Last week I saw Todd Phillips’s Joker in our local Johnson City theaters. Based on the trailer, I anticipated that the film would be violent, uncomfortable, sad, and thought-provoking. I was right.
But what really drew me to the theater that Sunday afternoon was the question of how the filmmakers would frame the Joker--this infamous villain.
CAUTIONARY TALE OR REVISIONIST RETELLING?
Like Macbeth or Hamlet, will this be a tale of a good man falling prey to the supernatural temptations for power, revenge, and self-fulfillment, providing us with a much needed cautionary tale? Or will this be a revisionist retelling of the villain we thought we knew, but sorely misunderstood?
The difference between those last two questions is important because one would make a broken film and the other a bent film.
A broken story clearly portrays good as good and evil as evil, and in the end evil actually wins. The moral framework of good vs. evil is clear.
A bent story twists things around, portraying good as evil and evil as good. What often happens in the end is that evil wins, though the storyteller wants us to question whether evil was really evil in the first place. The moral framework of good vs. evil is deconstructed, attempting to reconstruct another framework in its place.
(I understand these categories are simple, maybe overly simple, but I’m thankful for Oliver DeMille for his use of them in A Thomas Jefferson Education. Over the years, these categories have been a helpful tool in stirring discussion about the worldview a film hides within its belly.)
Would you like to take a guess as to which type of film Joker was?
A GAME OF JENGA
It’s been a while since I saw a film as bent as this one. For two hours the filmmakers slowly, brilliantly tugged at my moral convictions like we were playing Jenga.
You think you know why the Joker laughs so wickedly? Oh, you’re so arrogant.
You think you know why the Joker hates the Wayne family? Oh, step down from your pulpit.
You think you know why the Joker wreaks chaos on Gotham? Oh, you have no idea of what injustice really is.
As my good friend shared at IHOP this week, it’s like John Milton’s behind-the-scenes look at the master villain Satan in Paradise Lost. Although Milton’s epic poem is not a bent story, he is humanizing Satan.
THE GOOD THAT BENT CAN BRING
On one level, bent films can serve some good. They can remind us that our heroes aren’t immune to evil -- even the best ones are tainted. The Bible shows us this again and again from Abraham to David to Peter to the Pharisees and Sadducees. God deconstructs man’s lofty opinions of himself or others, declaring that “None is righteous, no, not one...” (Rom. 3:23).
Bent films can also remind us that our villains aren’t wholly evil pursuing evil for the sake of evil. Macbeth wanted power. Hamlet wanted justice. Thanos wanted to save the world from overpopulation and destruction. Arthur Fleck, eventually the Joker, just wanted purpose and meaning in his life. And these all are good goals.
But. . . we might respond: Macbeth, Hamlet, Thanos, and Fleck break the law and take innocent lives.
True. . . the bent film says, but why did they do those things? Macbeth was tricked by the witches and cajoled by his wife. Hamlet was visited by his dead father and told to seek revenge for his uncle’s perverse deeds. Thanos was tired of watching the earth’s inhabitants go hungry from overpopulation and carelessness.
And Arthur Fleck...where do we begin? He was ridiculed and beaten and betrayed and lied to; he was ignored, delusional, and racked with mental illness. It wasn’t until he became the Joker that he discovered meaning and purpose in his life. And the Wayne family? We now know what these rich people are really like -- maybe, maybe they’re better than the Joker but certainly not better than Arthur Fleck.
After a bent film finishes deconstructing our notions of hero and villain, good and evil, it starts reconstructing with the simple question: Who can say?
You might recognize this question as a staple premise in postmodern thinking about morality: it’s all about perspective. Right and wrong are constructed by our culture. Who are we to judge Arthur Fleck?
In reality, I don’t hear that argument used very often. Perhaps it’s because it’s self-refuting: if morality is relative, then isn’t your bold and objective statement “that morality is relative” simply another opinion that I can choose to disregard?
This bent film doesn’t take that approach. Feel free to disagree with me, but this film wants us to understand, appreciate, and accept -- without judgment -- not only Arthur Fleck but who he becomes. . . with all of his warts -- you know, like his senseless and gratuitous slayings of those who had mistreated him. I found it fascinating how this film doesn’t tame Joker down from Nolan’s depiction in The Dark Knight but ramps him up, offering us scenes of gratuitous violence I haven’t witnessed in a while.
But, unlike Nolan’s film, our film in question doesn’t offer hope that a hero with moral character will bring Joker to justice. The film wants us to see Arthur Fleck as the hero ushering in justice--toppling the rich oppressors like Thomas Wayne, setting the poor free.
For so many reasons, this movie has guts. In light of this cultural moment of continual mass shootings, a widespread bullying epidemic, and our struggle to help those with mental illness, the filmmakers give us Joker.
Was the acting remarkable? Stunning.
Was the script taut and thrilling? Absolutely.
This film perfectly illustrates how a film can be good and bad at the same time. Joker is artistically excellent and philosophically sinister.
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and secondary principal at Providence Academy, a classical Christian school in Johnson City, TN.