Joker, Cultural Chaos and the Depths of Moral Evil: How to Awkwardly Capture the Zeitgeist

I hadn’t watched Joker since I saw it opening night in the theater also last October. It’s not hard to explain why. It’s a deeply uncomfortable film to watch. Plus I pretty much got the gist of it the first time. I didn’t feel the need to return to the film after that first viewing. That lukewarm reaction likely puts me at odds with the legions of critics and fans who declared the film one of the best or worst films of 2019.

It’s an incel movie they said! It’s a white supremacy movie they said! It’s a movie brimming with toxic masculinity and white male rage they said! It’s a call for government healthcare others said! It’s the best movie of the year others said! I’ve seen it a half dozen times others said!

There was really no escaping the radical reactions to such a film. It was likely the most decidedly political bomb dropped on pop culture since Donald Glover’s This Is America music video a year prior. Like that video, Joker just radiated a seething discomfort of quiet rage and pain that just seems to be emanating from all directions of the American psyche. When I wrote my initial review for Legal Insurrection, my summary was a bit more even handed. I called Joker a film about the chaos society creates.

“Joker presents a world without a Batman or competent authorities capable of taking on the radical fringe ripping society apart.

In the time between The Dark Knight and Joker, we’ve seen the rise of a new status quo where radical voices rule the discourse, where rioting and political violence are encouraged and where the loudest voices get the microphone. This has meant that the right has struggled to keep it’s worst elements at bay at times at the same time that the left has run as far to the left as humanly possible while still maintaining victories under the bandwagon of Trump-derangement-syndrome.

Joker is very much an expression of this particular moment. It’s a fairly deterministic work in the sense that it’s about the way that society creates monsters by marginalizing them and ignoring their problems. This isn’t a story about individual achievement overcoming poverty and mental health. It’s the story of bad systems and the people without the means to improve themselves descending into their own personal hells.”

The movie’s allusions to Antifa, anti-1% protestors, populist political demagogues, rising crime rates and the breakdown of the public healthcare system reflects all of the most hostile political discussions that have been captured in the public zeitgeist since 2014. We’re very much dealing with the fallout of political violence, healthcare debates, rising class envy and populist candidates like Trump and Sanders. With the election this year, these debates have only gotten more intense as the country is deeply afraid of what the future direction of the country is going. The movie’s ability to capture the zeitgeist is deeper than mere skin deep motifs though.

The movie’s greatest strength, it’s central performance by Joaquin Phoenix, carries the entire film and captures it’s central emotional tension. More than anything, Joker is a movie that asks you to sympathize with the more hated, evil and broken type of person our society produces. It asks you to stare this evil in the eye and ask how you might contribute to creating monsters like this in real life.

Joker is hardly the first movie to address such a challenging topic. I’ve long proposed that modern culture has a fascination with facing the villains that spring up in the spaces created by society’s hypocrisies and failures. I wrote a piece with this thesis shortly after the Christchurch Massacre last year. In it, I described a theme in recent Hollywood films like Black Panther, The Last Jedi, The Dark Knight and The LEGO Movie 2 I called “The Revenge of the Outsider“. In this frequently used trope, we see sympathetic villains arise that come from justified perspectives with whom the hero is forced to reconsider his personal morality and change the system in reflection of the events of the story.

“It struck me just how frequently this kind of story pops up in modern fiction. What’s interesting in these stories is that at the end of the day, the heroes facing off against these villains ultimately come to the conclusion that society itself is at fault for the disenfranchisement of the villains. The order they perceived in the world was a lie that could only be set straight by ending the circumstances that gave the ideologies of each of these characters are very different, coming from identity, abandonment, oppression of the minority at the fringe of society, etc. What’s important is what they have in common. Regardless of the ideology of the viewer, there is a shared collective sense that society is fomenting the forces that seek to destroy it unintentionally. These characters all share a combined desire to destroy order and rule over the ruins.” 

Killmonger’s black nationalism and Kylo Ren’s worship of the Dark Side may very ideological stances than the white nationalism of the Christchurch shooter but all of these individuals share a common hatred for the status quo. They believe that the world as they know it is oppressive and needs to burn to make way for a better world.

It’s funny then that a movie like Joker would be released just a few months after I wrote that piece. Joker in many ways was the ultimate example of that theory. He’s the monster SOCIETY made but the movie is very understanding of his derangement. Characters are horrified by his actions but the story builds up his tension, rage and loneliness to the breaking point. It pulls every Jenga block out from underneath him until you feel the catharsis he feels in murdering the people that treat him with such cruelty.

