The new movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix is, like 80 per cent of movies ever made, problematic. Such we have been told, and such we must accept. One Rachel Miller, via Facebook, lets us know why. “I don’t want to watch a movie that shows us the trauma that drove the Joker insane,” she writes in a post in which she uses the phrase “I don’t want to” eight whole times to emphasise exactly what she has no wish to see.
One might, in response to Ms Miller, say, well, that’s fine: if you don’t want to watch the Joker movie, just, you know…don’t. But of course, we are all quite aware what it means when someone says, “I don’t want to watch this movie”, especially if they say it online. “I don’t want to watch this movie” means “you must not watch this movie”, or to put it more specifically, “watching this movie will make you Bad”.
Rachel Miller’s sentiments are being echoed across the commentariat: everywhere, concerned citizens are raising red flags as to how Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the weird, bullied loner whose frustration with his hopeless existence drives him to become the notorious comic-book villain, will cause similarly frustrated real-life “incels” to follow his example and go around beating women and shooting up cinemas and such. “I worry,” writes Clemence Michallon in the Independent, “that some toxic guy will watch this film and think: ‘See? There’s nothing wrong with me’.”
Let’s pass lightly over the idea that anyone could identify with the Joker – the actual Joker, from Batman – and think that that proves “there’s nothing wrong” with them. Suffice to say I don’t find it that compelling a concern. If there are young men out there who think there is nothing wrong with the Joker, I suggest that they’re going to be quite far gone before they actually see the movie. The idea of men who previously had no intention of committing acts of violence watching a movie about a comic-book bad guy and walking out determined to take bloody revenge on all of society is a reasonably amusing one.
What’s also funny is that once upon a time it was the right who voiced dreadful concerns about pop culture corrupting the youth. It was uptight conservatives who demanded TV have no bad words, who forced Hollywood to censor itself, who warned that video games turned kids into psychos and heavy metal turned them into devil worshippers. Back then, progressives scoffed at the laughable notion that the root of all evil was entertainment and we could avoid creating bad people by ensuring we were exposed only to morally pure and uplifting art. Yet today, here we are, in a world where good modern lefties are terrified that if we are allowed to watch a movie where sympathy is shown to a villain, we’ll turn into villains ourselves. A world where the “progressive” view is that showing a man to be a socially-maladjusted murderer isn’t enough – we have to spell out that being a socially-maladjusted murderer is bad, or men will think it’s good.
It’s weird. Almost as weird as declaring a movie that you haven’t even seen morally bankrupt. Almost as weird as believing that what makes a movie good is a total lack of ambiguity.
Because there was also a time when it was actually considered a good thing for art to look deeper than superficial depictions of good or evil. When a fictional villain might actually be considered a more satisfying creation if you could understand their motivations. When seeing a character as not solely good or solely bad, but a complex mixture, was a sign of sophisticated storytelling. When, to put it bluntly, characters who resembled real people were seen as a desirable thing for a film to have.
Because even for some reason you can’t see Joker as just a movie, or accept that real-life mass murderers aren’t magically created by watching fictional ones, to declare it unacceptable to depict a man being broken and twisted into a monster by circumstance is to declare it unacceptable to depict reality. In the real world, killers aren’t born, they’re made: by systems, by oppression, by tragedy and by cruelty. If there are men like the Joker walking among us, they were made that way, one way or another, by the world they grew up in.
Some people will enjoy seeing that reflected on screen. Some people won’t. Fortunately, there is a perfect solution that will suit every one of us: if you want to see it, do. If you don’t want to see it, don’t. And either way, don’t go around telling those who chose differently that they’re immoral.