The new Joker movie with Joaquin Phoenix has been stirring up some controversy lately, and when I see a film being hotly debated in the media, I want to have a look to see if any truth can be found to the various debates. The arguments with this film include the common ‘copycat’ concern, rightfully intensified by the Aurora, CO shooting at the opening of Dark Night Rises, but I have also seem some parties asking if we need another movie with a crazy white killer! Yes, people have been crawling out of the woodwork to talk about the Joker movie.
As someone who has always taken more than a passing interest in the impact of media on society, I went to see the Joker movie witness firsthand whether the criticisms where valid or if we were better off not having this film in our world. I will keep spoilers out of this discussion.
In my book, I AM not amused, we explore whether artists believe their work inspires and directs culture. The final answer is yes, but as George Lucas said, they want to admit the good a film can do, but they do not want to admit any evil that could come from their art. That is truth. Nearly every media artists whether an actor, a director, a musician, or a game programmer will tell us that their work can help guide thoughts and questions in our society. Whether it is playing the old video game Army of Two, which explores possible consequences of military-for-hire or The Truth About Alex, an after school television series to explore homosexuality as a lifestyle (of course produced at a time such topics were still taboo). Everyone wants to think art can cause positive change, but they often only want to talk about the positive that can come from their art, never the negative. A further exploration of the music and movie industry was documented in my book showing the messages many of those artists wanted to convey.
But not all media entertainment simply pass or fail, good or bad. Much of it, even those with negative elements, can teach society lessons which if learned, will help us along on this little spinning ball in a great big universe. So where in that mix does The Joker lay?
The Joker is controversial because of the case in Colorado. I remember that night, as I lived not too far from the Colorado border...and I myself went to a midnight showing of Dark Knight Rises in my own town. Of all the screenings around the country, a mentally ill person chose to commit a mass act of violence, and whether or not the character of the Joker (not present in Dark Knight Rises) was an inspiration, many people think there is a connection. The theater in Aurora will not be showing The Joker, and I agree with their decision. The families of some of the victims have asked the studio to donate to causes of preventing gun violence, a theater in Pittsburgh will not be allowing any masks or face paints into the viewing, and others have said there may be a breakout of violence during the showings, yet I have not seen any such reports yet.
Sadly, in our world, race is also a factor, but not in the way it traditionally has been. Somehow in 2019 many racists have been coming out of the woodwork; but it is sadly a lot of racism I am seeing thrown at white men...oh yeah, did I also mention sexism? Yes, black folk, trans, gay, women all seem to get more passes, but if you are a white male, certain loud segments of our population tend to hate us, and that was the take from an article in Refinery29 which describes the movie as a “poisonous story for a fraught time.” and then asks “Did we really need a brutal movie about a white terrorist figure who uses gun violence to enact revenge on the society that rejects him?” References to ‘white men’, ‘white dude’ appear seven times in the eight paragraph article. Yes, there is a lot of talk about race, as if it should matter who commits a violent crime.
So seeing all these sides to the debate, is the film worth seeing? Does it make any specific points? Well, I promised no spoilers, so I will be brief and without specific details as I attempt to navigate these questions. To do that, we need to return to I AM not amused, which we will offer a brief summary of a few key points using The Joker as a case study.
First, we are commanded as Christians not to walk in the ways of the world. This means we are to set aside the sin that so easy entangles our lives and focus on the good things of the world. The best things are to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to help alleviate the consequences of sin in the world: helping to feed those who are hungry, cloth them, visit them. In the film, the main character had a brush against too many people who did none of that. From being beaten twice, having his counseling services and medications stopped, and learning the truth about his life in uncompassionate ways pushed him over the edge. I am not about to claim that our evil society single handedly did that to him, but I am going to suggest that if we meet people in real life who encounter those terrible circumstances, a little love from a brother or sister in Christ goes a long way.