Joker wants you to understand viscerally why a character like Arthur Fleck would go on a rampage like this.

This analysis flies in the face of a lot of contemporary critical for the film; much of which I respect. Red Letter Media dismissed the film as vague and underwritten. They aren’t wrong. The movie’s allusions to political violence and existential rage are quite adolescent and don’t correlate to any real life equivalents in a way that would feel scathing. For the most part, the film just lets people project whatever bad guy they want onto the city from anti-universal healthcare proponents to progressive rioters. Jonathan Pageau similarly discussed how it’s muddled approach to symbolism was something of a prank that thematically runs afoul of traditional political narratives on both sides of the aisle while still capturing something chaotic within the zeitgeist.

The majority of mainstream critics though weren’t so forgiving. RogerEbert.com‘s review dismissed the film as “pernicious garbage.” The Guardian‘s review described it as “solemn but shallow” and “the most disappointing film of the year”. The Atlantic’s review dismissed the film as “pompous, grim, and one-note.” Indiewire‘s review described it’s protagonist as a “lonely, creatively impotent white men who [is] drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them.”

Even some far-right critics joined in the pile-on. Devon Stack, creator of the YouTube Channel Black-Pilled, scrutinized the film as a piece of unoriginal leftist propaganda in his review.

“Congratulations to the filmmaker Todd Phillips, whose real name is Todd Bunzi, a Jewish filmmaker from New York that used the media to trick people on the right into relating with a trans Antifa leader and making the most accelerationist movie maybe of all time!”

The King of Joker Driver, October 10th, 2019

Gross…

I won’t pretend the movie wasn’t flawed. It most definitely was. The depths of such a negative reaction though clearly owed some credit to the hilariously contrived media campaign that the media decided to run in the leadup to the film’s launch, dismissing Joker as an instigator of “incel violence” and a possible source of movie theater shootings that never materialized. Maybe one of the worst takes in this regard is one of my favorite living film critics: FilmCritHulk.

FilmCritHulk has long been one of my most respected film critics. He has no prejudice against pop-cinema but he is an expert at scrutinizing the purpose of narrative construction and how it charts the audience’s emotional reaction to the events on screen. Unfortunately, Hulk is one of the most paranoid and aggressive progressive voicing writing in film criticism today. He defers to black nationalists on race issues, pushes every feminist talking point, casually accuses Trump and Reagan supports of bigotry and doesn’t seem to have a moral frame of reference outside of his morally relativistic progressive outlook.

While Hulk does say he respects some of the film’s intent in regards to it’s desire to discuss issues of class and mental health, he dismisses Joker as an emotionally dishonest defense of toxic “incel” and “white” sentiments that drum up “white rage”. He dismisses the Thomas Wayne subplot as a means of sub-textually dismissing women’s claims of sexual abuse. He even accuses the film of homaging an infamous 1984 vigilante shooting in New York City of four black men by a racist gunman (that no movie fan under the age of 36 would possibly know about offhand) as if the film is trying to justify such acts.

“You could argue the film “smartly” picks it’s target by moving away from Arthur targeting minorities and instead targeting rich assholes. But this is the very dishonesty I’m talking about. It’s running from the very truth of what fuels vigilantism, and more importantly, public shootings. Hell, look at this country. Look who is angry and feels powerless. Look at every active shooter in the news. It’s always been the same story of guys with entitlement getting coupled with the intersections of white supremacy.”

This stands in stark contrast with the reality that the movie is popular with Black, Latino and Asian film audiences just as much with white audiences. Hong Kong protestors even used Joker as one of their protest symbols. This would suggest that the film’s vagueness functions as a form of univeralism. If you drain the supposed racial subtext of “white mail rage”, there’s an honesty to the frustration of life that transcends race. It can’t be easily dismissed when Hong Kongers feel the same way about China as Joker does about the rich. Denying the fact that the symbols and ideas of Joker speak to something universal in our current moment is just being dishonest.

This brings me to a fundamental issue that I think functions as the major blockage that’s keeping the mainstream media from honestly discussing Joker: I don’t think far-left progressives understand evil.

To them, evil seems to be something nebulous that merely arises due to a lack of empathy brought about by wealth, false consciousness, whiteness or toxic masculinity. Thus why there’s a categorical ability on the left to #Cancel anyone who doesn’t fit in to the rhetorical realms of what the left considers moral. You can be a complete turd to people, treat others with cruelty, condescend to them and accuse them of being subhuman degenerate garbage so long as you place the right categorical signs of dismissal on their heads like the A’s in The Scarlett Letter. You can even sympathize with and lionize immoral people like violent revolutionaries or horrific monsters because they’re fighting for “the right causes”.

