The Corner

Film & TV

Burning It All Down, Nihilism, and the Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./IMDb)

Below, Kevin aptly summarizes those with the “burn it all down” mindset: “The world has to be ending, the country has to be failing, the system has to be corrupt, etc., because the alternative — that we are mainly responsible for our own failures and our own unhappiness — is unbearable to many people.”

Over on my not-NR-affiliated pop-culture podcast, I said I’ve got a bad feeling about the upcoming Joker movie, which promises to be an extremely not-comic-book-y portrait of a frustrated, failed comedian who gradually loses his mind and turns into the homicidal maniac who fights Batman.  (You can check out the trailer here.) My gripe is beyond the usual arguments about whether we really needed an origin story for the Joker or whether a story about a villain can really be interesting. I’m worried that a certain segment of America’s angry, paranoid, emotionally unstable young men will watch Joaquin Phoenix descending into madness and a desire to get back at society by hurting as many people as possible and exclaim, “finally, somebody understands me!”

This isn’t a call for censorship; we need some room between “this movie is a good idea” and “this movie should be banned.” But judging from the trailer, Arthur Fleck* is a put-upon sad sack who often means well but always seems to get treated badly by others. He tries to make a child laugh and his mom rebukes him; his therapist doesn’t listen to him, when he gets a job on the street spinning a sign, punks beat him up, and a big-shot television talk show host mocks him. He only finds meaning in his life when he adopts his persona of the violent, maniacal clown.

Again, this is just based upon the trailer; maybe the whole movie will be different from the impression of the trailers. Perhaps by the time the credits appear, no one who watches the movie could possibly see Joker as a justified or relatable person. But so far, Joker looks like it’s about a step removed from a quasi-sympathetic biopic of John Wayne Gacy.

There are a lot of people who believe that the world has treated them worse than they deserved. A decent number of people who watch this movie are likely to sympathize with and relate to Phoenix’s character, at least for the early stretch. When he completes his transformation into a violent and dangerous criminal . . . how many viewers will recognize it as crossing a moral red line and how many will find it inspiring? How many in the audience will choose to see him as a man giving an unfair and callous society the payback that it deserves?

Look, maybe the movie comes out and we see no violent incidents connected to it, and I’m just a worrywart. I’ll be happier if I’m wrong. The concept of taking a comic book character and turning it into a realistic, complicated psychological portrait offers some really intriguing avenues for storytelling. But in an era where it seems like one angry young man after another takes the routine frustrations of life as an excuse to write up a manifesto and shoot up a public place . . . a quasi-sympathetic portrait of a flamboyant violent anarchist feels like a bad idea.

*Yes, his name is “A. Fleck,” suggesting somebody over at Warner Brothers really hates Ben Affleck.

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