After Colin Clive uttered his mad crescendo of “It’s alive!” in the 1931 film Frankenstein, he screamed a line that censorship boards judged as blasphemous. So, a thunderclap was added to obscure him raving, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” Shocking.
What’s even more shocking is that there was such sensitivity in Hollywood—such concern for the script’s moral bona fides. It was there because of audiences’ sensitivities. The culture was cleaner back then, and the entertainment industry regulated itself accordingly. Art was governed by common decency and avoided causing scandal.
When that capacity for self-regulation goes, however, anything goes. Hence the cinematic sickness of today. Should artists, then, portray madness to a world gone mad and expect it to judge rightly? Popular superhero movies and their mythos have been doing it for three decades and are now feeling some backlash.
Thirty years ago, Warner Bros. released a film by Tim Burton that spawned a genre. In 1989, Batman swooped into theaters with Michael Keaton in the bat-suit alongside Jack Nicholson’s menacing, unhinged Joker. Batman was a sensation, to be sure. What’s interesting, however, is not so much the box-office records it achieved, or even that it abandoned the 1960s Adam West “Biff! Bam! Zap!” camp. Rather, it’s the grave and conflicted tone it set for the future of the superhero movie.
Todd Phillips’s Joker, which premieres on Friday and stars Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, is already bearing up beneath a reputation as a dangerous tale of depression and desperation—the inevitable consequence of Batman.
Given the seemingly unlimited law of license in Hollywood, there is an unusual rumble of quasi-censorship in the reactions to Phillips’ contribution to the comics cosmos. Set in a stark, Scorsesean realism (part and parcel now with superhero movies), Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a fragile and floundering comedian who becomes Batman’s leering archnemesis. Unlike its cinematic predecessors, Joker is being challenged for fear of its potential influence on unstable viewers in an unstable culture: it features a lonely, mentally ill man in a very real, unfeeling world who descends into homicidal insanity as a means of escape. Many critics fear Joker will encourage the recent streak of mass shootings. They’re quick to note in particular the 2012 Aurora theater massacre during a Batman movie, where the perpetrator dressed up as the Joker.
This is, in one sense, a welcome development. Our taste-makers are suddenly willing to acknowledge that the entertainment industry both reflects and affects culture, and that artists should not leave a message of muddied morality up for interpretation by the amoral masses.
In a promotional interview for Joker, Joaquin Phoenix was asked whether the film was artistically irresponsible, as romanticizing or inciting the violence it depicts. Phoenix responded: “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.” Yet good art—good stories—show, as Flannery O’Connor put it; they do not tell. Art should mirror truth, and morality is part of truth. When truth is already obscured, artists mustn’t intentionally obscure it further. Phoenix’s statement presupposes the moral integrity to discern right from wrong, which is a faculty our culture lost decades ago.
Of course, mankind has always looked to fictional archetypes to explore society and the souls that make it up. Our mythologies have always been diagnostic and didactic. But if comic book characters like Batman and Joker—with their damaged psyches and tortured pasts—represent the current state of affairs, we have reason to be concerned. The plummet from Romero to Nicholson, from Nicholson to Heath Ledger, from Ledger to Jared Leto, and now from Leto to Phoenix is indicative of a deeper and more unsettling trend.
Commenting on Batman, Burton said: “Insanity is in some scary way the most freedom you can have, because you’re not bound by the laws of society.” This disquieting analysis expresses what has become common in pop culture. It explains the strange and striking shift from Christopher Reeve’s buoyant, boy-scout Superman of the Seventies into the brooding, shadowy realm of modern movie mythology, to which Joker is the latest addition.
This new mythology features godless men instead of godlike men. Its moral relativism is the catechism of freaks and outcasts and madmen. Now, the homicidal maniacs have become sympathetic antiheroes. The best audiences are left concerned and confused; the worst, validated and even encouraged.
Cultural representation through imaginative creations should be taken seriously, even if they’re wearing clown makeup. There was a time when Joker was just a cackling criminal; now he’s the product of childhood trauma and the cold world’s lack of compassion. To make the Joker disenfranchised, rejected, complicated, or even human interferes with his iconic place in the modern mythos. It’s the average man who suffers for the muddiness of modern storytelling—from this desire to make the superhero world more real and relevant, more flawed, more broken, more psychologically divided, struggling to survive in a world where the line between good and evil is hazy, if not lost altogether.
That’s dangerous, even if it is art. Moviegoers in 1931 would have recognized the perversity of Frankenstein’s exclamation, but would they still? The darkening, half-demented tone echoes a cultural self-consciousness—or subconsciousness—that the icons of the screen have risen to reflect. Whether conscious or unconscious, it has built the mythology of the movies on the dark, insane side of freedom where, perhaps, we can all know what it feels like to be mad.
Photo credit: YouTube/Warner Bros. Pictures