As the late Roger Scruton would say, progressivism presumes that the familiar is always inferior to the other. The stranger is always preferable to the neighbor. The far-away lands are always better than your homeland. The glorious revolutionary future is always better than the oppressive present. The Xenos (stranger) is always better than Oikos (home).

You can see an example of this in Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar winning romantic film The Shape of Water wherein the symbol of evil is the white, middle class, Christian, America loving government agent who goes out of his way to sexually harass his female coworkers, kill innocent animals and murders people in cold blood. This stands in contrast to the entourage of good characters with characteristics the movie considers good: a homosexual outsider artist, a communist and a woman who wants to engage in an act of bestiality with the Gill-man. While it’s a good movie, the film absolutely lionizes the other as morally preferable to any notion of traditional masculinity or family. Even fish sex is a better option than being trapped in the traditional nuclear family.

Maybe that’s why so much nihilistic decadent cosmopolitan liberals find so much ironic joy turning symbols of literal horror and evil like Pennywise and the Babadook into “Gay icons”. When you’re so illiberal that you’ll defend anything but oikos (the Greek word for Home), you will find yourself defending anything, to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton.

Least we forget, FilmCritHulk literally believes accused rapists shouldn’t have due process

Characters like Joker function as a dark joke that flies in the face of such strident leftist notions of immorality and evil. If evil means anything, it has to mean something external to us. It’s not something that merely arises from our petty sense of tribalism and moral relativism. We all implicitly understand this. As much as the modern mind likes to play at the notion that morality means notion, we all live our lives as though great acts of moral depravity are a violation of the soul of humanity. We don’t shy away from the horrors of true evil when we see it.

Part of understanding how we face such true evil comes with the reality that we have to understand the swirling energies of good and evil that run through the heart of every human being, as Solzhenitsyn once said. We have to understand how WE can find ourselves in the same situation people like Joker find themselves in. We have to know how easy it is to slip into moral nihilism.

This is a point Jordan Peterson has discussed at length. What’s stopping us, being born in a different time and place, from being a prisoner guard working for the Nazis? Sadly the answer is nothing. As much as we all like to think we’d be the hero of history if we suddenly found ourselves in the past, we all have to admit that we’d deterministically fall into the same darkness that causes Nazi prison guards to shot Jews in cold blood. It’s horrifying to think about but Nazis were human too and we could all fall to such depths with the right prodding.

Joker is honest about the nature of evil and cruelty. The film is certainly indulgent. It’s anxieties are adolescent and its politics are meaningless but that’s part of the point. Joker doesn’t care about politics or meaning. He’s a man so deeply alienated from kindness and goodness that he can only feel escape in the act of vengeance. He kills men and finally feels the liberation of the moment after. From there, his evil spirals out into other people’s evil. Other’s take his cruelty for granted and identify with the act of taking catharsis against the rich and powerful. The result is that Joker’s initial murder on the subway car eventually spirals into the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. In the end, the city is all but destroyed in self justified riots.

For Joker, the riots mean nothing but his own momentary ecstasy. He doesn’t care about why the chaos is happening. He feels liberated and at peace with the world in the afterglow before the consequences bubble up. Joker wants the ecstasy of dancing on the cars in a crowd of cheering onlookers because the chaos liberates him and excuses him permission to care.

A film like Joker captures the zeitgeist very much for the same reason pornography captures the eyes of men. It reaches into the darkest underbelly of the psyche and rips out our most carnal and evil desires.

Joker was, and still is, a barometer of our culture as a whole. This disturbs progressives because the margins of such a massive discussion don’t fit within the realm of discussions they want to have. The left doesn’t want to admit the media and people like them contribute to the societal death spiral.

In a year like 2020, I can’t help but feel a film like Joker captures the exhaustion and moral nihilism of our times better than ever. Whether you talk to black pilled far-rightists are disgruntled Bernie Bros, the universal feeling at the moment is that the world is rigged. Antifa and BlackLivesMatter riots are still intermitted ongoing after five months even though a plurality of the police implicated in these cases have been exonerated. Dozens of innocent people have been killed and thousands of businesses were destroyed. Eight months of virus lockdowns have destroyed the economy, shut down the entertainment industry, spiked suicide rates and sent the country reeling into a state of despondency never before seen. On top of all this, the election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has only made things worse as these two old men get into screaming matches on live television in their bitter competition to control the country.

