It is difficult to decide which of two seemingly opposite things to say first. That Joker is a very good, perhaps even great, film. Or that there is very little, maybe even nothing, commendable in what it depicts.
If this sounds like a contradiction, it is for a good reason: namely, what the film depicts so well is truly contradictory – a truth that contradicts itself or a contradiction that just so happens to be true.
Specifically, what Joker probably shows better than any other film I can think of is how the kind of man that men are inclined to call “mad,” “depraved,” or even “evil” nevertheless remains a man, and therefore to the same extent, reasonable, sympathetic, and even good.
A profound exposition of this darkly luminous truth is much more than is probably warranted from a movie about a comic book villain. Indeed, after years of inurement by more or less inane Marvel movies which tend to speak less to the perennial human predicament than to cinematic innovations of money making, our collective expectations have probably dropped sufficiently low for this relatively low-key DC Comics production to drop like a bomb.
At one level Joker tells the origin story of Batman’s archnemesis. A character previously played with madcap lunacy by Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) and disquieting method acting by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008), here gets a timely update by an uncomfortable-to-watch yet strangely plausible Joaquin Phoenix.
Compared with the earlier iterations, which seem little concerned to situate the villain in any kind of recognizable human context, Joker takes pains to explain its titular character’s reprehensible behavior in psychological and sociological terms.
In this story world, long gone are the days when the heroic antitype is merely the embodiment of a farcical force of mayhem or a dedication to chaos so inexplicable as to be almost diabolical. Rather, in this case the end product of villainy so clearly results from a long sequence of physical abuse, developmental neglect, and widespread societal indifference that it seems almost entirely attributable to, and therefore excused by, these experiences.
Standing back and hearing this statement “cold,” as it were, might provoke a kind of ethical knee jerk reaction – “what do you mean evil action can be almost explained away by external factors … evil is evil, surely, and to suggest otherwise might even be the most sinister kind of evil!” A more careful examination however might discover a strikingly similar sentiment articulated as one of the most basic, if also one of the most difficult to understand, tenets of traditional Christian teaching.
In a phrase, many persons still confuse sin and sins, or original sin and personal sins. Most of us are, regrettably, all too familiar with the latter: personal sins are those things we do ill when we might very well have chosen differently and done better. Original sin, by contrast, is called “sin” only by analogy: it is “sin” contracted and not committed, a state and not an act.
There is a very real sense, in other words, in which individual human persons are not guilty of original sin, at least not in the same sense as they are held accountable for their own decisions. Rather, sin in this wider sense is like a sickness afflicting humanity as a whole: it calls for healing by a physician, not for condemnation by a judge.
Even the worst sort of villain, in other words, is first and more fundamentally a victim.
By this light, the triumph of Joker is how humanely it depicts humanity, even a humanity this obscured by having fallen into some of the darkest recesses of isolation, indignity, and despair this side of what Christians have traditionally called The Fall. There may be little to commend in what the film depicts, then, yet there is much to commend in how it depicts it.
What Joker shows us might be dark, ugly, even horrendous, yet what is horrendous is not necessarily indefensible. Indeed, in a fallen world such a thing might even be something like great and obliquely beautiful – that is, in the same way that something ugly might become beautiful when viewed not merely by itself but as illuminated by an even greater Truth.