Understanding the Villain? Developing Empathy for Arthur Fleck in the Film "Joker"

Term Paper, 2021

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. How Does Film Create Empathy in the Spectator?

3. Empathy in Joker
3.1 Characterization of Arthur Fleck
3.2 Generating Empathy for Arthur

4. Transformation of Arthur into the Joker and Why the Spectator’s Empathy Disappears with It

5. The Film’s Message to Today’s Society

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

He is known as one of the most terrifying anti-heroes in the Comic and Film Industry - crazy, mad, out of his mind, recognized by his unforgettable laughter and his remarkable outward appearance: The Joker. However, Todd Phillips has humanised this villain and given him a story that not only amazes but also touches the audience. He manages to make anyone, who previously only saw the murderous clown as a monster and Batman's worst rival, sympathise and feel empathy, forgetting for a brief moment the fictional character's outrages yet to come.

Joker is one of these films one can not stop thinking about for days, because the spectator gets deeply emotionally involved. Empathy is one of the most important human qualities, as it has a significant influence on social coexistence. Claus Lamm, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Vienna, defines empathy as the ability to empathise with the feelings of others (cf. ‘Hirnforschung: Theory of Mind und Empathie’). Adam Smith explains the naturalness of empathy in every being, “to feel for them [when we see others distressed or happy] - albeit less strongly” (‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’). That applies to direct social contact, but with certain cinematic and narrative techniques film can have the same influence.

This paper first examines what techniques are used in films to arouse empathy in the spectator. In order to relate this to Todd Phillips' Joker, the character Arthur Fleck is characterised and subsequently analysed to see how empathy arises for him, and also whether this changes with Arthur's transformation into the Joker. Lastly, connections to our society are elaborated.

2. How Does Film Create Empathy in the Spectator?

Film creates a sense of empathy in the audience on a narrative as well as on a level of cinematic techniques.

Concerning cinematic techniques, camera work and sound effects have a deep impact on how the spectator perceives a particular scene. Cinematography as such is already considered an art itself because it makes the film’s story visible to the audience. The camera determines what is focused on, the frame, what is viewed in detail and what is skimmed over. Due to the fact that this limits the audience’s ability to see, the camera is motivated and guided by the narrative instance, not by the story itself (cf. Schrader 57f).

One filming technique that supports the creation of empathy is close-up shots. For close-up shots, the camera is brought immensely close to the face of the character so that an intense and tangible image is created, in which all emotions and looks, every smirk and every eyebrow raise, no matter how small, are visible. The viewer can only escape this intimate image by averting his/her gaze from the screen because the “‘interior emotional experience of a favoured character becomes the locus of attention’” (qtd. in Stadler 3). The feelings of the person shown thus become particularly clear. This way, the spectator feels very close and connected to the character shown. Apart from that, acoustic close-ups support empathy in the character by combining complex thoughts and emotions with soft sound effects (cf. ibid. 2).

A variation of this close-up shot is the ‘shot-reverse-shot sequence’. Here the camera frame quickly switches back and forth between two different clips: close-ups on the character to underline his/her reaction and emotion and secondly that character's perspective showing the viewer exactly what he/she is seeing (cf. ibid. 3). This has the effect that the spectator identifies with the character's reaction and feels more involved in the situation given. Furthermore, intentionally shared reactions can be evoked here by the character mirroring the feeling that the spectator is likely to have in response to the perspective view, in their facial expressions. This again triggers somatic empathy (cf. ibid. 7).

This perspective of the main character (of a particular scene), which is typical for a shot-reverse-shot sequence, is called a ‘subjective camera’. The subjective camera shows a scene from the character’s point of view (cf. Brinton 359), which includes not only directions but also close-ups on sudden actions and fast camera movements. As Deleyto states, “it is the mind of the character that is visualising the contents of the frame” (169). Figuratively speaking, the “camera movement . . . imitates the movement of the character” (ibid. 171). For example, the camera and the picture frame move back and forth very quickly or change often in stressful situations, which illustrates this hectic nature of the character and makes the audience feel it as well. In the perspective of the subjective camera, short excerpts are enough to visualize the inner life of the character because this excerpt alone has enough value to be depicted and not simply skimmed over, but to penetrate the consciousness of the character and hence also of the spectator (cf. Brinton 364). As a case in point, whenever another character directly looks at the character, whose point of view the spectator shares, the first one also looks directly at the spectator, who therefore feels addressed by him/her.

