The moral panic over Joker is a depressing throwback to video nasty hysteria.
The current hysteria surrounding Joker, the latest film to emerge from the somewhat fractured Batman movie universe, is to some extent inevitable – people love to get worked up about big budget movies in a way they rarely do about much more outrageous obscure titles, and I doubt that Warner Brothers are really very upset at the additional publicity. But it’s also a despairing indictment of just where we are as a culture, where the idea of fiction being imitated in art never quite seems to go away, despite all the evidence showing that a ‘monkey see, money do’ attitude to art is nonsense. You’d think that this sort of simplistic thinking would be dying out after the bad old days of the video nasties, now widely ridiculed as the height of moral panic and mass hysteria; instead, it seems to be getting worse, as offence culture spreads and people look to assign blame – and then impose cancellation – on anything and anyone who they have decided holds the wrong opinions, explores the wrong ideas, makes the wrong sort of art.
Joker is an interesting case, as it is upsetting both the traditionally censorial, who fret over violence on screen, and the social justice lobby, who have their own problems with the film. The anti-violence and anti-gun lobbies are, at least, consistent with historical moral panics for the most part. They genuinely, if mistakenly, believe that violent films create a violent society rather than simply reflecting it, and all the evidence that they need for this belief is ‘common sense’ – the old-school version of feelings trumping facts. ‘Common sense’ says that if people watch violent films – especially films where the violent character is a sympathetic, charismatic protagonist – then they must then become violent themselves (that they also claim that watching consensual sex acts also causes violence makes less sense, but such discrepencies will be explained away as a general ‘coarsening’ of the soul). The more likely possibility – that watching on-screen violence is a cathartic experience and, if anything, allows a safe outlet for our more visceral feelings and fears, is dismissed, even though a cursory look at the evidence and the sort of people who watch violent films will bear this out. Fans of violent horror entertainment often seem to be more well-adjusted than the hand-wringing critics who see them all as spree killers in the making.
Yet the press about the film has been awash with this sort of reactionary gibberish. The Telegraph‘s film critic even managed to make Joker star Joaquin Phoenix briefly walk out of an interview by asking if he worried that it might inspire real life shut-ins – not well-adjusted people like you or I clearly, but basement dwelling Incels who voted for Trump and Brexit, no doubt. It had shades of the infamous Channel 4 News interview with Quentin Tarantino, where Krishnan Guru -Murthy clearly thought he had rattled the director with incisive questions about screen violence, whereas in fact Tarantino had simply heard it all before and was having none of it. Interviewers love to think that they have wrong-foooted irresponsible peddlers of screen violence, when in fact they’ve just made themselves look like the modern day equivalent of the the people who ran screaming from the room when footage of a train rushing towards the camera was shown. To ask the star of a film about whether or not he should feel responsibility for an imaginary act of violence that might take place as a result of the ‘wrong sort of people’ watching the film is more lunatic than anything the fictional character could possible do in the movie. Boasting that your dumb question makes your interviewee walk out does not make you look big or clever – quite the opposite.
Of course, Joker comes in the wake of a real life Batman related massacre – the 2012 mass shooting in a Colorado movie theare showing The Dark Knight Rises. But the idea that James Holmes was somehow made to carry out the shooting by the film is pretty outrageous, and the current efforts by some – but, notably, not all – of the victims’ families to attack Joker is disgraceful. This is a different, effectively unrelated film, and to somehow try to hold it responsible for the actions of a deranged maniac seven years ago is pretty disgusting frankly. Even to somehow blame The Dark Knight Rises for the shooting of people who had turned up to see it is pretty despicable. Given that none of the people who wrote a critical letter to Warner Brothers had even seen Joker, it feels like unpleasant opportunism by people with their own agendas to push. Why have they not been criticising other, non-Batman related violent films if they felt so concerned about the effect screen violence has?
The Colorado massacre was more to do with mental health (and possibly access to guns) than anything someone may or may not have seen on the screen, and mental health is the other point of outrage in Joker. The social justice community are predictably outraged that the film implies that the Joker is mentally ill – to be fair, a component of the character for a long time now – and that this will impact on how we see those who suffer with mental health problems. This opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms.
Horror films – and for the sake of argument, let’s see Joker as a horror film for a moment – have a long history with madness. Entire strains of the genre are based on the idea of the insane killer. Joker is just the lastest in a long line of such films, and to be fair, they have always had their critics – Pete Walker’s Schizo caused outrage in the mid-Seventies with the insensitive “schizophrenia: when the left hand doesn’t know who the right hand is killing” ad campaign, and there have always been those who find the ‘psycho’ bit of the psycho killer to be highly offensive. But these films are not documentaries about mental health – they are entertainments that play on our most primal fear, and like it or not, one of those primal fears is that of the unbalanced mind and the unbalanced killer. Horror is a genre that plays on taboos – it thrives on showing the unshowable, speaking the unspeakable. Woke horror is anathema – this is a genre that needs to push the envelope and challenge social convention.
The social convention today is that we treat those with mental health issues with sympathy and understanding. That we do so is a good thing and we should be proud that we’ve moved forward as a society. We’ve done that, apparently, despite the best efforts of slasher movies and their mentally unbalanced monsters – some might say that this proves how little those movies actually change public perceptions. Against all odds, it could be that people just look at films as entertainment rather than instruction manuals.
Horror films need to explore the darker side of humanity, and they can’t be hampered by political correctness or concerns about who you might offend. In truth, a lot of horror films have explored ideas of untreated mental breakdown and how society fails the mentally ill in surprisingly sympathetic ways – there are countless genre movies where the ‘psycho killer’ is actually as much victim, and much more sympathetic, than anyone else in the film. You can explore a lot of ideas in the context of a horror film if you wish to, but if pressure groups are condemning you before they have even seen your work, then it’s less likely to happen. And ultimately, the horror film exists to unsettle and disturb – it can’t do that if filmmakers are constantly fretting about who they might upset. Horror films should upset you. They should challenge social niceties. To suggest cancelling individual films or even an entire sub-genre because they focus on the dark side of mental health (a dark side that certainly does exist, let us not forget) is frankly ludicrous and reactionary.