Joker feels relevant because it captures the nihilism of simply wanting the madness to end. We want a moment of bliss and freedom above the fray of the chaos. We want to think there’s a future beyond the ashes of his horrific world we’re living in. Maybe Joker is too indulgent in feeding this feeling of evil and chaos but it didn’t start the fire. The fire wasn’t just some nebulous thing created by BAD PEOPLE on the other side of the aisle. It’s not something created by progressives or white supremacists. You certainly don’t make a film that grosses $1 billion by jerking off white nationalists and 4-Chan trolls. You make that kind of money by hitting a nerve.

Joker works because it captures the moment where we feel like the devil and we just want a little sympathy. Of course, FilmCritHulk would dismiss such feelings:

“The sincerity of the entire film is too strong to get into denial at this point. Even then I’ve heard people argue that, “maybe it’s just playing devil’s advocate?” Which is a whole mess that I can’t even untangle, except to say it’s just another obfuscation. And never forget: when you play devil’s advocate… You’re just advocating the devil.”

Compare such a presumptuous statement to the depiction of the literal devil in a genuine work of English literature: Paradise Lost. Milton’s Lucifer is genuinely one of my favorite characters in all of English literature. He’s the great anti-hero of all literature: the great fallen angel who rages eternally at the heavens in jealousy that he couldn’t be a God like his creator who poisons paradise in spite. He’s relatable to any rebel and you genuinely understand his convictions. It’s hard not to look at the book claim it doesn’t make it’s character a kind of “good guy”.

Then again, people said the same thing about Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War just before he commits interstellar genocide. Just because a character is nominally the protagonist it doesn’t mean that the book is textually supporting their ideas. Thus why Paradise Lost ends with all of the denziens of Hell being turned into snakes as punishment while Adam and Eve are partially forgiven for their sin.

In such a nuanced depiction though, Paradise Lost captures a fascinating tension at the heart of human experience between the lust for evil and the glory of paradise. It captures the quintessential nature of evil. Lucifer is the lowest point of descent. He’s the lowest common denominator. He’s the seed of all discontent. Much like his imitator Morgoth in The Silmarillion, he’s the one voice in creation sowing disunity into the great song of creation.

Yet he’s also attractive to us. His actions have placed the urge to move towards him in our hearts. We now share his rebel spirit and his secret desire to sow discontent.

What makes this emotional delve into beautiful though is the ascent. Paradise Lost ends with Adam and Eve being promised that their failure will be avenged in due time by a savior. The world will return to paradise one day once the mistake of creation is permanently defeated. Until then, man is trapped in the same cycle of temptation and yearning for the rest of time. We will forever be cursed to grapple with the fact that the seeds of creation are buried deeply within us.

That said, Joker is not as smart as Paradise Lost. It’s nowhere near the quality of one of the greatest works of poetry in the English language. Joker is a morally confused mess of a movie that adores it’s character too much for it’s own good. There is no great ascent from the depths of depravity and evil. There is no transcendence to move toward or humanism to raise up the human spirit in spite of the darkness. There’s only the wallowing and self pity.

I don’t think FilmCritHulk is totally wrong in that analysis. I should also say that I still adore FilmCritHulk even when I think his head is shoved thoroughly up his… Hulk… The only reason I’m picking on him in particular is that I respect him as a man and a thinker and I believe his hypocrisies capture part of the greater problem on display with this particular film.

What’s important to me as a film critic is discussing how films like Joker reflect on our culture and to me the film serves as a perfect mirror of society’s feelings and prejudices. I don’t even like the film all that much and yet I see dozens of people around me that went in saw it multiple times in theaters because of how much it affected them. When I see progressive film critics bounce off this film like rubber, I see the dishonesty in their rush to condemn the film.

Progressives want the simplicity of knowing they’re the good guys of history by right of the fact that they’ve defined themselves as such. There’s plenty of reasonable discussions to be had about the ways Jokers fails as a film or how we ought to agree or disagree with its premises. Many of them have been had. Many of the discussions that have also been had are deeply dishonest and pearl clutching by the same kinds of elites and media personnel Joker castigates.

At the end of the day, we’re all human. We all have the potential to become someone like Joker and to descend to the lowest point of evil and meaninglessness. A film like this should be a warning. When we condemn it in spite of it’s popularity, we fail to understand the darkness that continues to accumulate every day around us. We can’t stop the real life Jokers of the world until we’re willing to admit that we can be part of the problem too in ways that are all too uncomfortable to admit.

Published by Tyler Hummel

Editor-in-Chief at Cultural Review, Regular Film Critic for Geeks Under Grace, Published at ArcDigital, Rebeller, The DailyWire, Hollywood in Toto, Legal Insurrection and The ED Blog, Host of The AntiSocial Network Podcast

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