Next, we need to understand our own guardrails for walking in the Christian life. Are we all about total freedom because we are reborn in Christ or are we under a yolk of rules? The answer is neither. We have a lot of freedoms in our life, but we are not to use our freedoms to make ourselves or another person stumble. Nor are we to be mastered by anything other than Christ Himself! These are not a heavy set of rules, but our devotion to Christ should cause us to seek His righteousness. In other words, to dwell on the things in a violent film like The Joker is not good, but calling it a sin to watch, is likewise not Biblical. If you watch such a film, learn from it. We can learn from a fictional character what tragedies await the daily lives of many people and if such education helps us to help one more person, we are better off for it. So bringing this point home, if you are more inclined to see the negative in the world, you will probably want to give this movie a miss, but if you really want to understand what could turn a person into a mass killer, the movie could teach you that without the loss of any life.
Finally, we need to examine film for what it is. I talk in my book about the inadequacy of ratings, but how they came about to prevent government regulation over the movie industry. Rather than looking to ratings to determine a film’s worth to a Christian, I identify a few key points. The first of those is what the producers are trying to teach us. Some films are made just to make a movie, and Phoenix has said that was the case here, but even if that was the only case in point, we can still look at the messages. Did this film seek to glorify evil? The answer in the case of The Joker is not ultimately clear, but I am inclined to say No. My only hesitation is when he claims to be more free after he has committed a few murders than when he was trying to be good, but I go back to my No when we see so much conflict in the character’s life. From this film, I took away that for an isolated person in a harsh society who is constantly derided, madness is the endpoint, the harvest of the world’s seeds cast into a fertile mind. We see the consequences of our societies actions as a whole. And that is worth thinking about. More emphasis was placed on that conflict than any glorification of sin.
Rebellion as the hero’s way is another determination that I use. This one goes back to the criticisms. Does this movie make a hero of the Joker or do we see the negative consequences of sin? This is a mixed bag in this film. The character in this film is certainly the central character, and thus the one we are made to emotionally attach. But that being said, he is never portrayed as a ‘hero’ of sorts. He is certainly humanized, but never really glorified. We sense he is mentally ill, but we are never given a desire to be mentally ill ourselves. Instead, we are often made uncomfortable looking through his eyes, feeling his pains, and experiencing his life. So while the main character is a rebel, he is not really made out to be a hero.
Where do I classify this film? I put this into my list of “those unsettling films” which you can read about the others in the book. I place this in that list because it is one that for those who like to learn from art, there are many lessons to be learned from the film, but it is also so dark and violent, I am not convinced a Christian should watch it over again. It is like Boyz in the Hood to me; the lesson is so powerful I have no regrets seeing it, but the contents are so graphic, I do not own it or watch it with any frequency. I think The Joker is the same way. I had a taste of the experiences a person like this character could feel, and that strengthens my motivation to serve in people more. But if I were to watch the movie over and over, it may eventually do more harm than good. I would say it is worth seeing once or twice, but I am pretty sure it is not a film that a Christian should dwell on for any length of time.
As a final note, I wanted to talk briefly about the role of movies in our behaviors. I have seen some people try to argue that media entertainment does not effect us, but that is patently false. I encourage you to read through I AM not amused to see for yourself why I say that. But, movies also do not cause us to commit acts on their own. As The Joker demonstrated, it was not a single event that drove this man to madness. It was a culture of madness while being devoid of love. A person can survive a gang beating and be fine if he is loved by a gracious family or friends. I person can have a bad day or even a bad week when she has a support network of friends. But in our current world where we are isolating ourselves, lack communication with families, and then become incessantly beaten down by a whole without compassion, we start feeling alone. And when these alone feelings are feasted upon by a diet of violent movies, it can cause some people to snap.
The best solution is to see that we are not alone in this world, that there is a God who loves us! We start by confessing our sins to Him and receiving His grace and mercy. Once we know we are together with Christ, we need to start loving the world. When we love the unlovable people who are being beat down by this world, we may just stop someone from committing acts of violence. When we look at a film like The Joker, we can see all the bad and decry it as causing people to commit crimes...or we might just learn a bit of compassion of a hurting person, and share with them the Love of God!