Todd Phillips’s Joker is one of the most culturally significant films in recent memory. It has been praised and attacked with a fervency that is rarely inspired by the mainstream fruits of Hollywood. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a modern blockbuster that has generated such attention and concern. Virtually every major media outlet has published some extended commentary on the work, whether it be a film review of the standard format (which are now rare) or an impassioned op-ed delineating how the film is either the cause or consequence of some terrible social phenomenon. Inevitably, the word “Trump” appears early and often.
The film tells the origin story of the Joker, a prominent supervillain in the Batman fictional universe. It traces the tale of a failed comedian named Arthur Fleck who, afflicted by bullying and mental instability, turns to a life of crime and sadism. To progressive members of the literati, the phenomenon of interest is the omnipresent sociopathy of the white male, in all its sexual repression, social ostracization and malignant cruelty. Though nearly identical attitudes are easily found at Vice, CNN and numerous other outlets, Richard Lawson’s take in Vanity Fair exemplifies the perspective most forcefully:
For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent—a nation (or part of one) trying to diagnose and explain them, one mass killing after another. Whether that violence is born of mental illness, isolation, the culminated rage of masculine identity, or all those bound together in some hideous knot, we seem certain that there is some salvable cause. That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable.
At the risk of sounding like the sort of critical theorist who would spout such sentiments, “there’s a lot to unpack here.” Most importantly, it is unclear why any of us should not endeavour to understand the motivations of disaffected white men (or any kind of men—for it’s not clear why Fleck’s character could not, with some small plot changes, be of any ethnic background imaginable) who end up committing acts of violence. The key to reducing violence amongst any demographic is in ascertaining the specific attributes of violent individuals. Skin colour is a crude and categorically ineffective indicator in this respect. Indeed, generations of progressives have properly argued this truth, typically in the face of racists who have alleged some particularly malign criminogenic trait at play in the minds of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, “Orientals,” Muslims or Jews.
The use of a phrase such as “hideous knot” suggests that Lawson has no interest in understanding mental illness, isolation or “the culminated rage of masculine identity” (whatever that is), and that he would prefer to imagine all of these as simply being ingredients in some disgusting stew of human malignancy that is more properly called “evil.” His real complaint about the film is that, by prompting curiosity in regard to why people do bad things, it might distract audience members from the simple, morally urgent task of denouncing men such as Arthur Fleck in a purely normative manner, as a priest denounces sin.
Lawson goes on:
But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.
Of course, some of the people interested in this sort of “woebegone mythos” include lifelong students of psychology, neuroscience and criminology—subjects that (don’t tell Lawson!) they still teach in schools. Yet even so, Lawson is a gifted writer. And it is worth understanding why Joker makes him feel uncomfortable. The spectacle of so many prominent writers demanding that we suppress our understanding of criminal violence, rather than nourish it, represents, at the very least, a terrible waste of journalistic talent.
Imagine if a different attitude were taken. Joker forces the viewer to undergo a rare inversion of perspective—an uneasy blurring of lines between hero and villain that seriously threatens to subvert popular notions of responsibility. Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) demands sympathy. (This is the fact that upsets Lawson.) As his backstory is developed, and as he is revealed to be the unlucky inheritor of an absolutely terrible deck of cards—genetically, environmentally and socioeconomically—Fleck’s descent into erratic, violent behaviour becomes easier to understand and accept. He is somebody who, through no real fault of his own, is pushed to the breaking point. This is the sort of instructive lesson in “root causes” that progressive advocates of criminal-justice reform have properly emphasized for generations.
To view the Joker’s behaviour as evil, full stop, is natural: From early in life, fairy tales teach us to divide the world into good and bad. But Lawson is not a child, and Vanity Fair isn’t a book of fairy tales. A grown adult should be able to denounce criminal violence while recognizing that the personal characteristics that cause antisocial behaviour are not elected at birth, nor (typically) elected at any point thereafter. In a tale for children, such as the Harry Potter stories, we instinctively view the perpetrator of evil (Voldemort) as depraved rather than despairing. But again, Joker is a movie for adults. And so it is incumbent on adult viewers—especially those who present as professional critics—to push their reflex beyond the level of pointing at the screen and saying “bad man.”
Many books and movies with action themes provide at least some glancing reference to the villain’s back story. But Joker goes much further: It portrays Fleck’s background in painstaking detail. The film chronicles the life of a man pushed by the cold, heartless universe to do things that any normal person would see as unequivocally evil. When the totality of his experiences is presented, it becomes more difficult to authoritatively condemn him. At root, our conflicted response gets to the heart of the age-old philosophical question of whether free will, good and evil can even exist in a deterministic universe. None of this has anything to do with race, except in the mind of a person who walks into a movie theater already obsessed with the question of skin colour.
None of this is entirely new. Fyodor Dostoyevsky challenged Christian morality with his nuanced presentation of such themes in Crime and Punishment over 150 years ago. But film, especially good film, is a more accessible, intense and haunting medium, and therefore its impact on the world is much more decisive. Moreover, the Lawsons of the world know it to be more accessible, intense and haunting, and so tend to become fearful and agitated at the thought that a popular movie might further the spread of heterodox thinking. It is the same sort of moral panic that inflamed Christian culture critics who found themselves horrified by the contents of heavy-metal music lyrics.
Fifty years ago, the place of Lawson would have been taken up by a conservative who worried that a sympathetic portrayal of a black man who lapsed into criminality might subvert the public appetite for law-and-order policies. Both types of moralists—progressive and conservative alike—hinder our pursuit of policies that are utilitarian, and which encourage us to supplant our instinct for retribution and cosmic justice with a concern for public safety and a commitment to address the roots of criminality (including poverty, trauma, addiction and mental health). This is the path toward a more humane and safe society. And writers such as Lawson would realize that if their moral understanding of the world ever escapes the Manichean universe of black and white.
Samuel Forster is a Canadian essayist, and the Editor-In-Chief of Banter Magazine. He has degrees in criminology and psychology from the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto. He is an incoming PhD student and Wakefield Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where his subject of study is neuroexistential penology.