SPOILER ALERT! This article contains several spoilers from the recent Oscar-winning movie, “Joker”. So, if you’re planning on watching it soon, you may want to save this article and come back to it once you’re done with that. Also, this article promises to be a slightly depressing read. if you accept the risks involved, let us begin.
“In my dream, the world had suffered a terrible disaster. A black haze shut out the sun, and the darkness was alive with the moans and screams of wounded people. Suddenly, a small light glowed. A candle flickered into life, symbol of hope for millions. A single tiny candle, shining in the ugly dark. I laughed and blew it out.”– The Joker
A movie about the Joker. I was apprehensive from the get-go. Though I’m no stranger to the corresponding comic book universe, I wasn’t entirely sure what I expected to see. I had a feeling I would find it more uncomfortable than entertaining, though. Seldom have I been this depressed at being proven right. Unfortunately, they don’t give you refunds just because you found the movie unsettling. And so I watched. I watched as Joaquin Phoenix portrayed, quite skilfully I should add, a slightly different take on this self-proclaimed psychopath criminal. I watched as the makers of the movie attempted to communicate the humanity behind the cruelty, the justification of the anarchy, the sense within the insanity. Here was a person, they said, who was mentally unwell and yet found no solace in his circumstances and no pity in his neighbours. I watched as the world knocked him to the ground, and then kicked him mercilessly when he was down. I watched as the professional clown, ironically, tried and failed to find joy in his life. I watched as the less privileged got overrun by those who were, simply, luckier.
As joy failed him, he looked for justice. As justice eluded him, he sought meaning. As meaning vanished, he struggled to justify life, and wondered why anything was forbidden by law when it was perfectly legal to be unapologetically cruel to those who could not fight back. He ended up on a path of reckless abandon in pursuit of death, and there he found joy, but it was joy in the pain of another, and he did not mind in the least. He found justice, but it was justice in dealing out death to those he disliked, and he revelled in it. At that point, meaning of life is no longer of any importance. You have taken matters into your own hands. You have stood up to the tyranny of the more privileged of society. You are giving them what they deserve, and they must listen to you because they are wrong and you are right. They must listen to you, or die. Because they have wronged you, you have the right to wrong them. You have reached out from where you had fallen and grabbed your enemy in a deadly chokehold. Everyone will understand. No, it is more than that. Everyone will agree that it is the only fitting response. Needless to say, I did not agree.
I grew increasingly disturbed as the deranged man descended deeper into the darkness. He killed some people. And then he killed some more for good measure. They all deserved it, obviously. I stiffened in my seat as he proceeded to repeatedly bash another person’s skull into a wall. One, two, three, four, five, six… I closed my eyes in despair. At some point after this, I began to tune out and reflect on what was going on. This is what happens when you take such a dark comic book character and try to make his story ‘relatable’ in a modern sense. They did the same thing with the hero too, in the Dark Knight series. The comics don’t worry too much about making psychological, mental or emotional ends meet in a ‘believable’ way. If it makes sense, it makes sense. This movie, however, was trying to bring that fictional character to life, almost trying to make him look like someone you knew. Or perhaps even trying to make him look like you yourself. I was imagining a real person suffering in this way and my heart was overcome with grief at the outcome I was witnessing. The man had become a symbol for revenge and rebellion, and the city was drowning in riots. That’s when it happened. You see, by the time the movie was almost over, I was certain things had gotten as dark as they possibly could. I was wrong, and seldom have I been this depressed at being proven wrong.
There, while the Joker was being exalted by the mob of rioters on screen, I heard a lot of commotion happening off screen. I looked around me, only to see that the people in the theatre were applauding and cheering. This expression was so foreign to what I was feeling that I was completely thrown off for a few seconds. They were cheering for him. For the Joker. Why? Did I miss something while I was pondering the mysteries of life? No, there he was, painting a smile on his own face using his own blood. The mob around him cheered, and so did the people sitting around me. Suddenly, it felt like it was my skull that had gotten bashed against the wall. Why am I so agitated about something so silly, you ask? Why am I making such a big deal of people cheering at a movie? I know what you really want to ask me. Why so serious, right? Yeah, I may be going off a little on the deep end here, but it isn’t without good reason. I’m confused. Worried. Scared, even.
