In Defense of ‘Joker’ and Other Repugnant Protagonists

     October 19, 2019

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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:

  1. The protagonist’s lack of appeal may have been deliberate
  2. A great film does not depend on a protagonist’s likability

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.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

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 a film like that? That question is best answered with this one: what film are we talking about? Let’s take a look at two from the same artist and explore what separates them.

David Fincher is known for making cold, dark, soulless films, where an unhappy ending has come to be expected. He released a movie in both 2007 and 2008, each featuring an unlikable protagonist. In Zodiac, the character’s off-putting disposition elevates the film. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we’re left wishing we cared for our “hero,” even a little. Zodiac is plot driven, one note though it may be. Its pacing, tension, and obsessive investigation on the part of Jake Gyllenhaal’s journalist lead keeps the audience on edge. The story is what drives him batty and he loses much as a result. Had he been more sympathetic, would that have made the movie any better? Not in the slightest. It’s the nature of his personality that allows his investigation to remain in motion. Without it, there’s no movie. The unlikable protagonist serves the film.

Button’s proposed selling point is not plot, but emotion. We travel through the life of a man (Brad Pitt), aging backwards, watching the world around him transform, rendering him perpetually at odds with it, as he’s never where he should be. It’s about sadness. Or, it’s supposed to be. Pitt’s protagonist lacks any attributes that draw us to him. He emotes next to nothing, his pain hiding too deep for us to see. How we feel about him determines whether the movie connects. And we don’t feel for him, so it doesn’t.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

This is one small comparison in the long history of meaningful cinema. For every beloved Tom Hanks, there’s a gruff Humphrey Bogart. For every schmaltzy Frank Capra, there’s an icy Darren Aronofsky. Imagine Casablanca with a sentimental Rick (the flashback doesn’t count), or Black Swan with a softer, gentler Natalie Portman. These are great screenplays whose protagonists’ personas had to be as they were, lest great drama would never have been the byproduct.

Perhaps no character better exemplifies this than Michael Corleone. The Godfather saga is Michael’s arc—the ascent of a crime family’s impersonal youngest son to the throne of an empire. He’s aloof when we first meet him, a wrathful terror in the end of the first film. At no point does Michael allow us in. We never like him. And that’s what makes the films (parts one and two, anyway) work so well. It’s the tale of how just the right person—and personality—becomes a monster. A sympathetic soul simply cannot move that narrative to its ultimate resolution. Michael needed to have this inside him from the outset. And we needed to sense it.

The same can be said for two other classics: Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood. These films present figuratively monolithic, greed-driven men whose vices corrupt them from within as their stories evolve. There is no redemption for these two, just as there’s none for Michael. Our protagonists have the seed of wickedness already planted when they first appear (Kane as a young adult). Each film in this holy trinity of loathsome leading men merely waters that seed until it blossoms. Yet the point is, the seed had to be there in order for the story to be.

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Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Thomas Anderson are/were masterful filmmakers. They didn’t simply forget to provide some affable qualities to their characters. And if they received any notes during the writing process suggesting Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corelone, or Daniel Plainview be given relatable attributes, it’s a good thing those notes were ignored. It can be argued—and has been—that these three pictures are the best in their respective decades.

We love these films, but for many of them, once is enough. They’re as ensnaring as they are repelling. So what is it about these stories, and these people, that draw us? Perhaps it’s that we can identify with them more than we want to believe. Because laying dormant in us all is a proclivity for selfish ambition, for greed, for lust, for violence—for sin. We see these men (and women) as revolting archetypes of the worst that humankind has to offer. If in fact morality is objective, no wonder we share this opinion on these characters and their ambitions. “I may have thought to do something like that, but I’d never actually do it,” we tell ourselves.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Which brings us back to Arthur Fleck—a pitiful and delusional man unable to escape the hell of his own mind. Maybe you’ve known someone of his kind. You feel for him, even if you don’t want to be his friend. You’d like to help him, but you’d rather someone else be saddled with that responsibility. Where his arc ultimately winds up is no surprise. His actions had to be reprehensible in order to bring his story to fruition. Arthur Fleck had to be unlikable, had to relinquish his command of our sympathies. If we’re still feeling sorry for him when he emerges from the squad car and basks in the anarchists’ praises, the movie doesn’t work.

Joker may pale in comparison to the others mentioned here. But, if nothing else, it’s a robust reminder that unaccountable human desire—birthed from a healthy mind or otherwise—oft plunges toward abject devastation. The unlikable protagonist is a necessary parable of the collective self, whether we want to admit it or not.

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