Todd Phillip’s Joker has left audiences around the world outraged, moved and confused with its rewriting of the comic book lore surrounding The Joker.

The film tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden man with an unspecified mental illness and an uncontrollable tendency to burst out laughing – whose treatment by society leads him down the path of moral nihilism and violence until he becomes the infamous Clown Prince of Crime.

It has received its share of controversy. Joker won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is receiving early Oscar Buzz and has clocked over $850 million in the worldwide box office.

It’s also been heavily criticised for being overly sympathetic to the perpetrators of mass violence. Many critics Fleck’s turn from reserved, alienated performing clown to theatrical mass murderer as analogy for the lives of a number of real-world mass shooters.

Couple this with Joker’s depiction of systemic social forces, not individual people, as the true villains of our time, and it can be argued that the film offers an apology for people who use violence – often against women and people of colour – as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with a world that hasn’t given them what they want.

The film is shot from Fleck’s perspective, and therefore casts huge doubt on what is real and what’s just happening in Fleck’s mind. Not long after watching it, I found myself trying to piece it all together. Did the climactic final act actually happen?

The genius and mischief of unreliable narrator motifs – think of Inception for example – is that we find ourselves looking for a definitive reading, but none exists. Not even the director is able to close the debate – theirs is just another interpretation.

Interestingly, the unreliable narrator question in Joker serves as a handy metaphor for broader confusion about the ethics and politics of the film. If the critical commentary and public discourse are anything to go by, the film left audiences confused not only about the reality of the story, but about its morality as well.

And here’s the central rub with Joker as a political and ethical challenge. It’s rife with ambiguity. What does it stand for? Who is the villain and who – if anybody – is the hero? Are we meant to empathise with Fleck or judge him? Should we join the masses in being furious at the uber-rich and uber-callous Thomas Wayne, or should we be concerned at the accelerating rate of violence?

Just like we don’t know for sure what was in Fleck’s mind and what really happened in the film, it’s hard to know what the film wants us to think about the events of Joker.

Warner Bros themselves tried to pre-load people’s expectations of the film by saying “make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

Despite this effort, most viewers will have arrived at the film with pre-conceived ideas, because the critical conversations around Joker have been relentless. From the first trailers released and a leaked script, people have been speculating about the political effects it would have. Some critics – even some who think the film has artistic merit – wonder if it should have been made.

There is something interesting going on here. On the one hand, we have people experiencing Joker in wildly different ways. On the other hand, we have critics – and the film developers – moulding people’s views of the film before they’ve even seen it.

Then we have the film itself, which is concerned with how easy it is for people to get swept up in movements. How quickly agency can be taken away. And how recklessly people can fight to reclaim that agency.

In Joker, Fleck is entirely without agency. He can’t control his random outbursts of laughter, he can’t make himself understood to his stand-up audiences and even as he begins to embrace his Joker identity, many of the systemic impacts of his actions aren’t through his design. When Fleck does try to seize some agency over his life, he – like the lower-class Gothamites who burn their city in violent riots – does so recklessly, callously and irresponsibly.

Zooming out to the discourse around the film, you can see life mirroring art. Audiences have been systematically deprived of the agency they need to form their own views around the film.

This happened well before the first trailer dropped. Arguably, it began with the rise of comic book movies more generally.

We live in an age where it’s easy to treat films as just another form of content. Just like we binge through streaming services and mindlessly scroll social media feed, we can let films wash over us without ever actively engaging with the material. Sure, we follow the plot and might have a view on whether we enjoyed the film or not, but that’s not the same as allowing a film (or a series, or whatever) to make us think.

The comic book movie is the embodiment of this trend. The heroes and villains are mapped out in advance. We know what will happen and we watch to find out how it will happen. Consider Avengers: Endgame. We knew Thanos would be defeated and that the heroes who had been snapped out of existence would return – after all, a bunch of them already had sequels in the calendar. There’s no moral ambiguity; just a good story.

Of course, that’s fine. The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes up for in fun what it lacks in moral complexity. But Joker is different. Despite appearing in the guise of a comic book film, it’s not a comic book movie at all. It didn’t need to be about the rise of The Joker. What that’s highlighted is how a generation raised on comic book movies have been left unprepared to engage with a film so rife with complexity.

Many are still trying to do so. Like Immanuel Kant encouraged in ‘What is Enlightment?’, they’re daring to think for themselves. Kant saw this enlightenment as liberating – a freedom from intellectual immaturity. But it might also be reckless – particularly if it ends up with people decided that Warner Bros are wrong and Fleck is the hero of the story.

But the best way to guard against this isn’t to avoid films like Joker, or to be too heavy-handed in how people interpret the film. It’s to create more space in our content consumption for things that are more than just fairy floss for our brains. To put the Iron Mans and Flashes of the world in their proper place and find some balance so that we can enjoy the fun for what it is without dulling our senses when something more complex comes along.

The Ethics Centre is presenting a panel discussion on The Ethics of Art and Violence at the MCA on 12 February. Tickets on sale now. For further information click here

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