On the level of narrative techniques, it is important to remember, that whenever we see a person, who is close to us, being hurt or in any kind of (emotional) pain, we feel approximately the same, because the insular cortex of the human brain picks up the pain of our fellow human beings and projects it onto ourselves (cf. ‘Die Neurobiologie des Mitfühlens’). The same happens when you watch a film and sympathise with one of the characters. The audience is mostly confronted with the story, situation and the affective and mental state of the character of whom empathy is developed (cf. Stadler 1ff). Being involved in a character’s life and experiences this way, “having seen and heard what the character sees and hears, the spectator will understand as never before what he feels” (Brinton 365). The spectator does not only observe present but also past experiences through flashbacks or, the other way round, imaginations of a character. Those have a comparable effect on the audience as a real person recounting radical experiences: they symbolize trust and it is only human to try to understand and sympathise with these experiences. This process automatically leads to empathizing, as Murray explains,

[i]n imagining how some other, specified agent sees the world, and in imagining how they think and feel, I emphasize with them. . . . Such imagining allows us not merely to recognize or understand, but to grasp directly . . . the emotional frames of mind of others (101).

Moreover, the audience does not only acknowledge a character how others see him/her but also receives more information about how he/she sees him/herself (cf. Brinton 365). In addition, the use of voice-overs invites the spectator to fully enter a character’s memory, imagination and conscience (cf. Stadler 12).

To summarise this part, the interplay of cinematic and narrative techniques is of great importance for a film to create empathy for a character in the viewer. Besides character traits, camera work such as close-ups also reinforce sympathy for a character, and sympathy increases the empathy people feel for a character. If serious events or unfair treatment of the sympathised character are then shown in the film, the empathy in the spectator can hardly be stopped.

3. Empathy in Joker

“‘There’s no denying we feel something for him - a twinge of sympathy, or at least understanding’” (qtd. in ‘’Joker’ Proves the Power of Empathy’) - but how does this happen? What kind of a man is Arthur Fleck, that his story does not leave anyone cold? Further, how do camera work and narrative techniques support the development of empathy in the spectator?

3.1 Characterization of Arthur Fleck

Arthur Fleck is a 35-years-old man, who lives in Gotham City with his mother, works as a clown and suffers from mental disorders. His biggest dream is to make people laugh as a stand-up comedian.

His brown, thin hair is combed back, worry lines adorn his high forehead and his clothes, long trousers, shirt and jumper, are kept in drab shades of blue and brown. Having a look at his style of dress, which is a mixture of rather young and old clothes at the same time, his gestures and the way he talks to other people, he looks older, more used up and duller than he is.

A character’s first appearance tells a lot, as this is how he/she is introduced into the film and to the audience. Arthur Fleck is introduced to the spectator in the very first scene of the film (cf. Joker 00:00:19-00:01:31). The camera creeps up on him from behind, so that the spectator initially only sees his back and his reflection in the mirror, until his face is zoomed in. While Arthur paints his clown face for work, his make-up being precise, accurate and flawless, you hear a radio moderator from the off. He tells about the horrible and serious situation in town which “affects almost everyone in this city, no matter who they are or where they live'' (ibid. 00:00:41-00:00:47) and that somebody will die if nothing changes. Knowing how the film ends already gives a hint on Arthur’s development throughout the film. Arthur tries a broad grin, pulling up the corners of his mouth with his index fingers, forces himself to laugh until tears spring to his eyes, but it does not seem authentic. Dropping the corners of his mouth down is much easier for him because this sad grimace is reflected in his eyes. The made-up blue triangles under his eyes run in blue streaks on the white face as a tear runs down his cheek. Arthur is not able to laugh, at least not from the heart. This visualizes one part of his mental impairments.

