by Liam O’Toole, The Catholic University of America
“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week… ‘Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.”
So says Arthur Fleck, the lonely, mentally ill man, to his appointed social worker. His social worker is the only person who shows some concern for him and his well-being, but she can’t help him, and he eventually deteriorates further, ultimately becoming the infamous comic book villain known as the Joker.
Joker is notable for deviating from the traditional Joker origin story, eschewing the fall into a vat of toxic waste, in favor of a darker, more realistic, and more disturbing approach. Arthur Fleck, who works as a clown-for-hire, is mistreated by his boss, his coworkers, the callous billionaire Thomas Wayne, and pretty much everyone around him. Those who don’t actively harm him merely ignore him, and Fleck, who grows increasingly insane, eventually snaps and lashes out, murdering many of these people and inspiring riots throughout the dystopian Gotham City.
This version of the Joker, played by an Oscar-worthy Joaquin Phoenix, has been controversial, with some in the media worrying that it will inspire a future mass shooter. Indeed, Phoenix’s portrayal of the character as mentally ill and downtrodden appears similar to several recent prominent mass shooters.
Surely such a bleak portrait of humanity has no value whatsoever for Catholics seeking virtue– or does it? How should Catholics think about a disturbing movie like this? Is Joker merely another nihilistic piece of pop culture? What can we learn from this film, if anything, and how should we respond?
I should say, first of all, that while this film is quite violent, the violence is clearly not nihilistic, even if the main character becomes a nihilist by the end. If anything, the violence is less nihilistic than other mainstream superhero films, which tend to aestheticize scenes of violence, or at least show them to be over-the-top and unrealistic. This film is clearly not nihilistic in that we understand the reason behind each of the Joker’s murders, while the scenes are still intentionally disturbing. The film achieves the difficult balance of making us sympathize with Arthur Fleck and understanding why he takes extreme actions, while still clearly understanding that his actions are horrifying and wrong.
So it isn’t nihilistic. But can it teach us anything? We Catholics should think of this as a fundamental tragedy. Arthur Fleck is a man routinely ignored or outright mistreated by everyone around him. He is suffering from severe mental health issues, he lives in poverty and squalor, he is extremely lonely and isolated in a crime-ridden city– and no one cares about him. Is it any wonder that he lashes out?
Nothing about this portrayal of the Joker is cheap or trite; rather, it is dramatic and raw. As a cautionary tale, we can see clearly that no one ever attempted to understand or reach out to Fleck. Almost everyone he knows mistreats him. Even his appointed therapist just gives him a bunch of pills, failing to address the underlying reasons for his misery. The only person who he thought cared about him; who actually laughed at his jokes, turned out to not know anything about him at all (he only imagined that she cared about him).
The film’s portrayal of evil is illuminating for us Catholics. Of course, the potential for human evil is something very well established in the Christian tradition– we all carry the effects of original sin, and the Bible documents repeated war and violence committed by humans. But the evil actions of the Joker are largely a response to the society in which he lives. Clearly, he lives in an evil society; an uncaring and often malicious society (how many times can I say society in a sentence?). He only has his dream of being noticed, of being accepted, and of being revered, specifically as a comedian. He finds this acceptance at the end of the film, but only as the violently chaotic Joker who inspires further violence and chaos. In other words, he is accepted and revered for the wrong reasons.
What could have prevented this? This is the question Catholics should be asking about the film and then applying it to the real world. In one sense, we can say that the solution here is a justly ordered society in which charity is offered to people like Arthur. That is, true Christian charity and love which wills the good of the other. It is difficult to say if this would entirely prevent Fleck’s deterioration into the Joker, given his fragile mental state, but it is clear that if we simply ignore the downtrodden outcasts, or worse mistreat them… well, we get what we deserve.
Of course, delegating this responsibility to an ethereal “society” can justify inaction on our part. Certainly, no single one of us can build a better society. However, absent of a justly ordered wider society, we in the church can and should reach out people like Arthur. Illustrating this point is a sculpture in Rome which depicts Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a bench. The implication here is that we should treat the least of us, including people like Arthur Fleck, as Christ himself. Christ, in the beatitudes, emphasizes that the lowest and most humble people will have the greatest reward in the end. While no one cared about Arthur, we Christians ought to care about him, and everyone like him.
While writing this article, I debated whether or not to analogize the Joker to real life– but ultimately I think this is something that needs to be done. This isolated, insane, maladjusted individual conjures up images of other mass shooters, such as the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. After the Columbine High School shooting, there ensued a mass moral panic in America– something like the media panic in reaction to Joker, but on an even larger scale. In the aftermath of the shooting, many people desperately searched for a culprit, and they manufactured one in the emo rock singer Marilyn Manson. This goth-looking artist was asked what he would say to the perpetrators of Columbine. His response: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did.”
No one bothered to reach out to Arthur Fleck. No one gave a damn about him. He lived in an incredibly callous environment– and it drove him to evil and insanity.
What this movie emphasizes is that Arthur Fleck– the Joker– is not a monster, but a human who needed someone to reach out to him. He needed and wanted love and acceptance; he was a disordered soul who suffered greatly and thus caused much suffering. It is a tragedy that only a Christian response of charity, and the grace of God, could have fixed.
Edited by William Deatherage