethical on its face? Most people would say no. And I wouldn’t criticize most people. Personally, as long as the fandom of violence doesn’t turn to violent fandom, I don’t really care. But I’m not a psychologist or philosopher. So I’m sure there are clinical and/or philosophical arguments that could make me care. But I don’t. I don’t even care if you root for psychopathic killers in the real world. But you should probably talk to someone about that.
I can already hear the chorus of “but the children!” I grew up in the 80s and was exposed to a steady stream of violence in television, movies, video games, comics, and genre novels. I’ve never been in a fight. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve certainly never shot a talk show host in cold blood because I thought he was being mean to me. And I am no exception. The percentage of Americans who commit a violent crime is 0.003289. Now I was an English major so I’ll clarify that figure for my fellow liberal arts majors even though I’m sure most of you get it. That’s not 3% of the population. That’s not even 1% of the population. That’s one third of one percent. Put simply, the vast majority of people are not violent. Further, violent crime has been decreasing dramatically over the last three decades. So, despite what your grandpa might think, the advent of violent video games and the ubiquity of bloody movies have not made things worse.
Finally, does the fact that the people behind the movie want us to root for the Joker matter to me? No, it does not. I’ve always been able to tell when a storyteller is presenting wrong as if it were right. And as the aforementioned statistics confirm, it doesn’t seem to be a difficult distinction for most other people. And it definitely does not make me love the movie any less.