“Joker” Review: Moral Relativism Makes for Bad Stories

The short version of this review goes like this: There was very little “move” for such a long mov-ie… and there was no Joker.

Spoilers ahead.

Very little happened in this movie. Unsurprisingly, Arthur Fleck killed some people. He talked to some people. He danced around in his underwear in slow-mo and even wore a cool and stylish Joker outfit at one point. But the movie began with a mentally disturbed man who seems likely to turn to crime, and at the end there’s a mentally disturbed man who has turned to crime. However, there’s never “the Joker.” There’s never a mentally disturbed, criminal mastermind who will make a pun and laugh convivially one minute, and blow a guy’s brains out a half-second later. The mentally disturbed man, Arthur Fleck simply became a mentally disturbed serial killer… he did not become the Joker. The character developed from one to one and a half, instead of one to Whoa? Did he just kick a guy into a vat of acid? They were just talking casually!

What makes this fact so frustrating is that he was so close to becoming the Joker. There are two scenes in particular where you get a flash of how Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix could have given us the greatest iteration of the Joker ever. When Arthur kills the guy in his apartment with the scissors, AND THEN he lets the other guy go, you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, that was really Joker-esque. The transformation is nearly complete. It’s taken a while. It was a slow build, but we’re here.” You think you have confirmation of that thought, as a few seconds later, he’s dancing down the steps in full Joker regalia, with spectacularly Joker-y mannerisms, and you’re about to stand up and applaud that the Joker, the villain we all love to hate, the guy who truly is insane and wickedly smart and cynical in the process, the clown prince of crime, has finally arrived, and now- What? The cops are here? Back to being a random mentally disturbed man caught up in out-of-control circumstances.

Even in the final reveal, the moment where he is introduced to the viewing public as “the Joker,” there was a notable lack of that… fear which accompanies the Joker. The climax of the film takes place when Arthur Fleck has been introduced as the Joker on the equivalent of the Johnny Carson show (in 70’s-80’s Gotham at least) and Arthur gives a 5 minute monologue about how he killed those people on that subway. It comes to a head when he screams, “Do you know what you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f***ing deserve!” At which point he blows Robert DeNiro’s brains out on live television. The problem is, you’re totally, completely, 100% expecting it.

And this is the real point. The real reason the movie was a let-down. It left you yawning and shrugging instead of terrified at the depths of human depravity. Yes, Phoenix contorted his body and altered his speech pattern in captivating ways. Yes, the cinematography was long and lingering and legitimately beautiful in places. Yes, both of those components are probably oscar-worthy. But there were absolutely zero compelling character qualities that actually gave you a chill or startled you out of your emotional stupor.

It really was the perfect encapsulation of what the morally relative nihilistic worldview produces: nothing. The film-makers clearly think you’re supposed to be feeling some sort of depression or worry by the end of the film, but you just don’t. Maybe you’re supposed to be left hoping that good may prevail, but you can’t. There’s not even a supremely depressing message of “evil will win in the end,” because the relativist’s goal is to show that evil isn’t really evil. It’s all relative. And that was the message, whether intended or not, of this story. Sure the Joker brutally murdered some people, but it was society’s fault! He couldn’t help but pull those triggers, because HE was triggered. It’s really Thomas Wayne’s fault, or his mother’s fault, or the-girl-down-the-hall-who-ignored-him’s fault. But it’s definitely not his fault. He’s just a mentally ill loner who got crossed with a society who abandoned him and treated him like trash, so his actions are completely and totally reasonable. No evil to see here.

That’s just not true. The thing that makes Joker a compelling character is that he is evil. Truly evil. And he chooses to be so. The depravity of which humans are capable is supposed to be on full display in Joker, a foil for the virtue on display in Batman. It is the image of God, and the image of sin. The two characters together show the range of the moral status of man. This is why we love these characters. This is why we want to see these characters. We see ourselves in both, and we pray to God to save us from our inner Joker.

But in Todd Philips’s world, we need not pray to anyone for salvation from our inner Joker. Instead our inner Joker is our salvation. Or he’s not. Or… whatever. He’s just a guy. You’re just dust. Get on with your death.

To sum it all up, moral relativism makes for bad stories. It makes for bad stories because stories are meant to convey what’s true… and moral relativism isn’t.

To learn how to watch a movie the Christian way, you should check out the Homegroup stand-alone lesson “How to Watch a Movie.”