Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
It is a common critique of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that Satan is the unintended hero. Sympathetic, eloquent, and fascinating, the most evil being in all of time became, in the hands of a master poet, a tragic figure. Because of his portrayal of Satan in the work, William Blake said of Milton that he was, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” A well told story can turn even the most wicked character into someone with whom we might wish to empathize—whether the author intended it that way or not. As it is with Milton’s Satan, so it seems to be with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
Depicting villains and offering honest examinations of sins are crucial functions of telling good and moral stories. As G. K. Chesterton wrote on the topic, “If the characters are not wicked, the book is.” Wickedness is not benign, though, so the way in which it finds expression in our stories—and in the characters in our stories—is something to which we should always pay close attention, because our stories work also on us.
As the Joker, Ledger is the uncontested star of that movie. But Ledger’s Joker is not the hero, nor is he the antihero of The Dark Knight—the Joker is the villain, an antagonist of the highest order. I will never forget the experience of sitting in a movie theater and listening to an audience burst into laughter as, on screen, the Joker blew up a hospital. My husband and I exchanged looks of horrified perplexity because there wasn’t—at least there shouldn’t be—anything funny about any act of terror, let alone an act of terror perpetrated against the weak, the infirm, the helpless. The movie, of course, was The Dark Knight, the wildly successful second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (now known as the Dark Knight Trilogy), and the actor portraying the Joker was Heath Ledger.
The Joker is a character who has long been iconically evil—someone in whom there really is no good. As Batman’s inimical nemesis, the Joker made an easy transition from the comic book pages to the small, and eventually big, screens because he is such a character. A homicidal maniac who dresses himself up like a clown, someone who laughs and jokes while he murders, steals, and wreaks havoc in Gotham City—the Joker represents nihilistic, irrational, enigmatic terror, and he does it all with a smile. This is a character who should always evoke horror, and prior to 2008 and The Dark Knight, it seemed as though the evil of the Joker was clearly understood. But now we’re on the cusp of the release of Joker, a standalone movie that promises to tell the origin story of the Joker in a way that will inspire empathy. But is empathy with a wicked character like the Joker a place we want to go, as a society? I can’t help connecting the dots back to The Dark Knight to piece together where I think we’ve gone wrong with the Joker.
Ledger’s 2008 turn as the Joker was captivating, and it invited a special fascination with a character steeped in both madness and evil. In the Joker, the two have always been synonymous, as if mental illness has no outlet but wickedness, but Ledger lost himself in the character, disappearing so fully that the real man is hardly discernible beneath the facade—if at all. His performance is as gripping as it is unnerving, and it was Ledger’s last completed project before his untimely and tragic death, a role for which he posthumously won an Academy Award. As the Joker, Ledger is the uncontested star of that movie. But Ledger’s Joker is not the hero, nor is he the antihero of The Dark Knight—the Joker is the villain, an antagonist of the highest order.
At least, he should be.
But, like Milton’s Satan, Ledger’s Joker just might have been a little too fascinating—a little too seductive. I enjoyed The Dark Knight, and for a long time, I clung to the hope that our experience in that movie theater was an isolated one—that surely the widespread response to Heath Ledger’s compelling role as the Joker was less one of enamored fascination with his wickedness and more one of righteous revulsion. But I was a teacher at the time, and as the movie continued its run in the theater, I observed in my teenage students a reaction to the film that was rife with adoration for the Joker. In my mind, The Dark Knight was a great superhero movie because it showed the desperate depravity of ultimate evil, and it portrayed how a hero like Christian Bale’s Batman might even have to take the blame for sins he did not commit onto himself for the sake of saving others. But the more I insisted the story was about Batman as the Dark Knight, the more I heard others praising the Joker for a performance so gripping it made Batman all-but disappear. Ledger’s Joker was the villain, but in the eyes of many, he became a character worthy of praise.
When storytellers encourage empathy with an evil character by showing that what is evil is actually good or funny or irreverent or fascinating, it is a form of manipulation that approaches gaslighting.What endures about The Dark Knight is Ledger’s performance as the Joker. I’ve watched it multiple times since that first theatrical release, and there’s no longer any doubt in my mind. The movie invites me into a fascination with him. To put it simply, he’s fun to watch. His madness is an entertainment. I cling to a desire to root for the hero, but in my heart, I am captivated by the villain, who is the real star of the show. I have no idea if, like Milton, Christopher Nolan unintentionally crafted such a compelling Satan, but there is no denying his power. Sometimes people just get outperformed; sometimes the show is stolen, and it’s no fault or intention of the storytellers or the other characters and actors. But in stories where the villain outshines the hero, I think there is an important question we should ask: Whose story is it, really?
When we determine whose story is being told, we determine for whom we will sympathize—with whom we will feel empathy. When the audience empathizes with the villain, as in the case of Paradise Lost, then the villain becomes more important than the hero and their goals don’t seem so bad after all, no matter what the villain does to achieve them. Anything can be justified in such stories. Empathy is a mark of our natural state. When storytellers encourage empathy with an evil character by showing that what is evil is actually good or funny or irreverent or fascinating, it is a form of manipulation that approaches gaslighting. What you’re seeing isn’t so bad. “Why so serious?”
“Why so serious?” It’s a rhetorical question—one Ledger’s Joker loves to ask of his victims and those who oppose him during tense and pivotal moments in The Dark Knight, usually when he’s engaged in some act of torture or murder. We’re supposed to see the irony in the question; we’re supposed to understand his wickedness. But the repetition of his refrain instead adds a layer of flippancy to moments where the audience should be captivated with horror.
