OCTOBER 14 — Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Joker.
Why is ‘Joker’ so controversial?
It’s not often you hear of cinemas banning a major blockbuster because they’re concerned audiences may actually shoot up the place.
It isn’t every weekend that policemen are called to beef up security in cinemas on the opening Saturday of a, uh, comic book movie.
And it certainly isn’t every year that one movie in particular gets spot-lighted as potentially inspiring copycat criminals who may sympathise with a marginalised character who takes to violence as an outlet.
I suspect at the heart of the controversy behind the movie Joker lies the question of whether or not individuals going through extreme stress still possess the individual self-determining ability (or “free will”) to say no to crime and violence.
But let’s start with the movie
How did Arthur Fleck drift from a clown into a killer?
I watched Joker on the first day it was released. I kinda liked it. It was “raw”, scary, sad, shocking and yet exhilarating in a weird kind of way.
There is no doubt that viewers can and will leave the movie “sympathising” with the protagonist, Arthur Fleck, in one way or another.
This is a man afflicted with mental illness (manifested in uncontrollable laughter every time he’s nervous or tense, see note 1). He lives alone with his delusional mum who always asks him to check for letters from billionaire Thomas Wayne; he struggles to keep a job as a rent-a-clown and he depends on state welfare for his medication.
Everything starts to go south when Fleck gets beaten up when he chases a bunch of kids who steal a store sign; when his boss blames him for the lost sign; when he accidentally brings a gun into a hospital and he gets fired...
Long and short, Fleck “loses it” and starts killing people, at first with some impulsiveness then later it becomes almost natural.
He cites the injustices of the state, of rich people, etc. but as we know from other movies, his crimes take on a maniacal gratuitous character.
Voila, we have the Joker!
Are people under severe psychological and social stress justified in committing crimes, especially of the violent kind?
There is absolutely no doubt that even a mentally sane person would already be against the ropes after such an avalanche of episodes, now throw in Fleck’s condition, his delusions, his lack of social support, his erratic behaviour and he essentially turns into a ticking time-bomb i.e. all the pressure and stress of life renders his situation so “unbearable” one can actually understand his violent behaviour later on.
Or so the film portrays and some segments of media and society believe.
One of the reasons why Joker is so controversial is because there is the real fear of copycat gun-toting people who will act out Arthur Fleck’s violence.
Behind this fear lies the issue of whether criminal behaviour is inevitable in the face of social injustice and marginalisation.
Todd Philips’ film (whether intentionally or not) pushes an affirmative answer forward i.e. that people who suffer one psychological, social and personal setback after another will, as night follows day, eventually descend into violence.
In other words, the Joker had lost the freedom to not do evil things. He no longer had the free will to say No to committing criminally violent acts.
Or, even if the Joker believes he is still “free”, it no longer matters.
Now, just imagine thousands and thousands of emotionally troubled and socially marginalised people believing in the above doctrine, and reading “controversial” news reports about what kinds of danger may occur in cinemas for this brand-new DC movie.
Imagine a horde of insecure, frustrated and gun-owning folks holding as true the idea that one can be pushed to the point of being beyond accountability or requiring no more justification for violence, then reading some viral news about a “marginalised clown going on a killing rampage”, etc.
This kind of thinking is nothing new. Doesn’t it remind you of certain supremacists in our country who always repeat, “Don’t push us or we can’t be responsible for another May 13?”
Or how many can justify Hamas firing 500+ rockets in Israel civilian territory because, oh, the Occupation is such a terrible thing?
Or how, in Hong Kong, most folks refuse to condemn the violent rioters because aren’t the police just as bad?
In such cases, the ability of people to refrain from violence is discarded, “normalised” and justified on account of their circumstances.
Can we ever lose our freedom to NOT be violent?
In times like this, you can’t help but appreciate Sunday sermons. Because some things you always hear in church are:
a) We, the whole lot of humanity, is messed up somehow, but
b) You’re still responsible for your shit, and
c) Even if you screw up, God is still there to pick you up, so
d) Don’t lose hope and don’t stop doing good to others
Yes, life is tough and cruel but that is no reason for you to go ape-shit and damage other people. Period. You can choose the better, albeit straighter and narrower, path.
Arthur Fleck’s situation is similar to that of many people in the cinema and out of the cinema, not all of whom decided it was okay to blow people’s heads off despite life serving them lemons.
Magneto suffered the loss of his parents, his wife and his child in the Nazi death camps; but psychologist Viktor Frankl and writer Elie Wiesel went through a similar experience yet didn’t come out of it yearning for mass genocide.
Loki was jealous of his brother and found out his parents weren’t his real parents; well, Perseus also found out late in life that his real father is a god who had an affair with his mum (who was then murdered by her real husband), but he ended up saving Argos whereas Loki did nothing but help bring an alien army to earth.
And don’t even get me started on Kungfu Panda, Wolverine, Luke Skywalker and a truck load of heroes who had daddy issues but turned to the good instead of the bad.
Mr Glass was born with brittle bones, ends up in a wheelchair and developed a kick out of killing people; Prof X was also paralysed while trying to help others, ended up in a wheelchair, but didn’t die with the intention of destroying people.
Ultimately we’re still responsible for our actions no matter what happens. You as a person can still choose to do good, to love independently of circumstances, to aim your heart towards even a bit of justice.
Yes, the frontal cortex of the brain affects our ability to behave “properly”; yes, bio-chemical disorders have significant effects on behaviour-altering illnesses like schizophrenia; yes, cortical formations affect judgements on whether someone is dyslexic or plain lazy (see note 2); but unless you wish to remove categories like “responsibility”, “crime” and “accountability” from the nation’s vocab then #sorrynotsorry that “thing” called the Self cannot be discarded from all talk of vice and virtue.
Our kids need to be reminded (over and over again) they’re inevitably accountable if they steal their classmates’ colour pencils, and they can’t blame society for not fixing nationwide poverty.
Those folks at the recent Malay Dignity Congress need to be told that if they spend their entire lives blaming the non-Malays it’s counter-productive as heck because they’ve given up their “power” to move forward.
The batshit crazy teenagers in Hong Kong who want to do nothing but hammer away at policemen’s heads need to realise that Beijing’s tyranny doesn’t extend to what they do with their hammers.
Arthur Fleck may or may not have lost his free will when he gunned down people, but nobody else in the real world should.
The Joker’s situation was tragic, but — duh — nothing gives him (or us) the right to cause harm and take innocent lives.
In the end, will ‘Joker’ inspire mass shootings and other violent crimes?
Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that movies like this may help “crystallise” a twisted and false belief-system in which violence is justified due to social injustice.
But No, because — again! — in the final analysis no shooter or criminal should ever be justified in his crime by quoting a movie (no matter how violent).
Perhaps the truly tragic consequence of Joker is how such a reminder is even needed.
Note 1: Do some googling and you’ll see that Fleck’s condition is an actual disorder known as the Pseudobulbar Affect (or PBA), in which the brain has problems controlling emotions and their (appropriate) expressions.
Note 2: I got all this brain stuff from Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (Vintage: London, 2018). He makes a very strong case for the reduction of the human self to mechanistic biological processes, while still claiming that society probably can’t do without the notion of “free will.”
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.