Why So Serious? Joker is Dark, But Not Dangerous

Logan Rosell, Scarlet Staff

The only thing that could cause more panic in parents than seeing Tide Pods on their children’s dinner plate is hearing that they are going to see “Joker”. America has been having quite a few conversations in recent years about adolescent media diets; violence in video games, for example, has been a hot button topic for decades. With school shootings seeming more and more frequent, stakes appear to be higher than ever. If violent movies like “Joker” inspire violence in real life, why weren’t violent movies of the past accused of doing so? On the other hand, If there is nothing to worry about, why is the media so often blamed for real-life violence?

There are two dance partners in this tango of controversy: parents on social media who think “Joker” will radicalize their kids, and teens on social media who scoff at the idea. Who is right? As with anything, the longer you look, the more nuance you find. No, teens who see this movie will not become psycho killers, but the underlying philosophy of pushing violent exposure to heavy and important topics in audience’s faces is fundamentally flawed.

This is not to say that the movie should be avoided. “Joker” is not a traditional superhero movie; it is an R-rated drama. It goes deep into mental illness and because of this there is a case to be made that much of the violence we see in the film was a product of the protagonist’s imagination. Regardless of what is or is not true, there is no vindication or justice, the audience is subjected to 2 hours of descent into chaos, people die at the hands of a madman—in short there is no happy ending. The “Joker” began as a decent guy that suffered repeatedly at the hands of a society which refused to accommodate him. However, “Joker”, the film, achieves nuance, making you feel for its main character by showing small acts of kindness to the “Joker” by other down-and-out citizens.

Ultimately, the protagonist’s journey serves as an allegory to give context to the fight real people with severe mental illness face when trying to get access to help. All told the movie is very well done, and has an insightful and important story to tell, and for this reason it is worth a watch.

Where then might the controversy around this film be originating? It comes down to the basic philosophy of social and political change: the means by which we hope to achieve our goals must match that moral character of those goals. This means that if you want to discourage violence you should not be beaming it into our eyeballs. “Joker” does not follow this philosophy. There is some fairly gruesome violence and a relative dearth of remorse, both from the protagonist and the society around him. An important plot point is served by this narrative structure, but violence in any context is perceived by the human brain as violence. We cannot ever fully silo real or fake violence, violence for good or evil in our primordial soup of instincts and urges at the most basic level of our mind. Marketers know this, it is precisely why we are surrounded by violent media—we can’t help but look.

Consuming violent content does not necessarily change our actions; nobody believes apocalypse movies, but they work because they make us afraid in a very real way. Emotions are in many respects how we value something. Things that are important garner strong emotions, and if we are not careful this logic can turn into: things that have strong emotions are important and they must be important because they are true. “Joker” hits a chord with us because it does not claim that healthy thoughtful people become violent, it argues that sick people who have no emotional bandwidth to think anymore become violent. The movie makes a tired political statement about violence and revolution in a compellingly limited scope, one that is so believable and timely, that people are appreciating the sublet, pervasive, and powerful impacts of violence in media.

Anything that can support this realization is a positive step forward, but because of how it gets people there, with unadulterated violence and hopelessness, it immediately burns the bridge it builds. Change cannot be inspired in the public at large with fear. Look at efforts to curb global warming that use scare tactics. There is no shortage of young people who are terrified for the planet, but how many feel that they can actually make a difference? How many try to? Recognizing the unique brand of intensity that “Joker” employs to communicate its message is key to enjoying it. It is also the knowledge that one should carry with them when they come across Twitter tirades and Facebook firebombing. You probably won’t hurt anybody if you see “Joker”, but it won’t make you feel good either.