I have a professional interest in villains. I study them and I play them on stage whenever possible. Here's proof: Captain America is the most boring Avenger and his films are missable. One nice moment in Endgame doesn't make up for it. Fight me, everyone on Twitter.
More importantly, though, I have an amateur interest in villains (French amateur, Latin amator: 'lover'). Villains excite me, catch my attention, and ground me in stories. I seek out compelling villains and I love them.
I went to Joker, the 2019 film starring Joaquin Phoenix, with some trepidation. I’ve admired Phoenix’s work before, and I’ve always liked the Joker best of all Batman’s nemeses. My first Batman was Adam West, after all, so I’ve always felt the franchise and I were on first-name basis. This is a reliable method for disappointment.
And I am disappointed in Joker.
This isn’t the kind of disappointment I get from bad Shakespeare performances and films. There are too many and I have learned to expect the bloated scripts, self-importance, and misplaced reverence. I’m not disappointed in Joker because I spend too much time with the material or because I’m jaded with systems that produce it. I’m disappointed with the film because it is lazy.
The first three quarters of the film are a tedious slog through the horror of daily existence of Arthur Fleck. If you ever read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, you might get the gist: how much can we torture one character until they break? How much can we torture an audience until they feel moved enough to value systemic reform? The comparison breaks down, of course, because Sinclair’s novel actually captured something accurate about living in abject poverty with no labour laws in industrial Chicago. Joker, on the other hand, literally screams a misguided moral at us during its agonising climax:
‘What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin' deserve!’
It’s not surprising that Fleck would believe something like this. It’s remarkably disappointing that the film seems to espouse it, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that people with mental illness are the victims of violence far more often than the perpetrators. Instead, it stages a broad revenge fantasy in which the downtrodden (men) get to suddenly strike out at unfeeling systems that oppress them, all thanks to the bold murders by their prophet.
As for Fleck’s actual struggles, we are invited to believe that the Joker’s warped sense of humour is the result of (wait for it) a Traumatic Brain Injury. This was the major point of departure from what made Heath Ledger’s Joker from Nolan’s The Dark Knight so compelling. Ledger’s Joker danced across possible histories and denied satisfaction to anyone who demanded explanations of him (Big Iago Energy). His lens was distorted, but he was both canny and smart. He knew something you didn’t. Phoenix’s Joker does not. He is traumatised, unsupported, and sad. His disability is a prop to gain sympathy for a flat character and retroactively explain a franchise worth of chaotic evil. Later it is used to justify a clumsy attempt at the ‘wait, were those scenes real?’ trope. Fleck is a victim who victimises the only people close enough to be collateral damage (his mother and neighbour) until he is given a grander stage to hurt others.
Because of this, Joker is also missing the baseline competence that makes great villains compelling. They pitch us their take on the world: that it is violent and cruel and that its creatures are the same. If this theory on nature and human nature has a nuanced world to live in, even one that often proves the villain correct, then we might care enough to watch the story test that theory further. Because Joker’s Gotham was such a caricature of itself, Fleck didn’t have to make a case. He just took a beating and then murdered people. I found this sort of naïve nihilism profound as an eighth-grade boy pretending to understand Nietzsche quotes. It’s sloppy storytelling and boring work.
Imagine a die-hard Joker stan. I picture a species of the Bernie Bro, calling out oppressive systems without much thought for most of their victims. He (let’s be real) is the main victim, and his victimhood is his power source, the All-Spark of his impulses. He may divert any critical conversation about the film to a defence of Phoenix’s performance, which couldn’t hope to save the thing anyway. Perhaps his last line of defence will be his new favourite meme:
Superhero films aren’t subtle instruments, y'all. Dark Knight didn’t have to do much to outshine Joker in its villain work. ‘I’m an agent of chaos’, ‘I’m just a dog chasing cars’, and ‘Some men just wanna watch the world burn’. These are not scalpels for the great body politic. They are chainsaws slung about in a high-budget libertarian fantasy, where the powers of both good and evil individuals win the day over feckless systems. At least they are fun sometimes. If they hold a mirror up to our obsession with privilege and sociopathy, at least they use the supernatural filter. And everything looks better in supernatural. It's in the name.
We can indulge in that fantasy without using mental heath struggles as a device for villainy. Want to make the tired ‘voices in my head’ trope interesting instead of simplistic and insulting? Try making them the voices of actual demons. Bring those demons along later in the story. They can come to represent something nuanced, plus they’re badass characters. Want us to sympathise with your villain? Take a cue from the word itself: villanus, or ‘commoner’ in Latin, where we get ‘village’ and ‘villa’. This doesn’t mean appeal to a lowest common denominator or strip the character of character. It means make their desires, motives, and flaws hit home, even if their actions and powers are strange.
Now you know how to get me riled up with tedious villains. To get me to sleep, though, just put on Captain America: Winter Soldier.