Summary: Joker’s opening weekend shattered the record for an October release (despite its R rating), and brought in an incredible $234 million worldwide. Films do not hit those numbers by skill alone. The film must speak to us and our deep concerns.
We live in a time when the forces of chaos again threaten to break loose. Violence breaks out around the world in the name of the Hindu and Muslim gods. Our once poor but culturally rich inner cities – such as New York and New Orleans – have rotted into ghettos, almost ungoverned zones with cultures alien to the rest of America.
Under stress people often turn to fantasy, not just for encouragement but also to help process these events. Many such stories tell of transcendental saviors (an alien Jesus) or regular people given magic powers to right wrongs. The Batman saga is different. Bruce Wayne has everything – intelligence, looks, wealth – but gives up a life of ease. Instead honing his physical and mental skills to the very limits in order to personally and painfully wage war on the forces of disorder that have engulfed his city. His greatest opponent epitomizes the forces of disorder: the Joker.
Why does this story have such appeal both to adults and children? It gives form to our fears about the weak foundations of our society, as it totters against threats both foreign and domestic. Allan Bloom helps us to better understand this in his Closing of the American Mind, from which this material is taken. Some of this summarizes what he says; some is a close paraphrase of his words.
The foundations of society have been burned away
Rousseau and Nietzsche destroyed the intellectual basis of the Enlightenment, and the West’s self-confidence in itself. Replacing that in the minds of the intelligentsia is contempt for the bourgeoisie – that is, the self-satisfied, morally blind, materialist middle class – and beneath that fears that our values (their Christian roots discredited) have no foundation. It leaves few grounds for hope.
So we live in darkness on top of a void, no longer illuminated by rational analysis. The rise of the bourgeoisie results in a spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul, which weakens us in face of the unlimited choices made possible by the death of God in our souls – and the disappearance of His rules. It leaves only a weak basis for any rules.
That is the basis of Max Weber‘s science (i.e., modern philosophy), which was at best a doubtful dare against the chaos of things, with values certainly beyond its limits. That is what the precarious, or imaginary, distinction between facts and values means. Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy. Weber found it impossible to prefer rational politics to the politics of irrational commitment; he believed that reason and science were just value commitments, and so incapable of asserting their own goodness.
Weber believed that politics required a dangerous and inherently uncontrollable semi-religious value positing. Our era is the struggle for the emergence of new values, with unpredictable or unknowable results. Everything is up in the air, and we have no theodicy to sustain us. He, along with others who understood Nietzsche’s insights, saw that everything we care about was at stake, and we lacked the intellectual and moral resources to govern the outcome. We require values, which in turn require a creativity that is drying up and has no cosmic support. Scientific analysis reveals reason to be powerless, and dissolves the protective horizon within which men can value.
Artists project our fears onto stage and screen
This struggle emerged in the fires of WWI, and then in its result: Weimar Germany. The West’s cultural wars are louder echos of the forces unleashed then. This is best known in the descendants of Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autographic Goodbye to Berlin (1939), such as the play and film Cabaret. But a more powerful example is a monument of Wiemer Republic culture, The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. It became known to America by the smiling face of Louis Armstong (later Bobbie Darin and Frank Sinatra) singing “Mack the Knife.”
Few today remember the story that is the context for the song. Even less well-known is its origin in an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) entitled “On the Pale Criminal.” It tells the story of an insane murderer, eerily resembling Rodion Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) – a man who does not and cannot know that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other: he lusts after “the joy of the knife.”
This is the philosophy of the Joker. Few will understand it, for it lies beyond the vision of the bourgeoisie. That is why the tide of madness will continue to rise, and efforts to stop it will prove futile. Our stars are singing a song they do not understand, bringing America into a world where anything is possible for people who sing about the joy of the knife in cabarets. And who find villains such as the Joker more exciting than heroes who protect us from them.
“He now saw himself always as doer of a single deed. Madness I call this: the exception now became for him the essence. …The line he followed bewitched his meagre reason. Madness after the deed I call this. Hear me, you judges! There is yet another kind of madness: and this is before the deed. You have not crawled deep enough into this soul!
“Thus speaks the scarlet judge: ‘But why did this criminal murder? He wanted to rob.’ But I say to you all: his soul wanted blood, not loot; he was thirsting for the joy of the knife! But his meagre reason was unable to grasp this madness and it won him over. ‘What is the point of blood!’ it said; ‘Do you not at least want to steal something too? Or to take revenge?’ And he listened to his meagre reason: like lead did its speech lie upon him – and so he robbed when he murdered. He wanted not to be ashamed of his madness. And now again the lead of his guilt lies upon him, and again his meagre reason is so stiff, so lamed, so heavy.
“If only he could shake his head, his burden would roll off: but who can shake this head? What is this man? A heap of sicknesses that reach out through the spirit into the world: there they want to catch their prey.
“What is this man? A ball of wild snakes that are seldom at peace with each other – so they go forth singly and seek prey in the world. Behold this poor body! What it suffered and desired, this poor soul interpreted for itself – and interpreted it as murderous pleasure and greed for the joy of the knife. Whoever now becomes sick is overcome by the evil that is evil now: he wants to hurt with that which hurts him. But there have been other times and another evil and good.
“Once doubting was evil and the will to self. At that time the sick became heretics and witches: as heretics and witches they suffered and wanted to inflict suffering. But this will not enter your ears: it would harm your good men, you tell me. But what do your good men matter to me! Much about your good men disgusts me, and verily it is not their evil. How I wish they had a madness through which they might perish, just like this pale criminal! Verily, I wish their madness were called truth or loyalty or justice: but they have their virtue in order to live long, and in wretched contentment. I am a railing by the torrent: grasp me, whosoever can! Your crutch, however, I am not.
“Thus spoke Zarathustra.”
For More Information
- Our choice of heroes reveals much about America.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
- “Justice League” is the film we need, not the one we deserve – Esp. see the role of Batman.
- We need better heroes. They are there, in our past.
- Inspiration. The missing element that can reform America.
- Where we can find the inspiration to fix America?
- Let’s make 2019 great by seeking leaders instead of heroes.
- The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure.
- “Joker” is a film of our time, but not the film we need.
The big book about superheroes
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.”