What are we cheering for here? What are we applauding? The victory of the little guy? His triumph over trials? The revenge of the oppressed? A few, I’m sure, simply enjoyed the cinematography. I don’t know if those people are normally the cheering type, I’m more used to seeing silent admiration or whispered praise from such people. What about the rest of us? Whatever your justification, here’s the fact: you’re cheering for the villain. You’re applauding his viciousness. You’re calling it a victory, the fact that he killed all those people, and you’re celebrating it. Really? Is that what the minds behind the movie intended too, I wonder? To make it acceptable to be a mass murderer? Will it be ‘intolerant’ tomorrow to cringe at the taking of a life? We just watched him suffocate his mother while she lay defenceless in a hospital bed, and here you are now, getting goosebumps at how cool he looks! What if that was your sister who was killed by her son? What if that was your father or brother who was shot to death for being a bully? Will it still make sense then? Will you still cheer for the killer? If we find this manner of justice justifiable, we must also be prepared to be on the receiving end of such punishment.
Perhaps none of us cheered for his actions. Perhaps it was simply the emotion that was brought out through the intense storytelling. That still does not serve to justify the act. Why blindly celebrate what is so clearly wrong? Evil is evil. It does not depend on who did it, or who it was done to. It does not matter what complicated series of events led to it, or what ‘good’ was supposed to be achieved through it. Evil is evil. There is no justification for it. Here’s the problem, though. We are attracted to it. Without a shadow of a doubt. We like to be bad. Some part of us always wants to be a rebel. Whether it shows or not. And, outside of the Bible, there is no real case that can be made against this. Who is to dictate what one cluster of cells is allowed to do to another cluster of cells? Who is to say that this particular series of firing neurons constitutes a “correct understanding”? I dare say every religion has some sort of prohibition of such evil. Someone like this would perhaps be condemned according to the belief systems of most religions. The uniqueness of the Bible lies in it’s promise of redemption from sin. All things considered, I could not help but wonder if there is a hope of redemption for someone who was this far gone. “And such were some of you”, the apostle Paul whispers in my mind’s ear (is that a real thing? Well, it is now).
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?… And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”– 1 Corinthians 6:9,11 ESV
The magnitude of the promise of salvation is one that is too huge for us to comprehend. And yet, we wonder if it is ‘too much’ to hold out hope for people who are ‘so evil’. We forget that the whole story of humanity is one of abundant grace in absolutely hopeless situations. God had just one rule for the first man. Just one article was stipulated in the heavenly penal code, and we still managed to mess it up. Even there, we see God’s grace at work, in that He did not destroy them that instant, but instead, began a work of redemption that would be completed in the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ. And how did mankind react to this? When given a choice between Christ and Barabbas (a murderer and instigator, not unlike the villain we’ve been talking about here), humanity shouted, “Away with this man! Give us Barabbas and crucify Christ!” Don’t you see? We have always preferred Barabbas to Christ. We have always admired the rebel over the righteous. We have always wanted to exalt the sinner over the saint. Here again, like everywhere else, the grace and mercy of God pierces through the fog of our sinful nature, as He ordains our evil intent to be the means he uses to give us the gift of salvation. How enormous is this truth! Since the very first sin, till this instant, we have been experiencing extraordinary grace and inexplicable mercy. And it extends, without a doubt, to those who are broken and distraught, and those that have fallen far away from righteousness. Those who feel they were dealt a bad hand in life should only look to the one who sustains all of life. For “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). You see, evil is only vanquished by the salvation offered by Christ. Evil repaid with evil does no good to anyone. Only salvation has the power to snuff it out once and for all and replace it with the righteousness of Christ. Because, at that point, we want to give it up. Till then, we remain in the grip of sin. for It is only at the sight of this great grace that we can be truly freed from the chokehold of sin.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”– Matthew 13:44 ESV
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