‘Joker’ Has Redefined Good Cinema

Is Todd Phillips’ Joker a good movie? At this point, it doesn’t really matter.

I wasn’t intending to see Joker, because neither psychological dramas nor superhero movies hold much interest for me. But as it became a cultural phenomenon, I was curious what all the hype was about. What all the controversy was about. Surely one film couldn’t be all that everyone was claiming it to be. And yet. While Joker succeeds brilliantly as a film with much artistic merit, it succeeds more as a statement. Not a clear, cohesive statement; its success lies more in the vein of a motivational speaker who fires you up in the moment and then, upon further reflection, you realize he never actually really said anything. In the legacy of pretty Oscar-bait movies that seem deep but don’t say much, Joker can easily be brushed off as one in a long line. But Birdman never inspired protests and riots. Hail, Caesar! didn’t require an increased police presence in theaters.

Many of the criticisms leveled at Joker centered around the fact that it tried to make statements about a lot of big topics, and never really committed to anything. But what stood out more starkly to me was what it specifically didn’t say. It tried to comment on mental health and government priorities and societal stigmas, but it didn’t say, these were his bad choices and his responsibility. It tried to comment on class tensions and the apathy of the rich, but it didn’t say, this can be resolved, there’s hope for a better future. It tried to comment on bullying and crime, but it didn’t say, violence isn’t the answer.

Now, of course I’m not advocating that every movie should end with a PSA or all the characters hugging it out. Gritty realism appeals to us because we recognize that life kind of sucks sometimes. But there’s a fine line that separates media that appeals to us because it reflects a larger truth and media that appeals to us because it enables our already negative thinking. Joker seems to fall in the former category—the class and mental health struggles feel very real in today’s climate—but does it really?

This Joker origin story is one of the most thoughtful origin stories I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t create a plot line that makes later stories confusing. It doesn’t negate future character arcs. It makes sense. This film leaves the Joker right where we meet him in popular Batman lore: homicidal, insane, and causing chaos for the hell of it. He’s Batman’s ultimate villain.

Except, he’s not. He’s not causing chaos for the hell of it. He’s not even a villain, not really, even putting aside that the movie is from his point of view. The film put him in the position of wanting—more than chaos, more than twisted justice—to be loved. To be appreciated. To be accepted. That’s all he ever wanted. And when he inadvertently started an anti-government, anti-upper-class movement, he found the adoration and acceptance that had been missing from his life. The Joker is no longer the villain to Batman’s brooding justice and good, he’s the everyman hero. He’s one of us.

It’s not an accident in this current culture of hate and anti-government sentiment and rampant mental illnesses that Joker presented a champion of the people that a preternaturally “super” hero could never be. He is the victim of his circumstances. He wants to be treated with the respect he thinks he deserves. He’s reacting, not acting of his own volition. He’s a real person, just trying to make it through life. And therein lies one of the biggest issues with this movie. The Joker is just like you and me, and there’s no clear line drawn around what exactly he was doing that was so wrong. The film relies on the audience’s own concepts of right and wrong to make sense of the Joker’s actions.

Todd Phillips, the director, is a comedy filmmaker. His previous credits include such movies as Road Trip, Starsky & Hutch, and The Hangover trilogy. He left irreverent comedies to make Joker because he felt as though nowadays comedy had too many opportunities to offend people, and he wanted to get out of woke culture. Instead, he made an irreverent drama, consequently ripping away the wall that separates comedy from reality. You watch The Hangover and think, lol this is absurd this would never happen. When looked at piece by piece, Joker involves the same kind of absurdity and unlikely sequence of building events. But it’s no longer funny, because it very much could happen. Even if half those events happened to someone, we’d be left with tragedy and unspeakable horror. And when you watch the news, that kind of tragedy and horror happens everywhere, every day.

The issues are raised. The questions are there. And the answers Joker presents? Riots. Chaos. Violence. Murder.

It’s easy to believe that everyone watching this film has a strong enough moral compass to know that murder isn’t a great solution when life knocks you down. But concerns over the premiere of this film sparking another mass shooting only go to show how few people truly believe that. We try to believe it, of course. The worry that an incel would identify with the Joker and mimic his actions was written off all across the internet. It’s just a movie. Fictional characters don’t make an impact. Movies and video games don’t inspire violence. They’re all arguments that are brought up time and time again, and they all have merit. But they all also have counter-arguments that, given the messy state of society, have at least equal merit, if not more.