Consequences of his mental disorder include, as the most striking feature, unstoppable laughter in inappropriate, most tense situations, depression and his lack of social skills. The latter is evident in the fact that he has little sensitivity to what other people are laughing at and is generally "hardly able to read other people’s minds and reactions” (Demas, Tillor 1381). Whenever someone makes a joke and Arthur knows that he is expected to laugh, he does so hilariously but stops as soon as he is out of earshot or sight. At the same time, what holds him back most from his career as a stand-up comedian is his lack of ability to make other people laugh. Moreover, he spends his nights at a comedy club to observe what other people laugh about. He takes seven different medications but still does not feel any better. Everything Arthur says about himself in the film refers to his negative thoughts and his hopeless life; he had “not been happy for one minute of [his] entire fucking life” (Joker 01:20:19-01:20:54), “felt better when [he] was locked up in the hospital” (ibid. 00:06:54-00:06:57), finally wants to feel better (cf. ibid. 00:07:36-00:07:39) and keeps coming back to the sentence "I just hope that my death makes more sense than my life" (ibid. 00:06:21-00:06:28) in his journal. All these quotes leave no doubt about his depression.

Having a closer look at how Arthur is described by other characters in the film, there are two points to consider: his mother Penny Fleck and the rest of society. Penny needs her son to take care of her, is worried about him, calls him by his nickname “Happy”, which is immensely contradictive, and tells him that he lives to spread “joy and laughter” (ibid. 00:14:07-00:14:09). On the other hand, not even his loving mother believes in his qualities as a comedian. Loving is contrary to what the rest of society says about Arthur: strangers give him averse looks, when he starts laughing in inappropriate situations, feel uncomfortable around him and think he is weird. They can not even be fully blamed, since there certainly “is a strangeness in his behaviour” (Demas, Tillot 1380). His social worker tells him that the people in the top class of society don’t care about people like him (cf. ibid. 00:41:23-00:41:49), whilst his own boss admits that most of Arthur’s colleagues think he is a freak but that he would like him anyway, even though he would not know for what (cf. ibid. 00:17:48-00:17:56). Accordingly, his speech changes in different situations: what sounds feeble and exhausted in interactions with colleagues or his mother becomes a high and squeaky voice in conversations with his boss, as if he were a child. He is “a lonely, timid and uncharismatic man” (Demas, Tillot 1380), but tries to be the opposite when he holds the door for a woman etc. Nevertheless, all Arthur’s fellow humans exclude him even when he does his best to do good, e.g. when he makes a child laugh on the bus, the child’s mother reprimands him to leave her child alone (cf. Joker 00:07:54-00:09:14). It is striking that only adults do not like Arthur, whilst children are not usually so critical of him because they “don’t see rich versus poor or understand a marginalized individual as adults do. They just see Arthur as a guy whose only intent is to make them smile” (’’Joker’ Proves the Power of Empathy’).

The lack of attention from his fellow men gnaws at him a lot. Above all, Arthur longs for a love relationship; he yearns for a person who laughs at his jokes, accepts him, appreciates him and supports him mentally. In fact, Arthur has an imaginative relationship with his neighbour Sophie, to the extent that he partially follows, watches and stalks her, his good intention turning into the opposite. Arthur does not only wish more affection from a partner since it is clearly evident how much he enjoys attention: in Murray's show, where he is invited on stage and spotlights point on him (cf. Joker 00:12:53-00:15:14); during his own standup comedy show, where the audience cheers and applauds loudly in his imagination (cf. ibid. 00:44:42-00:45:15); and most of all when he presents himself as the Joker on the broken police car after Murray's murder (cf. ibid. 01:50:03-01:52:31).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Understanding the Villain? Developing Empathy for Arthur Fleck in the Film "Joker"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar II)
Literary Studies in Practice
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Literary Studies, Empathy, Joker, Film
Quote paper
Gianna Krieger (Author), 2021, Understanding the Villain? Developing Empathy for Arthur Fleck in the Film "Joker", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1040700


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Understanding the Villain?  Developing Empathy for Arthur Fleck in the Film "Joker"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free