No Kidding

[Spoiler Alert: This article contains major plot points and spoilers from the film Joker.]

According to IGN Entertainment, the Joker is the second greatest comic book villain of all time.¹ Numerous actors have played the Joker, each representing a unique interpretation of the villain. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was quirky, Mark Hamill’s Joker was devious and scheming, Jared Leto’s rendition was comic bookish, and Heath Ledger topped them all, with his portrayal of the Joker as a chaos-oriented mastermind.

The latest attempt at the Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, represents the Joker in a sympathetic light. The new movie, Joker, is the origin story that comic book fans have long been waiting for. By disconnecting themselves from the larger DC Extended Universe, the film’s creators were free to take the story wherever they wanted—and we must go to some pretty unsettling places if we’re going to follow them.

Who is Arthur Fleck?
Joker follows Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable man who has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at random times (this is based on a real condition known as Pseudobulbar Affect, PBA).² Arthur’s life is miserable. He lives in a dingy apartment with his helpless mother, working as a clown for his day job. Arthur dreams of being a comedian and fulfilling his purpose which is “to bring joy and laughter to the world.” But fulfilling this purpose turns out to be a tricky thing in Arthur’s hometown, Gotham City.

Gotham is a city spiralling into fear. People are angry and unkind. No one gives Arthur the time of day. At one point he complains to his counselor, “You don’t listen, do you? . . . All I have are negative thoughts.” Not surprising, seeing how everyone treats him like garbage. Arthur is an outcast in society. He doesn’t fit in anywhere. He is bullied, abused, ridiculed, falsely accused, abandoned, and used as the butt of a devastating joke. He laments in his journal, “I just hope my death makes more cents [sic] than my life.”

Unable to find the love and acceptance that he craves in society, Arthur resigns himself to violence and the senseless killings of several people. He concludes that life is meaningless and gives up hope. “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I know its a comedy,” he says during his descent into madness. The climactic moment comes when Arthur, now calling himself “Joker,” murders TV talk-show host Murray Franklin in retaliation for Murray’s mockery of him. One of his final quips sums up the film: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” He answers himself, “You get what you f—ing deserve!”

Joker is an unusual story, because the Joker is not the villain in this film—he’s the “hero.” The villains are society, the people who treat other people badly, and the rich. Indeed, Phoenix’s excellent performance is muted by the cardboard nature of the rich and powerful in the film. The rich are portrayed as selfish, arrogant, and completely aloof from the plight of the poor, and Joker is seen as the hero for striking back at them. To my mind, this is one of the film’s weakest points. Rich people are often selfish and arrogant, but so are many other people. Making the wealthy all bad is too simplistic and stereotypical.

After killing three intoxicated people who are bullying him on the subway, Arthur revels in the response of a girl who essentially says, “It’s a good thing. Now there are three less jerks in Gotham.” Though these words turn out to be a fantasy of his own mind, they accurately sum up the view of many of the poor and oppressed in the film toward the affluent. If society will not pay attention to us, we will take vengeance on the rich and powerful. Arthur is more or less crowned as their king as they loot, pillage, and murder in the streets of Gotham.

Who’s to Blame?
The film is an interesting reflection on how we treat the disadvantaged, mentally ill, and down-trodden among us. All people share in the dignity of being human, but often enough, our treatment of some people betrays our own prejudices. We spurn those who smell like smoke or wear clothes that aren’t as nice as ours. We distance ourselves from others because of their skin tone. We poke fun at people for their weight or their mental capacity.

In this sense, Arthur is right about some aspects of society. It is getting crazy out there. There is anger, fear, hate, and prejudice in our world. Maybe, the film suggests, the Joker isn’t entirely to blame for his actions. But the question of whether or not the Joker’s actions are defensible is not one that the film (or our larger culture) has the moral framework to answer.

The first half of the film is consumed with Arthur’s experience of injustice and prejudice. How else should he respond except by striking back? Society is to blame. But it’s hard to watch the last scene, where the Joker is practically worshipped by the looting crowd, without feeling like something has gone horribly wrong. The crowd celebrates a murderer as though he were a hero who has overcome some great evil.

Unsettling as it is, this is not an unthinkable response in our culture. If you feel oppressed, the answer is not to seek justice for all parties, but to seize power and advance your own interests at the expense of everyone else. As much as we clamor for justice, every time we use power to force our way at the expense of others, we betray the fact that we don’t really care about justice at all.

Society may be filled with evil, but the answer is not overthrowing one group to enshrine another. Nor can society be blamed for Arthur’s senseless murders. At some point, Arthur made a decision to commit murder, and once he did, he chose to keep on murdering. Though he would blame society, Arthur must bear the blame for his own crimes. In this sense, Arthur’s views are similar to those of Frankenstein’s monster, who cites ill-treatment from society and neglect from his creator as the excuse for his murderous deeds.

As flawed as this reasoning is, there remains some legitimacy to the idea that neglect and abandonment often lead to chaos—even the Joker’s line about getting what we deserve is intriguing in this sense. As a friend observed, the film demonstrates the consequences of the breakdown of family in society. Arthur’s family life is about as bad as it could be: he has no father that he knows, a mentally unstable mother, and has suffered extreme abuse and neglect.

Families are the foundation of society and when they are unhealthy, chaos is looming on the horizon. This is in no way to suggest that a less than ideal family situation automatically or necessarily results in children becoming homicidal maniacs; but it is to say that it is in the family that we best learn about truth, virtue, and common decency. If we cannot learn it there, should we expect society at large to be able to bear the burden of teaching us?

This further demonstrates the need for the Church. When our families fail, Christians can take comfort in knowing that they are part of a larger family—the community of believers around the world. Jesus commanded his followers to love one another, and the radical love early believers demonstrated is something to emulate. Ultimately, this love for one another should extend to the world at large.

It is not true, as Arthur believes that no one is civil, that no one is decent. As Murray Franklin remarks to him, “Not everyone is awful.” There are people who are seeking to help and who are looking out for the poor and oppressed. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the stories of hate, violence, and prejudice overshadow the beautiful and compassionate acts that are happening all around the world. However dark things may seem, we should not give up hope. Rather, we should look for those who are trying to make a difference and ask how we can help. Many Christians have done just that. (See the book Restoring All Things for examples.)

A Two-Edged Sword
Since Joker is an origin story, it is not altogether surprising that the Joker is portrayed in a sympathetic light. There ought to be empathy for any human experiencing the difficulties of life. One would be hard-pressed to watch Joker without feeling some sympathy for Arthur, and shame for the ill-treatment that he experiences at the hands of others. It is right that our sense of right and wrong should be awakened by his story.

Ultimately, however, Joker is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it awakens our inherent knowledge of right and wrong; but on the other, it attempts to reverse the distinction between right and wrong by vilifying one group of people for their selfishness and indifference, while coming dangerously close to justifying the murders enacted by those who are oppressed.

If the difference between right and wrong is confused—or even erased—we will never be able to deal with the issues that the film addresses: the ill-treatment and neglect of the disadvantaged, poor, ill, and oppressed among us. To deal with these problems, we need to be people who believe that real justice is possible, and that goodness and truth do exist. Further, we need to be people who believe that God will set the wrongs to right, that vengeance belongs to him, and that even now, we can work toward justice for all.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.