“Joker” is a film of our time, but not the film we need

Summary: Joker is a film of our time. But it is an entertaining horror film feeding our fears (like drinking while depressed), not the inspirational film we need to defeat our fears. We have what we need on our shelves, waiting for us to use them.

The Joker

The Batman stories evoke our fears for the future. Gotham City looms as a likely future for the America we are building, a high-tech society that abandoned its roots in Western values – and so lost most of its social cohesion. All that remains are greed and power. The rich read Ayn Rand and feel superior while devoting themselves to conspicuous spending and collecting art. Our government devotes itself to gathering power over all things great and small, foreign and domestic. Inequality reaches Latin American levels that destroy the government’s legitimacy. The underclass grows, becoming wilder. The shrinking middle class suffers impotently between those above and below.

In a world where science killed God and Nietzsche destroyed the Enlightenment’s lessons, we live in darkness above a void. Rational analysis no longer illuminates our lives. This is the story of the new film, Joker, about our existential fears given human form.

Now for the bad news: many Americans find the burdens of self-government too great to bear. Our new national motto seems to be “It’s not my fault.” It should replace E Pluribus Unum on the dollar bill. This is the ethos of a nation in decline. It is why so many people fear for America’s future.

When a people’s conceits and delusions burn away, we fall back on our core beliefs: belief in freedom, free markets, human rights, and a republican form of government. But this aspect of America is an intellectual project. It has a strong hold on our minds but not on our hearts. That is not enough to break us out of our current decline. America is like a jet aircraft with sputtering engines, pilots bickering, and passengers panicking. Neither self-interest or love of our nation provides sufficient strength in such a crisis.

All we have left are myths. Unfortunately, our modern myths reflect the spiritual weakness that is one cause of our crisis. For example, see the stories of super-heroes that fill our theaters and TVs. Most of them tell about people who find a magic dingus and become great, or have powers bestowed on them by some Great MacGuffin. Heroes like Harry Potter, Shazzam, Spiderman, etc. James Bowman calls these Hollywood’s “slacker heroes.”

In Xxx, for instance, the charm of the scenario lies in the idea that lazy, undisciplined slackers like, well, moi, can wander in off the street and instantly outperform the highly trained secret agents that were the role models of yesteryear (or a) similar imposture: that enough of the right technology can render skill and discipline unnecessary. … Discipline, practice, sobriety, hard work, training, all of this counts for nothing. I could do that all that stuff – being the kind of “street-smart” character that I am.”

These are entertainment, but not the kind that inspires or provides any guidance for our lives. It is not culture in its original meaning. Allan Boom explains this in his great work, Closing of the American Mind.

“{Culture is} everything that uplifts and edifies a people, as opposed to commerce. It constitutes a people, binding individuals into a group with roots, a community in which they think and become a moral unity – of which the arts are an expression. It is the peak expression of man’s creativity, our ability to break out of nature’s narrow bonds, and hence out of the degrading interpretation of man in modern natural and political science. It is profounder than the modern state, which deals only with man’s bodily needs and tends to degenerate into mere economy.”

The Batsignal Over Gotham's skyline.
From the Batman Returns video game.

American culture has myths that better match our past and can lead us to a greater future. We have myths that provide stronger food for our spirit and imagination. Here are two. You can list many more.

As a young boy, Bruce Wayne watched the murder of his parents. He resolved to prevent other children from suffering as he did, and spent years studying and training to become Batman. The story of a man voluntarily devoting his life to healing our broken society – even by the most arduous and dangerous public service – has great appeal. It’s consistent with the admiration of Americans for the US military, who are despite their many failings the most trusted of our institutions.

James T. Kirk studied for years before entering Star Fleet Academy, preparing himself to become a great Starship Captain. As an instructor at the Academy, his students saw him as “a stack of books with legs.” He was familiar with both ancient philosophy (Spinoza, as mentioned in the TV episode “Where No Man has Gone Before”) and all the major battles of history (described in The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Ecklar – the best of the Star Trek books).

