Lessons from Joker Part 1: “Everybody is Awful.”

Sometimes you walk out of a theater and smile because the movie was just so much fun. An overall pleasant experience, but with very little to talk or think about other than it being entertaining. Other times it wasn’t necessarily a fun experience, but you walk out of the theater with a million thoughts and ideas turning, often still pondering them late into the night. For me, that was Joker. Not a fun movie, but an interesting one with some very big topics and questions that are rich for conversation. There’s so much here that I’m going to be doing this in two parts, next week covering a few of the more societal and cultural implications. Are there lessons from Joker?

As always, this is not necessarily an endorsement or recommendation for all Christians.  A caution to parents, this is a well-earned R rated movie. While pretty minimal in sex and nudity, there is plenty of language, extremely dark subject matters, and, although brief, some very brutal violence. This isn’t a movie I would recommend taking anyone under high school age without screening ahead of time. A mild spoiler warning, but nothing you wouldn’t have already gathered by seeing the trailers and marketing.

Initial Impressions

I will admit, I was not excited to see Joker. I knew it would be a pretty dark and depressing movie since it’s the origin story for a psychopathic murderer. Sometimes a grim movie is worth sitting through because there is either a good ending or an important message. But this is fictional, so it’s not like watching Schindler’s List or the Pianist to know the dark history of the world. It’s also a movie where we largely know how it will end, with little hope for redemption. Inevitably, Arthur Fleck will become more unstable until he eventually snaps and becomes the criminal psychopath, the Joker, while young Bruce Wayne will see his parents get murdered and eventually become Batman.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker

I came out pleasantly surprised. I still wouldn’t say I really enjoyed it, but it gave me a lot to process. While fiction, it raises a lot of serious questions about how we handle the world today. As many have said before, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was fantastic. While the first half hour or so felt like excessive misery almost to the point of absurdity, it gradually shifted to a more interesting story as he began pushing back and influencing his culture.

Everybody is Awful

There’s a general sentiment throughout the entire movie that the world is terrible. Bear in mind that director, producer, and writer Todd Philips is not a Christian, nor a theist. The line that could probably best summarize the worldview of the movie is, “Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” This is, somewhat ironically, a movie with no heroes. The world of Gotham is just full of sheep and wolves. Arthur Fleck spends his whole life as a harmless sheep, trying to get by in this miserable world. But one by one, every pillar of his life gets taken by the wolves, until he eventually snaps back at them. While this is consistent with the brokenness of human beings found in the Christian worldview, it leaves no room for saints and heroes. But Christians are supposed to be a light to this dark world and not just settle for that depressing reality.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 ESV
When your movie makes more money than Deadpool.

Comedy is Subjective

While I would not call it the central message of the movie, there was a line that certainly perked my ears up. After already killing several people and becoming the Joker, Arthur is giving his rant to the world about why he is the way he is, and what’s wrong with society. When someone asks him if he thinks killing is funny, he says “I do. And I’m tired of pretending it’s not. Comedy is subjective, Murray. Isn’t that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong. The same way that you decide what’s funny or not.”  

It always fascinates me when media acknowledges the elephant in the room of relativism. Morality being subjective is often assumed, but never questioned. Either that or morality is treated as objective, but without any foundation. The way I see it, there’s two ways to interpret this moment and what Phillips is likely trying to convey. Phillips could be using this view as a defense of Joker’s actions, justifying it. It’s possible, given how much the movie tries to paint him as sympathetic. But at this point he is the Joker, and has brutally murdered several people. Or, Phillips could be giving a serious critique of moral relativism as a terrible view that leads to violence and death. In that case I would just have a question for Todd Phillips. I agree that that is the logical result of relativism. But without God, by what standard is your morality any better? Without a transcendent standard, morality is just as subjective as comedy, and just as terrifying as the Joker.

Check back next week for part 2. Discuss your thoughts for this post on our Facebook Group here.  

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