Making this movie might have been a mistake

Initial thoughts on Joker

I went to see Joker tonight and it’s not a good movie.

To be clear, it’s a very well-made movie. It is stylish, realistic and superbly casted. Leaving the cinema, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been better had it never been made.

On screen portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime have taken many forms, but for the most part they have become progressively darker as the years rolled on.

In the 60s live action series, he was an essentially harmless maniacal goofball. In the 1989 Batman, Jack Nicholson portrayed him as a flamboyant crime boss. For the acclaimed animated series of the 1990s, he was a gleeful, sociopathic imp.

When Heath Ledger took the role for The Dark Knight, the Joker was an inscrutable force for chaos. In Suicide Squad, Jared Leto showed him as a jealous and abusive boyfriend. And now, Joaquin Phoenix has made him a loser.

An early scene in the movie shows the protagonist being beaten up and kicked in the groin. And for most of the movie, that’s what continues to happen. Some of the kicks are metaphorical rather than literal, but there are plenty of physical assaults too.

This Joker has been dealt a very rough hand in life. An awkward misfit saddled with a depressing home life, little in the way of hope other than delusions of a comedic career and unspecified, but clearly serious, mental illness. When nervous, he breaks into uncontrollable laughter. This, of course, usually makes things worse.

The man at the centre of this picture is an underdog, but you couldn’t call him sympathetic. The problem is that nobody in the movie really gets a meaningfully sympathetic treatment either. The various people who propel the plot along are awful people.

Alan Moore’s comic The Killing Joke is probably the most well-known attempt to imbue the Joker with the nuance of a tragic backstory. In the book, the Joker is revealed to have been a struggling provider who “snapped” after suffering a series of terrible blows in close succession. In the course of the story, he then tries to prove that nobody is more than “one bad day” away from insanity by kidnapping Commissioner Gordon and subjecting him to the worst type of torture anyone with children could imagine.

Batman saves the day, of course, but an important part of the resolution is that Gordon doesn’t snap. More than Batman’s punches, that’s what defeats the Joker. It remains an unappetising story, but at least it contains that morsel of hope.

There is no real hint of this in Joker. It is a universe of unremitting nastiness. It is the tale of a man who has been trampled on and ignored, mostly through no fault of his own, who finally takes charge of his life – through acts of unspeakable evil.

All that would be bad enough. For a while now, however, we have been living in a world in which young men feeling rejected by the world, often having a strong affinity for popular culture, take to mass murder as a form of revenge against the world. Not six months ago, more than fifty New Zealanders were murdered in cold blood in one such attack.

We are in the grip of aome terrible social contagion and, while I think it is wrong to blame art for the choices people make, I do worry about a movie like Joker. It is a powerful, dark movie and it is not beyond the realm of imagination to see it working a powerful, Dark influence on the mind of some young man on the edge of the abyss.

I do not say it lightly. I am also not calling for the movie to be banned. But walking out of Joker tonight I felt something very real: a sense of dread.

I write things on politics, society and culture. Email me to l.hehir@icloud.com

I write things on politics, society and culture. Email me to l.hehir@icloud.com