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The release of Joker has prompted a good bit of discourse on the matters of mental health and the glorification of anarchistic violence. Somewhere amidst the din surrounding the film is the arc of the character himself and how we, the audience, ought to respond to him. The depraved descent of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is nothing new on the cinematic landscape, though it’s been treated as such, depending who you talk to, firmly wedging Todd Phillips’s take on the Clown Prince into the ever broadening, inescapable camp of “polarizing” motion pictures. Fleck is the protagonist. But he’s also a bad guy. We don’t like him, don’t want to pull for him. And yet, he’s among the most watchable screen characters this year. So, how does something like that happen?
A long frustrating note for writers, received from producers/directors/managers/agents/script readers/development execs/etc., is this: “He’s just not a likable character.” It’s maddening for two reasons:
Fact - Likability - Story - Story - Concept
In fact, likability is only required when it serves the story, because the story is paramount. Let’s examine this concept and what makes it true.
First, what does it take to get the audience on a protagonist’s side? Traditionally, we’ve heard we must understand the protagonist’s struggle—be able to relate to him or her. If that doesn’t work, compassion is a good alternative. If our hearts break because of the pain this character endures, surely we’ll root for their well-being, their achieving of the goal set before them. What about when none of that applies? That’s a bit trickier. In that case, if our lead makes us laugh from time to time, we might be persuaded to enjoy the ride. And then, on those very rare occasions, when a humorless, dispassionate character on an ill-intentioned mission is what we’ve got on our screens, how could we ever gravitate toward...
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