These things are no laughing matter, but the Joker laughs, and the story invites the audience to laugh, as well. “Why so serious?” Laughter when a hospital blows up. “Let’s put a smile on that face.” Or, perhaps, as the new interpretation of the Joker now promises: “Bring in the clowns.” Maybe the Joker has been misunderstood all along. If the Joker was driven to his madness by circumstance, and thus in his madness does evil things, then he really cannot be blamed for his actions. Such a Joker does not even need a Batman to oppose him. He plays too much on our sympathies for that.
In the absence of a hero, the villain becomes the hero. In the absence of a protagonist, the antagonist will fill that role.I don’t know exactly what sort of story the new Joker movie is going to turn out to be, but based on the trailer, a few things seem clear. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance will be as remarkable as Heath Ledger’s was, and the movie will be successful because of it. It has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival—an achievement as unusual for a comic book film as it was unusual for Heath Ledger to win an Academy Award in 2009 for portraying the character. As far as the story is concerned, the trailer and plot synopsis indicate that Arthur Fleck—as this version of the titular character’s alternate identity is named—is a loner in society. The trailer shows him trying to fit in, going to therapy, falling in love, attempting to be kind to people and work a menial job as a sidewalk clown. Things seem to go sideways when his therapist says she can no longer meet with him, and as he’s repeatedly bullied on the streets. At least one shot shows him sitting at the bedside of his invalid mother in the hospital, and he’s openly mocked by a comedian he admires on the television. He’s vulnerable and laid bare— figuratively and literally—in the space of a two-minute movie trailer, and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him, even as maniacal bursts of laughter escape his lips. Even as the trailer skips to a clip of him possibly committing a back-alley murder. Even as you know that Arthur Fleck is becoming the Joker—a homicidal maniac—and that there is nothing sympathetic about that.
The official plot synopsis from Warner Brothers says that Joker is a “broader cautionary tale,” but this is the sort of “cautionary tale” that risks producing that which it is warning us against. While it is worthwhile to call for cultural empathy and to ask us to examine what it is we owe each other, it is a dangerous thing to do so by suggesting that society creates mass murderers through a lack of empathy. Such a story not only shifts responsibility for sin from the individual to the victims, but it casts the perpetrators as victims themselves. If the moral of the story is that lost young men might feel compelled by society’s treatment of them to do terrible and toxic things, you do not take a lost young man and turn him into a murderer and the compelling star of his own story—into the hero himself. I worry that, in Joker, Warner Brothers have produced a villain origin story with no hero. Thus the villain becomes the hero and villainy is normalized, or worse, becomes something with which the audience can empathize.
The only things that fascinate us are those things that, deep down, we harbor an affection for. This is what makes Ledger’s and Phoenix’s Jokers so dangerous.If the trailer can be trusted, Joker encourages us to view Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker—and his descent into madness—as a step into self-actualization. As Arthur Fleck descends, he ascends, and because he stands alone and unopposed, we’re invited into a fascination with his journey. The problem isn’t that the movie is about him or even that he has the ability to carry the character with such aplomb, it’s that there is no light to cast against his dark. In the absence of a hero, the villain becomes the hero. In the absence of a protagonist, the antagonist will fill that role.
We are fascinated by such characters and such stories, I think, because deep inside we are afraid that there lives a nature as depraved as that which we are seeing on the screen. Like calls to like, and in the worst of sinners, sometimes we see ourselves, and we wonder what would—or could—push us into wickedness. The only things that fascinate us are those things that, deep down, we harbor an affection for. This is what makes Ledger’s and Phoenix’s Jokers so dangerous: they are like Milton’s Satan, inviting us to view them as the heroes of stories that were never intended to be about them. Inviting us to love the sin that we should hate.
What we don’t need is storytelling that makes that evil empathetic, heroic, or so fascinating that it subverts all goodness.This sort of storytelling is irresponsible in any age, but we are not living in just any age. We are living in a post-Dark Knight Rises, post-Aurora movie theater shooting age. We are living in an age where there are many young men adrift, looking for meaning, identity, and belonging. We do not want them to find that meaning in stories that reflect versions of themselves in conflations of heroism and villainy. We do need stories that depict evil, and we need skilled actors to portray wicked characters. What we don’t need is storytelling that makes that evil empathetic, heroic, or so fascinating that it subverts all goodness. When we applaud characters like the Joker—who are wholly evil—we send the message that evil maybe isn’t evil, it’s just different. Furthermore, a fascination with wickedness is neither wise nor good, and any story that says the end result of brokenness is a descent into madness, or that madness and wickedness are necessarily synonymous, is a bad story.
Because of the danger inherent in such stories, anyone who chooses to engage in them should do so discerningly. Many years before Joaquin Phoenix or Heath Ledger put on clown makeup, Jack Nicholson depicted the iconic villain on the big screen in 1989 for Tim Burton’s Batman. Nicholson’s Joker has a catchphrase, too. Before murdering people, he likes to ask, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” He never explains the expression beyond saying he “just likes the sound of it”—a wantonness that is typical of the character—but I’ve found myself reflecting on the question in light of the upcoming release of Joker. To dance with the devil, with Satan, who is wholly evil, is to invite a known danger into a position of intimacy with you. It is to be fascinated with evil, to be romanced by it. When we tell stories where the villain is the hero, we invite the devil in for a dance, and we think that nobody is going to get burned. But stories, and the characters that inhabit them, take a toll on us all. If you’re going to dance with the devil, make sure you remember that he is the devil.