The buzz leading up to the release of Joker has been as bipolar and chaotic as the iconic villain himself. Some critics have praised the Todd Phillips-directed Batman spinoff, which won the top prize and received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in August. Others detest the film, for various reasons: it “lionizes and glamorizes” the villain; it’s “an anthem for incels”; “a poisonous story for a fraught time.”
One can imagine the Joker cackling with glee at the chaos this rendering of his story has caused, provoking audiences from every direction. It’s exactly what he’d want. As we fight over Joker’s meaning and get triggered by it in a panoply of ways, the filmmakers are laughing all the way to the bank.
All movies are mirrors, even when we don’t like what we see in it, and even when the movie isn’t particularly thoughtful about how and what it reflects. Joker reflects us, and our cultural moment, in ways we’d do well to consider.
Are You Not Entertained?
What does it say about us that a grim, disaster-in-the-making origin story about the world’s most famous comic-book villain will likely be one of the highest-grossing movies of the year? Why do we flock to see the making of a psychopath, with gleeful anticipation for the bloody spectacle we know will conclude the film (and which some people clapped for, quite disturbingly, in the theater where I saw it)?
It’s the same reason why we can’t look away from a fiery car wreck on the highway, or why we are often glued to the TV during the latest terrorist bombing, mass shooting, or natural disaster. It’s why the O. J. Simpson trial and Gulf War basically invented cable news. It’s why the slow devolution on Breaking Bad was utterly captivating to watch. It’s why horror is the most bankable Hollywood genre. Something in us is simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to the macabre, the grotesque, the horrifying.
The first words we hear in Joker are “the news never ends,” and throughout the film the press coverage of Gotham’s crime figures prominently. A shocking act of violence on live television catalyzes the film’s climax, bringing to mind recent films like Christine (2016) and Nightcrawler (2014), which have explored the intersection of media and violence (“if it bleeds, it leads”).
Why are we—dare I say it—entertained by watching destruction and calamity unfold? I include myself in these questions. Why did I find Health Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) both deeply unsettling and kind of cool? When he walks away from the exploding hospital wearing a nurse’s outfit, or wields a bazooka from a speeding semi, audiences delight in his glam-goth style and undeniable showmanship. Certainly there are moments in Joker where Joaquin Phoenix—albeit a more clumsy, nerdy, and less confident Joker—channels that same underworld swagger.
The Joker, like Satan himself, knows that humans are inherently perverse creatures, lured in by spectacle, addicted to novelty, prone to amusing ourselves to death. In this way Joker is the perfect bogeyman for our age, embodying the toxic, corrosive power of an entertainment-obsessed, hyper-mediated society of spectacle.
Joker is the perfect bogeyman for our age, embodying the toxic, corrosive power of an entertainment-obsessed, hyper-mediated society of spectacle.
If we feel gross being “entertained” watching the Joker’s dark descent (and in Joaquin Phoenix’s hands it truly is a captivating spectacle), it’s exactly the feeling Philipps wants to evoke. As we watch the grotesque and oft-repeated slow-mo sequences of this homicidal maniac dancing to Frank Sinatra, we should ask ourselves: Is this what entertains us today? Why?
For Christians especially, the questions seem urgent: Why are portrayals of evil and brokenness so compelling, even “cool”? Could this be one manifestation of our culture’s increased emphasis on the “badge of honor” value of brokenness, relatability, and #nofilter “authenticity”? It’s harder to identify with “good guys” these days, if we even trust that good guys exist. But the fragility and darkness of Arthur Fleck in Joker—now that we can relate to. If it’s even partially true that a transparently broken, “I’m a mess” villain like Fleck is more compelling and identifiable to audiences than a more stable, morally driven hero, then the Joker is truly on us.
Why So Serious?
Perhaps the most iconic line from Ledger’s Dark Knight Joker, “Why so serious?” could be asked of Joker, a film that, unlike its comic-book kin, is not very fun at all. Indeed, the film’s bleak aesthetic—a seedy, early 1980s Gotham that invokes Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—fosters a tone of gloom that feels fitting for our cultural moment. But the “why so serious?” question could also be turned on us.
The seething anger and joyless nihilism at the heart of Joker is apt for our “American carnage” moment, is it not? If Joker makes a fetish out of rage and cynicism, it’s only because this is what our media environment does too. If Joker thinks it is more important than it is, “a project drowning in self-seriousness,” it’s only because this is our daily bread on social media: where everyone’s hot take seems (to them) very important, and where every new outrage is of utmost urgency.
Today’s world is constantly angry, everything is politicized, and anything remotely pleasurable is quickly suffocated under the weight of piled-on chastisement and woke deconstruction. Almost anything popular or pleasant will inevitably inspire waves of backlash, then backlashes to the backlash, and so forth. Takes upon takes upon takes. It’s exhausting.
To be sure, entertainment can be culturally astute and “relevant”; certainly there are crucial issues we need art, and criticism, to engage. But Christians especially should fight for the value of joy, pleasure, leisure, enjoyment, beauty—things that are valuable precisely because they’re often irrelevant. A world with no time or space for such things—where everything is a battle, subtext, and commentary—is a world where an abundant, grace-giving, Sabbath-creating God will feel increasingly distant and undesirable.
Explaining Away Evil
Speaking of a distant God, this is another way Joker holds up a mirror to our cultural moment. It’s a movie that continues the trend of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films: superhero movies where the supernatural is conspicuously absent. It’s a world where good and evil as transcendent categories don’t exist and thus, as Alissa Wilkinson points out, “the terror of the Joker is curiously defanged.”
Indeed, even in Nolan’s otherwise soul-less Dark Knight universe, Ledger’s Joker is undeniably evil: disturbing because he doesn’t have a backstory; an unstoppable force with no apparent whence or wither, rhyme or reason. But in Joker, Philipps and Phoenix take great pains to explain Joker’s evil. Not to justify or defend it, to be sure, but to situate it within an immanent world where horrific behavior must be the effect of some natural cause.
It’s interesting that earlier this year Phoenix starred as Jesus in the awful Mary Magdalene, a film that grounded Jesus in a thoroughly immanent, disenchanted world, just as Joker grounds its devilish villain in a human and humble context. Playing both sides of the good-and-evil spectrum, Phoenix is certainly interesting to watch; his acting chops are formidable. But to over-nuance evil in Joker is foolish. I’m not even sure Phoenix or Phillips would use the word “sin” to describe what’s going on with Fleck. By giving such a logical, “here’s why he went bad” spin to Joker’s story, the film reflects a society that struggles to know what to do with evil.
As scary as it sometimes is, Joker made me think of the (far scarier) Las Vegas massacre in 2017. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, but the lone perpetrator had no apparent motive. In a secular age, we don’t know what to do with this. It doesn’t make sense. We’re desperate to find containable causes for evil behavior, because the alternative—that our fallen nature means any of us could become a villain too—is for some too unsettling.
There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing than what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.