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When Villains Become Heroes & Other Dangerous Things

Hector Gutierrez

**Very Mild Spoilers Ahead

Source: The New Yorker
I always wanted to be Robin growing up.

Partially because he didn't carry the burden of Gotham City like Batman did, and still got to wear a costume. Not to mention, his mask seemed far more comfortable than that of other heroes.

Robin is young, allowed to mess up, and hardly ever becomes a disappointment to the inactive yet very opinionated residents of Gotham City. It's the best set up possible.But the debate for children today, as I learned while riding the subway this morning, is no longer Batman or Robin–but Joker or Batman.

If you've watched Joker and its scene in the subway, you'll agree with me that it's a disturbing scenario, especially when you live in New York City. This morning I sort of relived a cinematic moment with much less Joker (thankfully).

Heading uptown on the 1 train, a little child boarded our car wearing a Joker mask.

Everyone made this face:

Source: Hollywood Reporter

The little boy kept dancing in a very Arthur Fleck manner, while the mother–perhaps performing her best impression of Penny Fleck, or perhaps a psychopath–smiled at his strange antics. It was unsettling, but nonetheless, unsurprising.

Ever since Suicide Squad came out (despite its critical failure), within the scope of cinema, society has echoed a need for villains' origin stories.

Maleficent, Joker, Jean Grey, Ted Bundy (non-fiction bonus). The list goes on.

The problem comes when fiction is used as a vehicle to justify nonfiction. It's almost as if there's a craving to understand the root of evil in these fictional characters for the sake of understanding ourselves.

This can be observed in the conversations that Joker has incited since its release on Friday.

Social media is plagued with posts saying, "Now I can understand why Joker did everything he did."

That's dangerous, I thought in a lighthearted sentiment as a movie viewer, but the more I think about it, the more dangerous the statement seems.

If you read the Oscar Voters' reactions to the movie, the consensus will diverge between two opinions: "outstanding" and "irresponsible." We live in a world where the moral echo of a film has become integral to its nature, and consequently, to how it is received by the public.

Not to say that Joker doesn't deserve its praise. Joaquin Phoenix does an incredible, well-crafted portrayal of the infamous villain: he lost a shit-ton of weight, danced like Oregonians at a EDM festival, and laughed in a maniacally way. The movie also targets themes such as loneliness, family, and gun violence in subtle ways; using cinematographic frames, musical score and dialogue, to character expressions and costume design.

But we can't overlook the moral ramifications of a character such as Joker when the climate in the world has been nothing less than violent.

There might have been the question of whether Joker would reach its intended success in the box office, but there was never a doubt that the film would be controversial.

In a TNY piece, Warner Bros defends their position for releasing the film, and forges on to say that, “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero." (New York Times, 2019)

So, if a studio is not to blame, who is?

Source: Washington Post

I have a hard time criticizing the young child with a mask in the subway. Or his mother, who I don't know (and do not really want to know). But there's definitely a sense of irresponsibility that surrounds material like this during our times.

Essentially, Joker represents a hero of the disenfranchised but in 2019, it seems that many are eager to adopt this role. Especially when we see Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne's father and an elitist politician, be such a real and painfully accurate depiction of our politicians today. Although he dies (not really a spoiler), Thomas Wayne is regarded as the villain of the story.

And not to dive into this topic too deep because I, for once, don't feel like mental health was really discussed from a central focus in the film, but is it ethical to use fictionalized villains for advocacy to real life issues?

Is Joker, who suffers from mental illness in the film and also from a broken system that refuses to help him, a beneficial device to further conversation about mental health?

I could go on and on about the intended nature of the film, but that doesn't matter in the face of its real weight. While Warner Bros continues to defend the film and others decide to criticize them for it, the true debate lies in a maybe-too-big-to-answer question:

Is Joker criticizing or legitimizing violence and evil in America?

As I said, that's a question too complex to answer; at least today.

Yet, the most dangerous thing about "Joker" is not its intent to discuss mental health through a fictionalized villain, nor the mirror it represents to America in 2019.


The most dangerous thing about Joker is the ending.

Arthur sits with a doctor at Arkham Asylum, laughing maniacally at a joke he insists the doctor "wouldn't get." What follows is a vintage ending to a movie that resonates quite painfully in our actuality.

Joker leaves the doctor's office, a trail of blood-red footprints on his wake, chasing another person of the hospital's staff while the song "White Room" welcomes the classic letters that read, "The End."

Simply put, Joker wins.


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