With the recent prevalence of fandom, studies have begun showing that identifying with fictional characters and stories has an effect on people. We identify with characters’ struggles and echo their actions. It’s widely accepted that Harry Potter produced empathy in children, because empathy was part of the story. “Princess culture” has in turn both perpetuated gender stereotypes and promoted a host of positive traits. Even in the ’40s, Bambi produced a sharp decline in deer hunting in the U.S. Fictional characters provide us with a way to process our own feelings and experiences and develop empathy for those who are not like us. One study showed that if a person was able to become fully engrossed in a character-driven story, their actions would become more like the character’s.

But suppose not a single person sees the Joker as a personal hero. The question of whether violent media causes violence is a hot topic that will get every amateur comment section up in arms. Most people will state that studies show that there’s no correlation, but of the studies I could find, most tested aggression levels immediately after consuming violent media. But who really believes that’s the problem? The argument after many incidents of violence is that the perpetrator had no previous criminal record. He was a good kid. I can’t believe he would do that. Negative feelings—whether anger, sadness, loneliness, injustice, whatever—reach a boiling point, and bad things happen. And some studies do in fact link violent media to aggressiveness, as well as to actual changes in MRI brain scans. There have also been studies that link violent media with mistrust of other people and desensitization to violence, which, even if you don’t believe that violent media spurs violence, neither are great qualities to encourage.

The question isn’t whether or not violent media immediately produces aggressive behaviors, because it’s clear by the sheer number of people who consume it on a daily basis that the correlation is not one for one, the question is whether violent media provides an answer when reason and other mental faculties fail. When Joker specifically doesn’t comment on personal responsibility or hope for the future, its silence provides those answers, keeps them in the back of someone’s mind for when they might be needed. Riots. Chaos. Violence. Murder.

Of course there are studies to the contrary of all of these points, too. There always are. But if you had a glass of wine that tested positive for arsenic once and negative once or even twice, would you drink it?

This is not to say every person who sees Joker is going to go out and murder people. Nor is it to say that violent media is the sole cause of violence in the world. That’s absurd. Probably 99.9% of people who see Joker won’t then go commit a crime. Probably more. But all great media is created to impact your thoughts and feelings. Great art makes you feel things you wouldn’t have otherwise. It sticks with you.

And Joker is great. Its execution is nearly flawless. It leans hard into emotions most other media shies away from, and does it well. While other R-rated superhero films have equal amounts of violence, this uncritical and realistic deep dive into selfish depravity sets Joker in a category all its own. I left the theater to a chorus of comments like I feel dirty and that was uncomfortable. I’m sure it was supposed to leave you feeling these things. But in its excellence, it glorifies violence. It glorifies narcissism and the idea that if you don’t get the respect you think you deserve, you can take it. It gives such care and love to these ideas, this film, that you can’t help but appreciate them, even as you’re repulsed. This villain origin story creates a sympathetic hero out of a clearly psychopathic villain.

And we know, culturally, rationally, that the Joker is a villain. But this movie doesn’t deal in rationality. It deals in emotion and visceral response. We may know that the Joker is a villain, but we don’t feel it. And we won’t feel it. Batman will never beat Joaquin Phoenix. His Joker is forever cemented in the zeitgeist as a slightly misguided hero with completely understandable intentions.

This film has become the top grossing R-rated movie of all time. It has widespread cultural awareness and will probably make a decent showing at the Oscars. Joaquin Phoenix did a phenomenal job with the part. Of all the positive reviews I’ve heard that praise something other than Phoenix, a common element is the subversiveness of it. The Joker’s actions weren’t justified, but his reasoning was.

That’s such a dangerous line to assume.

If his motive is justifiable, who’s to say his actions are wrong? Religion? That’s no longer a guiding force to most. Laws? We’re currently in a culture pushing against laws and traditions. Personal feelings and good vibes? Clearly the Joker felt good about what he was doing.

