** SPOILER FREE **
I rather loved Joker. The design. The universe. The cinematography. The story arc. The performance. My god the performance. The soundscape and music score. Love the music by Hildur Guðnadóttir. LOVE (one track below).
So, some story observations that make it fascinating for me.
The Joker is in almost EVERY scene
This is pretty unusual as most filmmakers and actors cannot pull off such intense optics and story pressure. It sounds easy. It’s not. I can’t think of many actors who could not just keep our attention for the duration, but who could also draw us in deeper and deeper in both empathy and sympathy as well as, ultimately, horror.
Choosing to follow one character is very challenging, but if you can pull it off, it’s very powerful storytelling.
Who does the Joker stand for? Who or what do your characters stand for? And do they change?
As human beings, we all stand for something. At the very centre we stand for ourselves. If we stand for no one else, we are likely a sociopath or a psychopath and the foundations for an excellent villain.
If we stand for ourselves and our families, that’s better, but it’s still very insular and dangerous.
Maybe our stand is for the local community, the village. Now it’s tribal. This is where I would suggest politics are today. Tribal.
Or maybe it’s bigger: a stand for the country, which is where politics THINKS it is, but it isn’t.
Or maybe it’s a stand for everyone?
As an audience, we LOVE watching characters moving up or down across these thresholds… Usually for a protagonist, it’s UPWARD, perhaps thinking only of the self at start, but eventually caring for the community… Think Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino for instance – he hates pretty much everyone but ascends to love the ‘people’ he once hated.
We can keep stepping up over these thresholds and the greater the leap, the greater the satisfaction.
We love this growth and in some cases it leads to deep redemption.
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’ says Carton in the closing lines of A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, as he nobly gives his life.
The more stages a character moves between, so long as it’s truthful and not a gimmick, the more satisfying we find it as an audience.
Joker is a descent.
He cares about his mother. He cares about the kids he performs for as a clown. He cares about his co-workers, though his descent is illustrated in one key scene in this regard. He cares for the city and the people in it. He cares for the woman and child down the hall. He cares very deeply for her.
And then in his descent, finally… he doesn’t care.
It feels truthful and like watching a car crash in slow motion. It lingers as it shines a light into the darkness of our own immature sense of injustice and rage.
Maximus in Gladiator stands for Rome, then no one as he descends, before ascending once more to stand for everyone. Getting your characters to cross thresholds of ‘who they stand for’ will allow them to ‘change’ without forcing the change.
The Hero’s Journey in the descent… Does your nemesis follow mirrored story beats with the protagonist?
One topic I will be covering at the upcoming LSFAccelerate is the character arc of the nemesis. The journey of your villain.
Exploring story models in the ‘opposite’, the Hero’s Journey in the descent if you will, we can see how with every single step the protagonist takes, the antagonist can (and should) take similar steps too. They may not be on the page, but they should be in the story universe.
One strives upward (protagonist) while the other descends ever deeper (antagonist).
It’s fascinating because we spend sooooo much time on our protagonists that we often allow our antagonists to occupy less story space, and if we are not careful, they can become caricatures. Then it’s game over.
The Joker is an antagonist in the Batman universe, but is played as a protagonist in the Joker universe.
This is one reason I suspect that we see such a backlash from the media.
We just don’t like feeling empathy for evil. The genius was in allowing us to connect with a human being, then pushing them so hard that they snap – asking US how much we could take before WE snap.
It’s unsettling and complicated. And a breath of fresh air for superhero movies.
Whoever wins your story, it should feel like they JUST beat the other. Consider the journey of King Kong if HE were the protagonist of the story. Ordinary World, Call To Adventure… Seizing the Sword, The Resurrection…
Like the Joker, we find it hard not to feel for him and that causes some conflict within us. Great storytelling allows us insight into the villain in such a way that we can feel for them, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Put as much energy and time into plotting your story arc for the villain as you do for your protagonist.
What can we learn?
Play our antagonists as human beings as well as opposing forces in our stories. Give them depth and vulnerability, love, passion, pain, courage… Make them REAL. And perhaps, just perhaps, the villain in your narrative has a more compelling story to tell than you heroine. Maybe consider telling THAT story instead?
And remember, if you want TWO days of amazing London Screenwriters’ Festival sessions, access to NINE years of video sessions from past festivals AND the opportunity to pitch your projects at the PitchFest, then grab you pass for £125 HERE.
Onwards and upwards!