Glorification of Violence Is a Thing, But ‘Joker’ Doesn’t Do It
Alongside the acclaim, comes a troubling question - does ‘Joker’ glorify violence?
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill person with a society that abandons him?”
You get an absolutely gripping supervillain origin film.
There have been reams written already about Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance as Joker, a worthy successor to the role essayed by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, if such a thing is even possible.
Eleven years since Ledger stunned the world with his manic Oscar-winning rendition, Phoenix rises to the occasion in this thrilling origin story.
But alongside the widespread critical and popular acclaim that the film is receiving across the world, comes a troubling accompanying question - does Joker glorify and celebrate violence?
In this article, I argue why it is unfair to accuse the movie of doing so.
The Fear of Violence – Is the Film to Blame?
At a 2012 screening of The Dark Knight Rises, a man named James Holmes terrorised the Aurora Cinemark theatre in Colorado, murdering 12 people and injuring 70.
Ahead of Joker’s release, family members of those killed in the Aurora mass shooting were among those speaking up against the film.
Fear of potential violence at Joker screenings have driven New York city police to station undercover cops at theatres, and cinema chains across the US have banned moviegoers from being in possession of masks, costumes and toy weapons during the show.
But do these apprehensions of violence in the United States necessarily indicate that the film itself is inciting unrest? Absolutely not.
The heightened worries of another mass shooting in or around a theatre following this movie is more of a comment on how America is perennially on the precipice of gun violence, with its horribly lax gun control laws, than a statement on the movie.
If an average Joe can access an assault rifle with minimal checks in place, and if those with a history and proven proclivity to violence can do the same with ease, then the buck cannot possibly stop with a filmmaker portraying violence on screen.
And I use that word consciously. Because Joker’s portrayal of violence does not amount to glorification, in my humble opinion. Yes, this is a movie centred around an anti-hero. But though the narrative revolves around the antagonist, as he descends into a life of chaos and destruction, the audience is not pushed towards believing that what Joker does is correct.
The line between portrayal and glorification is a thin, subjective one. But Joker, the film in question, is on the right side of it. Here’s why.
The reason I say that Joker doesn’t glorify violence is because even the sympathy that is elicited for Arthur Fleck is for the social and psychological factors that aided in devolving his already disturbed self into criminality. The sympathy is not for the criminal acts themselves.
For example, the audience sympathises with him when the cut in social spending leads to the removal of his access to mental healthcare (mind you, the counselling wasn’t of a great quality to begin with.)
You feel for him when he faces bullying and derision, not least on live television where a clip of his viral standup performance was mocked over and over again, when he is assaulted and intimidated while working in a crime-prone neighbourhood, when he loses his job while in an economically precarious situation, and so on.
These conditions provide insights into the mind and background of a troubled man who goes on to become a maverick murderer. But nowhere are we, as an audience, made to feel that violence is the natural/obvious/inescapable reaction or consequence of these conditions. Yet, we realise that plunging into crime could be one of the avenues that Arthur Fleck falls into – a mentally ill man who has no access to healthcare but easy access to guns.
Showing Reasons Aiding a Character’s Plunge Into Violence Not Equal to Justifying Violence
Let me argue this further by putting forth three questions to you.
- Does showing the indoctrination of a youngster into becoming a terrorist justify his terrorism in our minds?
- Does showing the systemic hatred and bigotry he faced growing up make us root for his acts of terror?
- Does his troubled upbringing pardon his violence, or make us champion his ‘cause’?
Think about it. The answer in my mind, to each of the three questions, is in the negative.
If showing someone’s indoctrination into terror doesn’t justify his subsequent acts of terrorism, the same train of logic should apply to showing the social and psychological conditions that abetted Joker’s path into criminality. How is the portrayal of that then a justification or celebration of criminal behaviour?
Understanding the factors that abetted the Joker’s descent into villainy does not equal sympathising with, or rooting for, his villainy itself.
But there is the need to insert an important qualifier here, namely the intent of the film and its maker.
Directorial Intent: Exhibit A - Padmaavat
The climax of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, in which Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) walks into a pyre and commits jauhar, was widely debated, with critics arguing that it promoted a regressive idea that it was virtuous for a woman to kill herself instead of getting captured.
In the case of Padmaavat, there is little doubt that the director leaves in your mind - the film intends jauhar to be seen as an act of bravery. The cinematic devices used to achieve this include the music accompanying the jauhar scene, and the way Padmavati is picturised approaching the fire – her hair blowing in the breeze, her eyes brimming with determination. Even the voiceover that follows the act deifies the ‘sacrifice.’
It is for these reasons that I feel it is fair to argue that Bhansali’s depiction of jauhar in Padmaavat glorifies the act.
But does director Todd Phillips celebrate violence in a similar manner in Joker? Nope.
Arthur Fleck aka Joker is shown as being unhinged, committing brutal murders, and unleashing chaos and violence on Gotham. The crimes do not have a positive spin on them, a prerequisite for glorification.
Additionally, Joker is shown as being delusional – he imagines becoming close to one of his neighbours, and hallucinates about sexual intimacy and companionship with her. Eventually, we realise that on most of the occasions in which we saw them together, the woman was present not in reality but in Arthur’s imagination.
He is a delusional character who loses his sanity and consequently embraces the chaos of violence and lawlessness. He is neither a role model nor a hero. But undoubtedly, occupying centre-stage as the anti-hero makes his conversion from Arthur to Joker a cinematically fulfilling arc, in my opinion. And there’s no denying that feeling of fulfillment as you see that arc complete itself.
So while the movie doesn’t give you a feeling of catharsis, it does give you a feeling of completion as you see Joker being whisked away in the police car, smiling at the carnage unfolding in Gotham, his metamorphosis into villainy complete.
It is a testament to his directorial skill that Todd Phillips achieves that arc in Joker without glorifying the acts of violence that set it up.
And Finally, the Tricky Bits
Aside from my spirited defence of the movie, there are a couple of scenes that I admit are on the borderline, and initially left me confused.
In the train scene in which the Joker opens fire for the first time, he is shown to be at the receiving end of bullying and violence right before he pulls the trigger. The three men who attacked him end up as the first murder victims of Arthur Fleck.
In that scene, which could arguably be described as the beginning of Arthur’s metamorphosis into Joker, is the audience being pushed towards rooting for Arthur as he gets picked on by the three rowdy Wayne employees?
It’s a tricky call.
Secondly, when towards the end of the movie, Arthur Fleck finally emerges into the Joker we’ve come to know over the years, there is a cheer that goes up in the audience. Some hoot, some clap, some let out a whistle. But can that reaction from the crowd be interpreted as an approval of violence?
I don’t think so. It is more a testament to the popularity of the Joker, and his return to a form (and face) we know and recognise from movies and comics past is bound to be appreciated by fans.
For example, Heath Ledger’s sensational performance and the Joker’s intriguing characterisation in The Dark Knight led to the character’s popularity soaring worldwide. It spawned a merchandising spree, with posters and t-shirts of his iconic ‘Why so serious?’ line flying off the shelves across the world.
Wearing that t-shirt was a hat-tip to Ledger’s Joker, not the Joker’s violence. Similarly, hooting for Joaquin’s ‘arrival’ as the Joker we’ve known can’t be construed as an approval of the character’s ways and means.
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