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Sympathy for the Devil

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Oct. 19, 2019
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So of course the new Joker movie is quickly becoming a cultural phenomenon. Not only because it has made a ton of money already, but because of the spin on the infamous character of Joker.

Through Joachim Phoenix's Joker we get to watch the origin story of a villain. He is the main character. We get to see the reasoning behind everything that leads down the path that, in this iteration, yields the Joker. There are several scenes and situations that we get to see that make us sympathize with Arthur Fleck. In fact, this sympathy the movie inspires in audiences for Arthur Fleck, the person that becomes the Joker, has kicked up a storm regarding whether that makes the movie prone to copycats, and thus dangerous.

Personally, I don't think there's any danger in the movie, at least in terms of anyone being inspired to commit crimes. There's scientific reasoning behind that, but I won't get into it in this article, because what I am interested in talking about is the narrative value.

Because from what I saw so far in the Joker (I have yet to get a chance to see the movie fully, but I've seen enough scenes to write this, I think), while we do get sympathy, it remains clear that what we're watching is a man turn into a devil, so to speak. And there's no sympathy in that. The connection and emotional reaction is taking place in the process, not in the result.

We sympathize with Arthur Fleck as he deals with terrible abuse. We even root for him when he tries to get out of the situations he's in.

But we don't sympathize with the Joker.

And I think that's an interesting duality in the movie that I'm really looking forward to experiencing in full in the theater.

How do you get sympathy for the devil, without actually sympathizing with the devil itself?

I think the secret lies in the lines crossed. We can root for a character committing crimes easily. But some rules need to apply:

1. The character must be in some way defending or self defending against threat

2. The threat has to be malicious

3. The crime must never spill over to innocent third parties.

If any or all of these rules are broken, the sympathy we feel and the rooting we have for the character diminishes exponentially.

And so it seems that this is how it happens with Arthur Fleck in the Joker. I'll go see it soon, so if that is not the case, I will absolutely let you know.

What do you think? How can we get audiences to sympathize with villains without actually identifying or approving of them?

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comment

anonymous?

Abt_Nihil at 4:23AM, Oct. 24, 2019

I think one compelling idea at play in the Joker movie is that each of us can be driven to commit heinous acts, given the circumstances are bad enough (although I believe the "Killing Joke" book handles this topic in a much smarter way than the Joker movie). Hence, going into this discussion thinking you can only sympathize with someone "good" might not be adequate. The idea is that we get a glimpse of what we, ourselves, could be - and (given you're not in similar circumstances) shudder at the thought.

Kou the Mad at 5:41PM, Oct. 19, 2019

For a literal example, the tv show 'Lucifer' does a good job at this.

bravo1102 at 3:46PM, Oct. 19, 2019

When the reasons why the villain acts as they is comprehensible you can sympathize with them. If the "whys" are made clear you can maybe say " but for the grace of God go I" . The Grey Guys and Gals weren't originally supposed to be sympathetic but over time they've grown. I prefer villains who don't see themselves as villains, just as having an opposing interest. In their own eyes they're right whether that's based on mental illness or just a different belief system. Something as simple as being a survivor like Long John Silver. Enlightened self interest if you will can be villainous depending on your point of view. And then there's always rationalizations. That innocent had to suffer for something better. There's that depending on your point of view thing again.

hushicho at 1:17PM, Oct. 19, 2019

It's also worth noting that many villains and antagonists throughout history have been coded gay or queer, as well as plenty of villains simply being "others" or outsiders to the culture casting them as villains. Even as far back as Loki and Set, this was the case; villains are often quite compelling and interesting, as well as their reasons for doing what they do and the story of how they came into their present circumstances. Thanks to a lot of censorship and oppressive attitudes towards expression, it was in effect impossible to make stories where the supposed villain took center stage or even got away with it, except for the occasional genre film which, naturally, would either kill them by the end or end in a way supposed to convey a downbeat tone. There's a fascination with it now mainly because they can...without, to employ the turn of phrase, thinking about if they should.

hushicho at 1:13PM, Oct. 19, 2019

The Joker film is so problematic in so many ways that I just don't care to go into it all. It's a mess, like most all of the DC movies, and not so much worth much comment. However, I do find the topic you've introduced through it to be an interesting one -- it is difficult to make a villain sympathetic unless they're presented in a compelling way. I think quite honestly the biggest mistake is that people think they must, under no circumstances, approve of what a villain does or explain it, but I don't agree. It must be understandable, even if the audience wouldn't do that thing or go to that extreme. Recently it seems that some communities can't tell the difference, as well, between people writing a fantasy story and people actually in reality recommending that people attempt to approximate that story in reality. The most important thing, perhaps, is that people understand that no matter how compelling the story of the bad person, it's ultimately their choice to do the things they do.

usedbooks at 3:40AM, Oct. 19, 2019

The first villain I ever felt sympathy for was Long John Silver when I was reading Treasure Island as a kid. It was because he seemed to show kindness to Jim. In the end, he was still a hated villain but also a pitied one. His apparent side switching throughout was always simply whatever was self-serving. He didn't have a side. He was like an animal but a cunning animal, simply watching out for "number one." And in a way, it made him a worse villain because he turned on the pirates not because they were bad but because it served his interests to do so. And the sympathy was really pity that he had no friends and never would be able to. He survived at any cost. I often think about old Long John in my character creation process. Because he did gave an impact on my youth in his complexity and simplicity. I even have a character whose motives are similar (and who sometimes seems beneficial to the protagonists).

Andreas_Helixfinger at 3:03AM, Oct. 19, 2019

I watched the movie this wednesday and I was absolutely blown away by how intimate and visceral the movie was in terms of character potrayal and visuals. To me this movie taps into the uncomfortable possibility that all individuals, no matter what sense moral, social status or cognitive state they may hold, are capable and in some level prone to comitting acts of cruelty and are in some form, large or small, accomplices to the misery we see in everyday reality. It is of outmost importance I think that we entertain and explore, without necessarily subscribing to, this possibility in order to fully come to terms with who we are and what we are, coming to terms with whatever "devils" that may or may not lurk within our subconscious mind, thus avoiding the chance that they overtake us. That's my current interpretation of a movie that is ingenously designed to be interpreted in so many, many ways. I LOVE this movie and I hope to see more of this kind of cinematic artistry in the future.


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