Todd Phillip’s Joker has sparked a lot of discussion, not just in the more “geeky” corners of the web where hyper-informed individuals debate the nuances of comic books and their adaptations, but also in more mainstream newspapers and magazines. Its impact and influence is debated with an intensity and coverage that I’m not sure I remember seeing in recent times.
The film has left people awed and deeply uncomfortable – not just about its content and what it says about society, but the way it interacts with a world they see as more volatile than ever before. Joker has tapped into something that challenges how many people perceive and understand the world, and that is something they do not quite like.
Blake’s image of Milton’s Satan.
Part of this friction comes from how the film is constructed. There is the Dostoyevskyan psychologising in which we witness the disintegration of a man, the noirish social commentary in which we see a city – a civilisation – fall apart, and there is the popular mythology that provides the wider world for the film. They come together in the story of how a villain comes to be.
This context is crucial. While Batman does not appear in Joker, a young Bruce Wayne does, and in such a way that we know what he will become. Even if Joker is never integrated into a wider film series, it is clear it exists in the same universe as Batman, emphasising that while Joker may be the protagonist in this film, he is ultimately the villain in his world. It doesn’t matter if he likes what he does or has found some perverse sort of fulfilment – he is the Bad Guy.
In this, Joker grates against an understanding of the world that sees self-fulfilment – abstracted from any moral code or objective understanding of reality – as the highest good. It further grates against a therapeutic worldview that equates empathy with approval and endorsement. We can feel sorry for the bad things that happen to Arthur without holding that his response is a good one, or that he shouldn’t be stopped.
Joker is the story of a villain. And although it is possible to depict a villain as a caricature or a cipher, to do so requires the story to be about a hero or a victim, not the villain himself. To make a story about a villain is, at some level, to attempt to depict and understand him.
What makes villain-led tales so discomforting is the way they make the audience recognise themselves in the villain. This is what makes Shakespeare’s work so powerful. Characters like Macbeth or Iago (in Othello) are undoubtedly villains, yet, if we are honest, we can admit that we have felt like them at one time or another.
Likewise, stretching right back to the ancient Greeks, to Euripides’ Medea, or Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra – they maintain their resonance over the ages because they speak to our inner selves. They say out loud what we whisper in our hearts, they do what we might daydream.
It is true that sometimes these stories go too far, whether intentionally or not. It was not for nothing that Blake remarked of Paradise Lost that “Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”.
Moreover, it is always possible that some individuals will miss the point and see in the villain the validation of their experience, and the inspiration to go further. However, there is always more going on in the psyche than can be put down to the influence of a character and a story.
Another risk with villain-led tales is how they can seem to reduce the villain to a set of influences: that, if things had been different, the villain might not have come to be. There is a certain truth to this, as much of who we are is the result of things outside of our control.
However, such reductive and, in many cases, simplistic analyses can give a false confidence that obscures as much as it reveals. Villainy, or heroism, for that matter, is, after all, the action taken in the face of such influences, not the influences themselves. A villain is a caution to the audience about what they might become. By recognising the rot in ourselves we can begin to counter it. Villains are the anti-role-models that inspire us to be more human.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).