On 4 October, an event transpired that, in some circles at least, seemed to provoke as much anxiety as the impending eruption of a volcano: a movie was released. The Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, presents the Batman villain’s origin story as a critique of a society that ignores suffering and pain. This moral ambiguity—which encourages us to pity the Joker’s sad life, even if we are repulsed by his subsequent actions—provides a new twist on the iconic evil bad guy story. It has also made a lot of people, particularly on the political left, uncomfortable.
Predictably, many American reviewers couldn’t resist references to incels and mass shootings, to try to make their reviews relevant to the cultural moment. In a sneering review for Time, Stephanie Zacharek refers to Arthur Fleck as “the patron saint of incels.” Slate’s Sam Adams likewise argues that, “the movie plays right into advance fears that it could act as a kind of incel manifesto, offering not just comfort or understanding to disaffected young men angry at the world, but a playbook for striking back at it.” Adams also adds, with unselfconscious drama, “it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own.” The idea that The Joker is some kind of poster boy for incels or mass shooters has popped up in other reviews as well. Unlike the right’s knee-jerk efforts to (falsely) blame video games for mass homicides, most of these critiques seem to come from the left. Given that ultra-violent R-rated movies are released almost every week—The Joker contains far fewer on-screen deaths than other recent releases like Rambo or Angel Has Fallen—to little fanfare and without provoking anything remotely like imitative crime, why are so many movie critics decrying the supposed moral vacuity of The Joker?
Let’s dispense with the veneer of worry. Underlying many of the negative reviews is the insidious suggestion that some unhappy sucker might decide to imitate the Joker. However, as with video game violence, there’s no evidence that movie violence causes real-life violence. In fact, crime tends to drop on weekends on which violent R-rated movies are released. These claims are the result of moral panic, pure and simple. Criminals do sometimes borrow stylistic elements from fictional media when they decide to commit crimes. They might try out a technique for removing evidence that they saw on a TV show, for instance. But evidence suggests that these elements are purely style, and don’t actually motivate crimes. Might someone who commits a crime dye their hair green? Sure, but they would have committed a horrible crime anyway, had there been no Joker movie—just without the green hair. Some folks have made bizarre references to the Aurora shooting from 2012, which took place at a theater showing another Batman movie, despite the fact that claims that the shooter was inspired by the Joker have been debunked.
Some of the reviews seem to almost be rooting for the occurence of a horrible imitative crime to provide an I told you so moment. It’s probably human nature to want to be right when predicting a tragedy, if that will somehow confirm one’s own moral stature. If anything, however, all the hype about possible violence might provide more of a motivation for violence than the movie itself. Contrary to popular belief, most mass homicide perpetrators don’t seek fame, but a subset do. Granted, even hype wouldn’t cause someone to commit a crime they wouldn’t have committed otherwise, but there’s a chance it might influence the timing.
I suspect that all the pearl-clutching over imitative violence is a smokescreen for the real objection: the movie’s moral ambiguity and its subtle hints that society, on both left and right, is making things worse for people in pain. Moral righteousness has historically been the purview of the right, but, in recent years, the left have been catching up in the realm of moral entrepreneurship. Much of the progressive movement has begun to adopt simplistic narratives of good and evil, often based on identity politics. Some elements of the far left have been voicing bigoted statements about race and gender—just of a different variety from those of the alt-right.
One undercurrent causing all this chatter is the popular myth that mass homicides are mainly perpetrated by white men with racist or misogynistic motives. In fact, the ethnic composition of mass homicide perpetrators is similar to that of the general US population. Although males greatly outnumber females, some perpetrators are female. White nationalists and radical Islamists are both common among perpetrators, but most criminals do not subscribe to any specific ideology. Worrying over the movie is a distraction from real issues related to mass homicides.
The fact that The Joker itself makes an astute point about the origins of mass homicide may be what is making people uncomfortable. Most mass homicide perpetrators have histories of mental illness. Mental illness increases the risk of someone’s committing violence several-fold. Some advocacy groups, including the American Psychological Association, seem intent on downplaying this. Their intentions are good, but their denials are no more accurate than the right’s claims that the easy accessibility of guns is unrelated to the problem.
At the center of The Joker’s narrative is an individual in obvious pain, which is slowly devolving into hate. Arthur Fleck is a man with serious neurological and mental health problems. Despite all his laughter, he states that he has never experienced happiness, often thinks about death and was most at peace during a psychiatric hospital stay. Despite this, society ignores every red flag, discontinues his psychiatric care and treats him as an object to vilify and humiliate. He’s assaulted several times in the film (his first act of violence is in self-defense, though it obviously makes him feel powerful). The real villains of the film, however, are the societal elites, who hoard resources, while heaping scorn on the lower classes.
This is the movie’s compelling message. Too often, elites on both left and right set the lower classes against each other by weaponising xenophobia on the one hand and identity politics on the other. All the while, the elite of both sides remain elite, while the masses are riled up over the wrong things. The lack of compassion on the right is satirized in The Purge. But, while The Joker is not kind to Republican indifference, it hints that some left-wing sniggering over incels and other identity issues is motivated by underlying meanness, rather than virtuousness, and only adds to the problem.
We needn’t condone the decisions of those few who allow their pain to turn to hate and inflict violence on others. But neither should we mock those in pain, those who lack the social skills to form friendships or relationships or those who are isolated from or even bullied by mainstream society. Politicians on both the left and right talk a big game about mental health reform when it suits them, but nothing much ever changes. Those suffering are left mainly on their own, unless they have excellent insurance.
The Joker exposes this societal indifference and suggests that, even if evil people bear the ultimate responsibility for their choices, societal elites also deserve some blame for doing next to nothing to help those who are struggling. The right have been criticized for this for decades, but all the tittering about incels, toxic masculinity and other unhelpful concepts on the part of the far left is only increasing hate, rather than helping us develop a sense of shared community.
The Joker is a morally nuanced story that calls upon us to understand how the protagonist came to be who he is, and how society contributed to that transformation. Dan Brooks rightly notes that the critics’ hand-wringing over the film’s impact on the masses (an impact to which the critics themselves are apparently morally immune) is a kind of condescension: “Critics, after all, are the ones warning us that millions of undersexed morons are about to watch a movie they won’t understand. And it’s critics telling us, in a tone of concern for their fellow man, that these losers are total misanthropes.” This kind of movie criticism isn’t much better than Robert DeNiro’s cruel mockery of Arthur Fleck’s failed attempts at stand-up comedy.
Director Todd Phillips has speculated about the controversy surrounding the film: “I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while … What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda.” The movie subtly holds both far left and right accountable for the hatefulness of their messaging, which increases the sum total of anger in the world.
The Joker isn’t going to cause violence in real life. But the attitude of elites on both left and right continues to leave too many suffering people to fend for themselves. We’ve lost our capacity for compassion. Too often, we look for ways to be virtuous at others’ expense. We should never condone violence. But The Joker suggests that we could do a better job of identifying people before they reach that point and getting them effective, evidence-based help. That would take determined effort on our part and tax money. So perhaps—like too many characters in the film—we’ll find it easier to simply point and laugh.