One of the most compelling television series to air in the last decade and a half was Breaking Bad. The show displayed so brilliantly what happens when Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White, realizing he has terminal cancer, makes a seemingly altruistic decision to make and sell drugs during the time he has left to provide for his family when he’s gone. While this choice certainly had risks associated with it, he felt this was the best thing he could do to ensure the security of the family. However, his cancer goes into remission but he gets sucked deeper and deeper into the life of crime and the viewer is left conflicted. At different times rooting for Walter’s success and at other times his demise.
Walter White’s descent can be traced back to that initial decision to deviate from society’s more widely acceptable path for life. He lived for all intents and purposes a decently innocent and moral life beforehand. He was a good family man who loved his wife and son with disabilities dearly. But he decided he had to give up on teaching as his primary way of earning income to lead this double life where he cooked and sold meth to ensure his family’s financial security. A decision most would say was immoral but complicated by the good intentions behind it. But that one decision led to a cascade of subsequent effects not just for him but everyone around him. And the show so aptly demonstrates all that can come from one seemingly innocuous decision.
Joker, however, tells a much more harrowing and dark story. For how profound Breaking Bad was, I think Joker gets even closer to the heart of many questions we are asking today? What if this descent cannot be traced back to a specific decision made by the individual, but instead a complete letdown by their society around them? Is the Joker bad? Is he good? And what does this movie say about the healthiness, or unhealthiness of our culture and politics today? I think it’s these questions that make this recent Oscar award-winning film one of the most fascinating and timely movies to come out recently.
have we been lying to ourselves?
In elementary school, I can still remember the cheers we used to shout to start all of our pep rallies. “You can do anything you set your mind to!” “Together we can make a difference!” “Believe that you can!” Even as adults, we continue to give ourselves and one another similar pep talks. Our Facebook news feeds are filled with them. Little slogans we use to encourage one another through the grind of life.
And sometimes these sayings aren’t explicitly stated but are implicitly embodied within the very fabric of our culture. We remind ourselves that we live in the land of opportunity and that anyone can live the “American Dream” if they work hard enough and take advantage of their opportunities. While these mantras may be more questioned today than at many other times in our nation’s past, we cannot underestimate the power of promises like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on how we interpret the state of affairs today and on our aspirations for a better tomorrow.
But what happens when the things you set your mind to don’t happen? Or when there is no community you can find to connect with, let alone find a sense of purpose or meaning within? Or when it seems you’re very spirit has been crushed to the point where you don’t think you can keep going? When sickness or mental illness serve as a stumbling block? When the family you were raised in did not provide the upbringing that could lead to the same level of success as those from other families? When the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness seem to be a farce?
Joker presents us with this very conundrum. Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually names himself The Joker, cannot find assistance through his medications, social workers, family, friends, coworkers, strangers, or even the heroes he looks up to. He is an impoverished man with mental disabilities who represents what can happen to someone caught up in the perfect storm of social ills. He’s an outcast, despised, misunderstood, forgotten, and invisible to the world around him.
The entire movie shows how even a man with good intentions can tailspin down into the villain we know so well. He worked hard, but it didn’t pay off. He tried to find community and invest into relationships, only to be betrayed. And he started off with so much hope only to descend into absolute despair.
One of the sad realities of this film that the viewer must contend with is that there are many “Arthur”s in our midst and there have always been. Have we been lying to ourselves and to them all this time with cliché platitudes that everyone can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps? The viewer is left struggling to answer the question, who is to blame for what happened to Arthur?
turning today’s narratives upside down
Leading up to the release of Joker, there was much concern from many in the media (left and right) that this film was going to be dangerous. That this film, just years after the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Coloarado at a screening of The Dark Knight, could serve as the inspiration for similar incels. There were fears that people would rally around the Joker character, who epitomizes the upside-down world of an oppressed social outcast who becomes the ringleader of anarchists.
None of us should want to see a replication of that Aurora tragedy occur. And we should be very wary of the power of ideas to inspire action in people, both good and bad. But good art is intended to move us, and as demonstrated by the film’s numerous awards and the clear impact it had on viewers it seems to have done it’s job.
But I think there were other aspects of this film, that for good reason would make so many fearful of how “dangerous” this film could be. But dangerous in a different way. Dangerous because it breaks down all of the simple narratives we often cling to for comfort.
Dangerous because it attacks the idea that firearms are a fail-safe to crime and injustice in our world. All it takes is a firearm falling into the hands of the wrong person to create chaos.
Dangerous because it shows that even if you pour lots of tax dollars into the “social safety net,” it doesn’t guarantee that the social workers actually serving on the frontlines will necessarily provide the humane care and concern people require.
