I must begin with a confession; like most ~cinephiles~ I tend to turn my nose up at superhero films (hi, Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola!). In a sense, it’s an occupational hazard, which equally shouldn’t really be an excuse. Yet, superhero films in their essence are a source of very accessible, populist entertainment, and that is what lies at the crux of the matter; these films are entertainment rather than art. I will not – perhaps a bit lazy and unscholarly of me – go into great depth in debating what is and isn’t art when it comes to film. Broadly speaking, I am merely stressing the distinction between the main goals of certain films, for, despite the inevitable cross pollination between the two broad categories – as films can be both art and entertainment, or have a touch of the artistic in the broadly entertaining – there does exist a divide. It is why I agreed to watch Jokerdespite all of my prejudices and misgivings, for here was a superhero – or more accurately a super-villain – film that was dubbed a piece of art.
To my delight – and my shame – I was faced with popular entertainment that was complex, ambitious, visceral, confrontational and sincere; in other words, it was art. Todd Phillips and Joaquim Phoenix set off to create a film that was not merely bog standard good vs bad entertainment, but a subversive look at what we consider to be good and bad. It is this intention, and the deviation from pure entertainment, that makes Joker so controversial. I did find it amusing – especially after I had seen the film myself – to compare the initial reviews of the film vs the ones that appeared after the public backlash/sensationalism. Ironically, this cements Joker’s status as art, as it creates a debate around the issue of morality and its place in popular media.
What make people so uncomfortable about Joker, is that we cannot see him as simply evil, and thus cannot direct him to a specific corner in our cabinet of morality. Instead, he menacingly and defiantly jumps around the shelves, just as he dances down the stairs in the film. After living in a world without a sense of morality or order, Joker does not simply cross over to immorality, but rejects the whole structure of morals all together. This is stressed in the film by the popular uprising that he inadvertently creates around him, despite his repeated claims that he is intentions are not political. In this case he isn’t lying, he is simply rejecting society as a construct as a well as rejecting it physically and emotionally. I believe that what bothers people is that on some – even subliminal – level, they understand that the satirical Gotham portrayed in the film, is not far from our own reality. We too have strong divides between the rich and the poor, we struggle to support those different from us, we struggle with our resources and jobs, we struggle to find our place in the world that is getting progressively more antagonistic to the individual. Thus, Joker’s “snap” is entirely plausible within our own universe, and that is a truly frightening thought.
Nevertheless, I would like to maintain that Joker does not strive to glorify this “snap”, but merely presents its possibility from the perspective of a certain kind of individual. This brings me to the second point of why the public finds this film uncomfortable; we as a society are not comfortable – and for good reasons – with violence coming from an antagonist. Joker as a film and as character is no more violent – and perhaps even less violent – than James Bond, yet because he is amoral (and by that, I mean the actual sense of amoral – without morals), we cannot tolerate even a hint of violence from him. Due to our hyper-moralistic attitude escalated by the tensions of our age, we instinctively attempt to protect ourselves from danger that we perceive in Joker. This is why in the backlash it has been claimed that Joker will inspire violence, for the film allows us to see the world from the perspective of a man who has rejected the moral order which our daily life rests on.
Joker is a piece of art because it allows us to leave ourselves and inhabit a person who is in so many ways different and even abhorrent to our usual selves. We equally feel Arthur’s frustration and his eventual elation as he assumes him new world view, rejecting everything he previously valued and becoming Joker. There is a sense of enticement and liberation that comes with this, and herein lies the danger. Yet without being confronted with this possibility, that someone, somewhere, may feel like this, we cannot truly defend ourselves. Prevention lies in understanding; not to be facetious, but that is my we study history and serial killers. Granted, it is incredibly uncomfortable and frightening, but at the end of the day it is necessary. We need to understand that even these kind of individuals, like Joker or – dare I say it – Hitler, are also human, despite rejecting the moral code that most people follow.
The backlash again Jokerslightly reminds me of the backlash that came when Downfall was released in 2004.Oliver Hirschbiegelwas condemned for making a film focused on Hitler – as apparently, we don’t need any more films about Hitler (sorry Taika Waititi) – and Bruno Ganz (RIP) was criticised for making Hitler appear human. However, at the end of the day, we cannot simply refuse to try to understand Hitler (and by understand, I mean to study, rather than sympathise), for without at least an attempt at understanding, we subsequently cannot learn why people like that exist and how others end up following them – even to the last day.
At the end of the day, we are a society of contradiction; we are comfortable with watching shows about serial killers because they are clearly put on the side of immorality, but we are distressed and angry when we are confronted with the fact that sometimes the world isn’t simply black and white. Equally, we are uncomfortable with humanising antagonistic figures, as humanising them would mean that we share the same essence, and thus the boundary between us and them is perilously permeable. One of the ways in which it can be permeable is through trauma and mental illness, and this is precisely what Joker explores. In arguably the most visceral and distressing scenes, Arthur finds out that his mother not only lied to him, but allowed him to be abused and disfigured. This raises the uncomfortable question – which I also explore in my post on Mindhunter – if violence can come from trauma. Although the truth is – as always – much more complicated, this connection has certainly been explored profusely in the media when it comes to serial killers, and more recently school shooters. I personally believe that it is cowardly to dismiss and condemn Joker as a film that glorifies that sort of cause-and-effect, or as a film that gives people suffering from similar mental state an aspirational idol. What the film does is shed a Hollywood sized spot light on these matters and confronts society with its own failings, for as Arthur writes in his journal, “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T”.
Before I am hounded down with pitchforks, I must stress that I do not see mental illness and trauma as an excuse for violence, nor do I believe that trauma or mental illness necessarily leads to violence. In fact, I believe that Joker actually does address this issue. Arthur has certain neurological symptoms, like his laughter, as well as physiological symptoms like his anxiety and depression, that are very valid and pitiable. Nevertheless, his slip into insanity and anarchy is not only due to these symptoms, but a combination of factors, like his environment, lack of support, the severity of his issues and the fact that their core – i.e. his abuse – is never addressed, and that he continues to live with his abuser. Furthermore, what is stressed to us throughout the film is that Arthur turns his mental state into a self-indulgent excuse for his subsequent actions. Instead of recognising himself as a victim and attempting to re-adjust to society, Arthur uses his victimhood as a weapon against society. This kind of childish spitefulness is very tempting, yet it is also wrong. We can see this most poignantly in Penny, Arthur’s adoptive mother, who, by indulging in her own victimhood and megalomania, has subsequently ruined Arthur’s life. In my opinion, Joker displays that mental illness and trauma should neither be supressed nor applauded, just as they should not be a justification for the way we are. Instead, it demonstrates how in a particular set of circumstances, the mixture of mental illness and society’s attitude to it, could lead to a devastating outcome.
Joker is art because it isn’t merely entertainment, but an intense character study with overtones of danger and grief. It is a difficult topic coming at a difficult time. Furthermore, it is unafraid to examine an unsavoury character without putting him in contrast to what we consider good, like the previous Batman film. Yet, at a time when we read about tragedies that happen due to human frustration, misunderstanding, aggression and pain, it is necessary to be confronted with a negative character that seems to exist on his own terms. Instead of blaming Joker for the ills of society – or assuming that it glorifies them – we should examine our own world, not Gotham’s, and confront our own difficult reality. For, if our own society were healthy and morally adjusted, would anyone see Joker as a dangerous possibility?