Last week I gave a few of my initial thoughts on 2019’s Joker movie. If you want to see a more general review and some of the messages within, check there first. For this second part, there’s a few more big questions that the movie brought up that I want to look at. Again, there will be some minor spoilers, but nothing too specific that you wouldn’t already know from the promotional materials. If you weren’t aware that the origin story for the Joker, Batman’s psychotic arch-nemesis, would involve a mentally ill person who snaps and kills a bunch of people, I don’t think there’s much I can do for you. What are the lessons from Joker? What do we deserve?
Do We Want a Hero or a Villain?
In the last post I talked about how the movie presents a world without heroes. It’s simply a dark and depressing world where pretty much everyone is terrible. It’s interesting then that this is what people want to see. Joker recently became the highest grossing R rated movie of all time. That’s not adjusting for inflation, but it’s still impressive and quite shocking. The movie is not a fun blockbuster that you would expect to see breaking box office records. If people are simply going to the movies for mindless explosions, this movie should have been a financial flop. As popular as the big heroes from the Marvel movies have been recently, there’s clearly a hunger for something darker. We saw it with Deadpool, where a snarky and self-serving mercenary stole the audience and the box office’s hearts. There’s now been two movies showing how Maleficant from Sleeping Beauty was a deeper and misunderstood character now too.
There seems to be this hunger for deeper villains. Some even scoff at the classic fairy tale, evil for the sake of evil, examples like Sauron or Voldemort. More and more they are being replaced by complex characters with relatable flaws and motivations. Having complex and interesting villains is not new, nor a bad thing. One of my biggest complaints with the Marvel movies is that most of their villains were extremely generic and forgettable. But are we reaching a point in society where our desire for an interesting villain has turned into a fascination and love for evil characters? Are we so tired of heroes that we now must glamorize their rivals?
Do We Have a Choice?
Finally, I want to spend some time on what I found to be the most important question of the movie. Is Arthur Fleck responsible for his actions? Many modern scientists like Sam Harris promote the view that consciousness is an illusion, and our minds are nothing but brain chemistry. One consequence of that view is that free will is also an illusion, and all of our actions are instead a result of evolution and physical events in our brains. If this view is true, Arthur cannot be blamed for his actions. He would simply be a machine reacting to stimuli around him like everyone else. In this case, the stimuli are all terrible things like being beat up on the street, getting fired from his job, losing his medication, etc.
While this is an interesting philosophy of the world, it not only goes against the Christian worldview, but it also makes for very poor storytelling. “Come on down and see a machine react exactly like every other machine would in the same conditions.” If there’s no free will, there’s no real drama. The ability to make choices is a fundamental level of storytelling, and taking that out makes not just Joker, but all of cinema pointless.
Does it Matter if We Have a Choice?
But what if the Joker did have free will? That would mean that despite being pushed to his limits, he still must be held accountable for his actions. It means that there was an option to do otherwise, and not resort to extreme violence. We may sympahthize with his lashing out, but would we not praise someone all the more for rising above violence and making the world better? That ability to choose changes everything. It changes how society responds to criminals, meaning it’s not just about reforming the sick, but also punishing the wicked. Free will changes how we handle our own struggles, realizing we can’t just blame evolution and circumstance for our bad decisions.
In the world of storytelling, free will means that drama is possible. If people are free to decide at any point, it means anything can happen. Mistakes can be made, justice can be served, and redemption can be found. The greatest story ever told hinges on a choice. God could have left humanity to rot in their sin. But Jesus subverted any rational person’s expectations in the most perfect way possible.
Do We Get What We Deserve?
To ultimately bring this back to what matters, do we get what we truly deserve? Thankfully not. While Joker presents a world with no heroes, it did get one thing right. Everyone is broken in this world, and has the guilt of their own sin. Maybe we don’t snap and murder people who have wronged us, but that’s not the standard of good that Jesus gave us. But thankfully, despite failing time and time again, God does not give us what we deserve.
The movie raises a lot of questions that it doesn’t answer. But that’s not a bad thing. With everyone asking these big questions, who will be ready to swoop in with the right answers and point them to Christ? Will it be you?
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