Dangerous because the easy storyline of “you reap what you sow” or karma don’t always work. Are we really comfortable admitting that sometimes bad things happen to well-intended people and it might not be their fault? Or that bad things may come down the road to us for reasons out of our control?
Dangerous because it makes us acknowledge that people who fall outside our typical oppressed categories can still be hurt. Arthur doesn’t fit the typical mold of who we consider to be oppressed in today’s society. But I think we would be hard-pressed not to see him in that light by the end of the movie.
Dangerous because almost no one is portrayed as a good person in this movie regardless of race, gender, or class? When we are so often looking for easy lines with which to divide ourselves between good people and bad people, Joker pulls the rug out from underneath us. It’s like looking into a mirror and realizing we’re all in this together, and we all together, are terrible neighbors to one another.
Dangerous because when someone cannot find any mobility within the social hierarchy available to them, they may, and often will find ways of revolting and finding their place in a new upside-down hierarchy. A hierarchy based on anarchy. How much more upside down can it get than by seeing a clown hailed as a hero? A person so far on the outskirts of society exalted as king?
And dangerous because, just like in Breaking Bad with Walter White, the viewer is given good reasons to empathize with Arthur. Something that can be incredibly unsettling. This feeds the inversion of our worldviews.
what is the solution?
As it is with every election year, these conversations about who should be elected and which party should assume leadership in Washington reaches boiling points. This year will be no different. These elections serve as a battle over ideas regarding what is best for society. The two ends of the spectrum often championed as the best solutions to our social ails are most often represented generally by the terms capitalism and socialism (or democratic socialism if we want it to sound nicer).
But you will find very little overt messaging within this film as to what their recommended solution is to this predicament? The movie actually says very little politically actually (which was another reason many media outlets were wary of this film). In fact, the movie seems to content to leave its viewers in a deep feeling of despair at the end with questions still lingering. Is there a solution to this problem? Will this movie serve as prophecy of what is to come for our society? Are we staring into the headlights of an oncoming train without adequate time to jump off the tracks?
If anything, I think the big question this movie asks is what would it have taken to prevent Arthur from taking the path that he did? And if we think that’s as simple as a limited government with a free-market system or a democratic socialist system with a big enough safety net we’re kidding ourselves.
Can any presidential candidate or political party change how we interact as neighbors with one another? Not just with the ones who return the favor, but the ones who cannot? That’s not to say politics cannot or do not play a role. They can and are important. But this movie strikes at something deeper and more profound. Something upstream of politics.
Where do we find our source of motivation today to treat each other well, especially the ones we tend to write off as not deserving it?
an alternative upside down kingdom
By the end of the movie, Arthur finds his identity as The Joker. He finds his acceptance and affirmation from others and takes his seat at the throne as leader of the crime and uprisings within Gotham.
This storyline isn’t without historical precedent. Riots have often served as a referendum on the state of affairs within a society. But I don’t think riots, social upheaval and massive deconstruction (both physically and metaphysically) are the most sustainable way or healthy way to respond to the issues the Joker presents us with.
Could religion, which is suspiciously absent from the movie, offer something here to help?
There’s an interesting passage in John 9, which has echoes of the story of Job, where Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. His disciples ask him “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” to which Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus is turning people’s understandings of the world upside down. Good standing in this life did not necessarily mean good standing before God. And poor standing in this life did not necessarily mean someone could not be found within the Kingdom of God.
In a society so often described as a dog-eat-dog world and governed by karma, or the retribution principle, Jesus further exemplifies a new way of looking at others and understanding the world. An alternative worldview that has for thousands of years served as a motivation for people to love their neighbors well. And a worldview that I would argue actually gives rise to stories like Joker.
We have to reckon with the fact that this movie would never be popularized within Nazi Germany or the Roman Empire (I know they didn’t have movies). There was no attention given to the lowliest. In fact, the Nazi’s were adamant about wiping out the very weakest in society for the betterment of the human race. This idea of taking care of the weak is so significantly tied to the ministry of Jesus.
And now this movie is wrestling with the question of how do we motivate ourselves to care for the disenfranchised as we quickly deconstruct our religious foundation within society? That’s why this movie is so poignant and relevant today.
So… Not every negative outcome in someone’s life is of direct response to something they or their family did wrong. There isn’t anyone who is too non-religious, oppressed, forgotten, betrayed, or hurt who cannot be reached by the restorative touch of a God who is rich in mercy and full of compassion for anyone and everyone.
And maybe, just maybe, the works of God can be displayed in the least of these. That God can choose the foolish things of this world, even a broken down man like Arthur Fleck, to shame the strong. That’s the type of motivation that I believe can actually change lives and change societies.