How Joker Critics Proved Me Right
Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews and an 8 minute standing ovation, even taking home the top prize at the festival's end. Yet, some critics are savaging the movie for being immoral and dangerous. In a way that I predicted a year ago.
Last year I published the first part of a three-part article series on this blog arguing that empathy is not the highest purpose of film the way that many argue. I used a few different arguments to make my case. One was that empathy can often be zero-sum. Identifying deeply with one group can make you less empathetic to another group. (E.G., a movie identifying with teenagers will almost have to show how annoying old people seem to teens--because that's how you feel when you're a teen. Likewise, a movie that identifies with old people will almost have to show how annoying teens can seem to old people--because if you don't, you're not authentically showing how it feels to be an old person.) The second problem with empathy I pointed out is that empathy is amoral. Empathy simply means putting yourself in someone else's shoes, to identify with them, feel what they're feeling, and see the world as they see it. It doesn't differentiate between good and bad feelings or good and bad worldviews. Some people are racists, sexists, bigots, they have feelings of hatred for other people, of self-righteousness and superiority. It is not self-evidently true that causing people to identify with those people and those feelings in any way automatically makes them better people. In fact, identifying with the toxic views of toxic people can sometimes lead you to carry those toxic traits with you into your other relationships.
This last point is the problem many critics have with the new Joker film. The conceit of Joker is to show how the eponymous Joker became the psychopathic murderer we all know and love (or at least love to see Batman punch in the face). In doing so, the movie causes audiences to identify with a psychopathic killer whose motivations are uncomfortably close to real life modern psychopathic killers. As Time reports:
Critics who saw Joker during its run at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in late August and early September, respectively, have called it “dangerous”, “deeply troubling” and “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.” In a review that prompted a flood of angry reactions from the movie’s defenders, TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote: “In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week. And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love.”
The most widely shared version of this critique is a Tweet that went viral.
I don't want to watch a well-intentioned but unstable man get bullied until he turns into a mass-murderer. I don't want to watch a man get rejected by women as an excuse for his future of domestic abuse. I don't want to be shown what a poor, unfortunate underdog this man was who was sadly forced by circumstances and that nasty Batman to take up a life of crime. I don't want to have sympathy for a man best known for his robbery, murder and arguable rape shoved down my throat for two hours.I don't want this to be sold as a relatable story that can happen to anyone with a bad enough day, and I don't want to be around any of the lonely white boys who relate to it.
Do you see what I'm getting at?
I don't know if there ever is a good time for a movie that paints mass murder as the logical conclusion of a socially isolated, debatably neurodivergent white man being failed by the system, but I feel as though this is not f--ing it. I don't want to see a movie that idolizes the Joker when there are plenty of easily armed f--boys who already think he has the right idea, without adding a tragic backstory to elicit sympathy.
You can already see my first point about empathy playing itself out. Empathizing with Rachel Miller and those those who agree with her, and empathizing with the people Joker represents, is mutually exclusive. Joker critics so hate people like Joker (rightfully so) that they refuse to empathize with them. People like Joker, of course, so hate the world that they kill them. In a case like this, any part of you that can see where Joker is coming from lacks empathy with Rachel Miller. And any part of you that sees where Rachel Miller is coming from lacks empathy for Joker.
But more importantly, Joker critics point out the obvious: making audiences share a bad guy's views while they're watching the movie may make the bad guy's views seem more reasonable to the audience once they leave the theater. And that could be a bad thing when many real people are already seeing similar views to the Joker's as so reasonable that it's causing them to go out and kill real people. Most obviously, it might conceivably convince such lonely, angry young men on the edge to make the leap and become their own "little jokers". But more widely, if ordinary people see the Joker's ideas as less repugnant, they will be less capable of calling out those ideas as evil and stomping them out in the culture before the come to the point of violence. This controversy has gotten so heated that Warner Brothers has put out an official statement defending the film and the US Army has warned of potential mass shootings at Joker screenings.
The counter-argument by Joker supporters is that you can empathize without agreeing. We already know that violence in movies doesn't appear to make people more violent. But Joker supporters also argue that empathizing with a bad person doesn't have to make you like them either. Mark Hughes writes in Forbes:
A story about a monster, from the monster's viewpoint, requires a certain degree of inherent sympathetic perspective. If you made a film about Charles Manson's "origin" as an eventual mass murdering cult leader, it would necessarily include early scenes depicting the abuse, torture, rape, and other traumas Manson experienced in his youth, the ways in which he was institutionalized through incarceration, how adults in his life were mostly criminals who set horrible examples for him and often engaged him in their own criminal behavior, and how by the time he was 18 he had been through a process likely to have turned anybody into a deranged homicidal maniac. ...
In this case, Joker is so clearly about a deranged evil maniac, I think it's simply crazy to hold it accountable for the potential toxic fans who might idealize this Joker. And let me say again, this Joker is MUCH less glamorous or cool or relatable in any "messaging" sense than The Dark Knight's version of the character (and I don't remotely consider that version bad or dangerous or toxic, either). When you watch this film, I assure you you're not going to be thinking he's glamorized or fetishized the way he's been in most previous incarnations.
In this view, you can empathize with someone without agreeing with what they believe or do. Most people find this intuitively reasonable. In fact, it can be argued might be most important to empathize with people you don't agree with; if you don't empathize with them, you can't understand what's truly driving them, and therefore you are left without your best tools to either convert them, or--if you must--defeat them. We understand this when we talk about Islamic Terrorists; we can acknowledge they're evil or doing evil while also understanding why they're angry at The West and what drives them, and even see if they have real needs or grievances that are worth addressing. (This is something the new Amazon show Jack Ryan did pretty well.)
However, in order for empathy to not lead to agreement, you can't stay entirely in empathy. You have to move beyond it to something else. Often this "something else" is a better understanding of good and evil that helps us become better people. In Black Panther, for example, empathizing with the villain Killmonger helped T'Challa--and through him, us--see the ways in which his society has let people like Kilmonger down and what needs to be corrected. This better understanding takes information from empathy but is ultimately higher than either Killmonger's perspective or T'Challa's earlier perspective.
That's my point: it is not empathy that makes a film like Joker morally good. It's the parts of the movie where we stop empathizing with him that make it morally good. Any part of the Joker movie that treats Joker as a monster is a part of the movie where we don't feel empathy for him. Yet that is the part of the movie that keeps the film from being morally bankrupt. So unlike those who claim the redeeming feature of film is empathy, in this case, it is the removal of empathy from Joker which keeps it from being a work of evil.
That is one of the reasons I see worship as the highest purpose of film. Worship is, in part, just passionately loving something more than anything else. And there is nothing more important in life than finding out what is worth loving most in the world and then sharing that thing with others. Empathy is important because it helps us to understand better--through other people--what is truly worth loving. And it allows us to share those loves with others when we find them. But by making worship the goal rather than empathy, we are able to discern when people's loves are disordered, and keep ourselves from sharing in their bad loves when they have them. Worship truly allows us to love the sinner without loving the sin. As long as we are worshiping what is truly worthy of it.
So the question is, what does Joker worship? Does it worship what Joker worships? Or does it use the Joker to lead us to worship something better?
Regardless of the answer, we're now asking the right questions. And that puts a on this film lover's face.