Morality has become subjective, and it’s in that hazy light that Joker is reflected back to us.

In a baffling turn of linguistic bastardization, I’ve heard the Joker repeatedly referred to as an antihero. Not a villain, not an antagonist, not a monster, but someone who, give or take a few negative traits, is not really all that bad of a guy. That is, after all, how the film paints him. And we as a culture love our antiheroes. They’re more interesting, more complex, more realistic. But when we persist in referring to the Joker as an antihero instead of, say, a psychopathic mass murderer, we leave room for him to continue to be sympathetic and, dare I say it, admirable. Not to all, not even to most, but to those few who embrace our culture’s moral subjectivity and let their moral compasses stray far from true north. The argument that the Joker is an antihero because he’s a realistic portrayal of a complicated human is a silly one. It’s true, but if that complicated human existed in our world, making even a fraction of those horrible choices, he would be condemned immediately with very little, if any, mercy.

But it’s a movie. There’s a movie about Ted Bundy, but that doesn’t mean we condone his actions. We just like horror, with that nice little cushion of a television screen between us and it. What’s so wrong with that?

On a small scale, nothing. Horror provides us with a thrill of adrenaline in a safe environment. True crime allows us to explore taboo topics and the tension between good and evil without getting up close and personal. Getting in the heads of horrible people allows us to feel as though we’re prepared should a similar situation ever arise in our own lives.

If Joker were an anomaly, I might be inclined to look more favorably on it. But it’s just the latest and greatest in a cultural obsession with the macabre. It goes a little darker, a little deeper, and we reward it by throwing money and awards its way. I guarantee this film will spark more media in the same vein, pushing every boundary, daring to go even farther in the chase for consumable depravity. And whether we want to believe it or not, that’s affecting us. Not just the societal outliers who might take this movie to heart, but all of us.

Prolonged exposure to the kind of negativity rampant in Joker and other media of its ilk can affect your body negatively, increasing stress levels and inducing paranoia. It lowers activity in the “thinking” part of your brain and heightens activity in the emotional part associated with anger and impulsiveness. Plus, our minds have a natural negativity bias, with negative stimuli making a significantly bigger impact than positive stimuli. One study even showed that a healthy positive to negative input ratio was five to one. Practically, the abundance of media such as Joker has the potential to make us as a society angrier and more distrustful of each other. It causes celebrity-like obsessions with killers, both real and fictional, even going so far as to inspire love and adoration from otherwise normal people. And to many, the constant violence is just emotionally exhausting.

Joker specifically, though, brings its own set of baggage to the cultural table. Already, people are donning Joker faces as a symbol of anti-government protest. Just like in the film, these masks lend strength and a collective identity to protestors, furthering an us vs them narrative and allowing a social movement to stand even without individual members. And regardless of whether you believe this is beneficial or harmful, any movement idealizing the Joker’s unhinged, murdery actions probably isn’t a great step forward for society. Tell me fictional characters don’t have any bearing on reality.

Even aside from the larger societal issues raised by the propagation of negativity and sympathetic monsters, there’s still the question of whether this movie will inspire deranged individuals to commit horrific acts. Many of the positive, emotionally stable people I talked to came out of that theater in a dark place. I can only imagine what ideas might be planted in the mind of someone who went into it feeling beat down and misunderstood. I genuinely hope that nothing bad will come of this film, but I have little faith that my hope will come to fruition. Joker’s uncritical look at the mind of a murderer is just begging copycats and manifestos. As one reviewer said, “they’re just teaching other life-hating clowns how to get noticed.”

Of course Joker isn’t the sole, or even the main, problem with society. This film simply threw into sharp relief many of our other problems, without taking a particular stand on any of them. It’s a well-made film, exceptional in the cookie-cutter superhero genre. I don’t blame anyone for liking it, as it’s a likable movie. But what you support matters. What you consume affects you and everyone around you. What you throw your money at determines, in big and small ways, the future of society.

You can and should like and support whatever you want. But before you do, look at the implications of your actions. Take into account what exactly you’re supporting when you buy that movie ticket or click on that news story or play that video game. Think about what you’re saying when you tell someone what a great movie Joker was.

Because it may be a phenomenal movie. But will that matter when someone is dead?