The Corner

Film & TV

Sympathy for the Devil in Fiction and Art

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Warner Bros.)

The debate about the upcoming Joker movie referenced earlier this week is continuing online on woker, less-nuanced terms, which is what Twitter excels at, I suppose.

We all have our internal “red lines” that establish when a work of art goes beyond being provocative or challenging to the point of being tasteless or offensive or even morally harmful. The desire to tell stories that are provocative or explore complicated psychological territory has spurred a growing genre of “anti-villains,” the opposite of anti-heroes, morally flawed protagonists who eventually try to do the right thing. Anti-villains may have a noble goal but do so through means that make them irredeemable. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with stories like this, and there’s great potential for drama in the story of a person who is tempted to do the wrong thing, completes the mental and emotional gymnastics to persuade themselves that the wrong thing is justified, and succumbs to temptation.

But it’s a fine line from exploring someone who does something irredeemably immoral to sympathizing and even inadvertently glamorizing him.

Lots of viewers related to Tony Soprano despite the fact that he was a violent criminal; lots of viewers of The Shield loved Vic Mackey even though he was a murderously corrupt cop. Sometimes creators tell a story with the intended lesson, “despite some charming traits, this character harms other people and is not a role model,” and a big chunk of the audience misses that lesson.

Perhaps what’s most irksome is the creators’ desire to wish a particularly implausible moral contradiction into existence. Personally, I’m tired of every fictional Hannibal-Lecter-knockoff serial killer who’s portrayed as a surprisingly charming, sophisticated, and debonair intellectual who quotes philosophers and discusses great art and history, before letting slip how much he enjoys watching someone bleed to death. Real-life serial killers are generally nothing like this, and you wouldn’t want to spend two minutes in the same room with them. I’m not demanding accuracy from my fiction, but I’m noticing the ubiquitousness of a kind of person that doesn’t really exist, in part because the kind of people who like to become serial killers rarely have the time, mental stability, or desire to go to med school, become an industry-leading psychiatrist and become art historians and gourmet chefs on the side.

Yes, popular fiction often uses kinds of characters who rarely if ever exist in real life: the supermodel nuclear physicists who pop up in James Bond movies, the hookers with hearts of gold, the blind seers, the gentleman thieves. Most of this stuff can be hand-waved away as just part of a fun story. But the creator enters different territory when he takes acts that are indisputably abominable and tries to make us sympathize with the perpetrator. You want to explore the roots of an evil person, fine, but never forget that the character is an evil person.

This phenomenon exists outside of fiction, too. One of the mothers of the Columbine shooters wrote a memoir, trying to explain how her child, a “promising young man she had loved and raised,” could be responsible for such horror. I don’t really care about where she thinks her son went wrong, and I sure as hell am not paying $16 to read it.

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