There are other myths out there that can help, some from other lands. For example, we have a generation growing up many of whom saw the Fullmetal Alchemist TV shows and films (see Wikipedia), whose tagline (slightly paraphrased) is the kind of insight on which great nations can be built.

“Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To gain anything, something of equal value must be given. That is life’s First Law of Equivalent Exchange, and applies to things tangible and intangible – matter, energy, and spirit.”

These are just stories, but they represent a part of us to which we can look for inspiration in the dark times ahead.

“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. …Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s wonderful Arabian Nights.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  See all posts about heroes, about reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

  1. The philosophy behind the legend of Batman.
  2. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
  3. We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
  4. We need better heroes. They are there, in our past.
  5. Inspiration. The missing element that can reform America.
  6. “The Big Sleep”: a milestone in the death of heroism.
  7. Where we can find the inspiration to fix America?
  8. Let’s make 2019 great by seeking leaders instead of heroes.
  9. The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Available at Amazon.

The big book about superheroes

The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

By Joseph Campbell (1949).

This is the book that sparked serious research in to the function and significance of myths. See Wikipedia. From the publisher.

“Since its release in 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces has influenced millions of readers by combining the insights of modern psychology with Joseph Campbell’s revolutionary understanding of comparative mythology. In these pages, Campbell outlines the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions. He also explores the Cosmogonic Cycle, the mythic pattern of world creation and destruction.

As relevant today as when it was first published, The Hero with a Thousand Faces continues to find new audiences.”


4 thoughts on ““Joker” is a film of our time, but not the film we need”

  1. I haven’t seen the Joker film, nor do I plan to. Too many movies and books and libraries and games and everything else out there, you have to pick and choose these days, or at least I do.

    But let me know if the following sounds familiar.

    “It’s all a cosmic JOKE, Batman! Don’t you get it?! Nothing matters! You’re fighting for helpless,greedy, parasitic WORMS who cry out you to save them, like children. We’re not so different you and I. But Batman… you complete me.”

    Did the laughing psychopath happen to say anything like that? It seems to be the script for the last couple of decades. I’m not a comic fan at all but I’ve enjoyed the various movies and animated series over the years. They’re good entertainment, as you’ve described elsewhere, something along the lines of “Good for switching your brain off marveling at the spectacle and having a good time with the kids”.

    My father said once: “a people’s stories are a window into their soul”

    What, then, do these stories tell about our souls? Nothing good, I’m sure we agree. About 10, 15 years ago the concept of “joker as a force of nature who cannot be permanently stopped” was edgy and novel. Now it just makes me want to sneer. “Kill me and we’ll be the same! heheheh” may sound impressive to a teenager, but soldiers cops and executioners take lives, and, usually, they are not considered the moral equivalent of a nihilistic psychopath.Now every time I hear about the joker I want to roll my eyes and yell at the screen: “Just grab a gun and SHOOT the bastard! Do penance for it later.” I think the justice system would be better off if we hanged a few molesters or murderers from time to time. Or some other form of slow execution, I wouldn’t be picky. But that’s getting off topic.

    My point is, Jesus Himself may have told His disciples to love your enemy and turn the other cheek, but until He returns the meek shall not inherit the earth. It’ll be those who stand up for them and theirs, and keep the power necessary to do so, whether that power be with muscles, a gang, an army, or political votes. But none, NONE of our current crop of movies and books have this message. Power is a Bad Thing. White Men are always the damn villains. All the heroes are women, children, or unmasculine men who have their god-like powers given to them by an outside force… rather like how almost everything today is managed by an impossibly strong, distant government that reduces everyone to individual atoms before it…

    I could go on. This ain’t the america I was raised to believe in.

    1. The American Muse,

      Nicely said.

      Perhaps the worst effect of the Joker on modern films is that the success of the mad villain has removed the need to provide motivations. He’s mad! It’s corrupted the already low level of story-telling skill in Hollywood. Now films are acting plus CGI, gibberish in motion.

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