I saw Joker this week. It’s a movie that’s exceptionally well crafted, and also a movie that’s profoundly disturbed and ill-equipped to handle its subject matter to the point where it enters into the realm of very bad taste. This movie is one that kinda really hates women and also merrily parrots the idea that mentally ill loners are the cause of mass shootings but ultimately doesn’t have anything to say about anything, left me feeling really icky as I left the cinema.
So maybe let’s talk about something else I also did this week that I did really like: putting together a LEGO set while listening to music and drinking a beer. The set, Emmet’s Dream House/Rescue Rocket, is based on The LEGO Movie 2, and is, um, exactly what it sounds like. I built the Dream House (you can choose which one!) because it’s absolutely adorable. Though it ultimately plays a minor role in the film, Emmet’s Dream House is actually pretty dang important to his arc in the film.
The LEGO Movie 2 exchanges Bricksburg of the first movie for Apocalypseburg, a world where everything is dark, bleak, and edgy. Except for Emmet. He builds a house on the edge of town for him and Lucy. This house, by the by, is not dissimilar to a house they crashed through shortly after they first met in the prior movie. Which is a very cute touch because, hey, history. Now Lucy hasn’t got any time for domestic tranquility, because this is not what their life is about (it’s dark and broody!), and so dismisses Emmet out of hand.
When Lucy, Batman, Benny, and several other characters get captured by General Mayhem, it’s up to Emmet to go after them. But he needs a ship. So, using his Master Builder skills, he takes apart his dream house and rebuilds it into a rocket (a rescue rocket) to go save his friends. He’s quite explicitly dismantling his dreams in favor of doing the right thing, since, well, they’re worth it. In space, however, he runs into trouble and is saved by the enigmatic, badass Rex Dangervest. Unlike Emmet, Rex is a Master Breaker — a skill he demonstrates by destroying Emmet’s Rescue Rocket.
Rex is undeniably cool: he’s edgy, he has pet raptors, he’s wise to the world and everything Emmet is not. Emmet wants to be him because, hey, that’s what the world of Apocalypseburg needs now, right? It’s 2019; heroes are anti-heroes, it’s a crappy place, and there’s no space for the happy-go-lucky Emmet. Building stuff’s not cool; breaking stuff is.
Joker is a weird movie in that its protagonist’s fate is to become an iconic villain, not terribly unlike Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. But once Revenge of The Sith sees Anakin’s (poorly executed) arc reach his fall, the movie neither lionizes him nor wants us to sympathize with him. We’re not cheering him on as he massacres children in the Jedi Temple or slaughters the Separatist leadership, we’re supposed to mourn his fall from grace. Joker, however, has Arthur cross a line quite early on and asks us to stay on board with him even as he (and the film) goes more off the rails.
Using a vague, unnamed mental illness to ask for the audience’s sympathy, the movie almost wants to bill itself as The Portrait of the Mass-Murderer As a Young Man, though with no point to its depravity other than “look what society made him do.” Joker’s murders are portrayed as him lashing out from his patheticness, a hurting man gaining the semblance of control. It sparks a movement of sorts, with others taking up the cause of a killer clown who puts the wealthy in their place. But here too the movie is muddled. There are only two camps the movie will let you, the viewer, fall into: either you are part of the system that tramples downtrodden people like Arthur, or you are a member of the downtrodden for whom Joker is your martyrial icon. The latter isn’t an extrapolation; the film’s finale sees Joker’s unconscious body carried by rioters like a perverse Pietá, and the unruly masses watch him in vigil.
The Joker is a fantastic villain. Mark Hamill’s portrayal of him in the Batman cartoons and Arkham Asylum video games offer a twisted, psychopathic maniac with outlandish plots to steal and destroy. The Dark Knight positioned the Joker as chaos personified, a Hobbesian foil to Batman’s belief in justice and order. That film, with its psyche split into the Freudian trio of Batman, Joker, and Harvey Dent, explored the idea of heroism and villainy, and whether goodness can stand in the face of men who just want to watch the world burn. Joker, conversely, has no such ideas, instead choosing to echo the manifestos of white terrorists I see on the news and play it off as some profound observation about life.
Forgive me, then, if I don’t enjoy a nihilistic film that hasn’t much more to say about nihilism than how it means nothing. Forgive me if I’d rather not watch a film that lionizes the lone gunman and reiterates that mental-illness is what causes mass shootings (it’s not). Forgive me if I’m sickened by a film that climaxes in a self-described mentally ill loner in clown makeup shooting in a theatre of people, barely seven years since a man in clown makeup shot up a theater in real life.
It turns out, in The LEGO Movie 2, that Rex is really an Emmet from the future, who grew disillusioned and believes that the only way to deal with anything is by being gruff and edgy, that there is no space for childish things. But Emmet realizes that, no, his hope and joy is valuable even in a terrible world. Dark grittiness only gets you so far, and expecting everything to be antagonistic and malicious only fosters more of the same. Taking stuff apart is cool and all, but where’s its worth without building something too? Amid an apocalyptic wasteland, it is worth building a bright yellow dream house for you and your loved ones.
This isn’t to say that isolating yourself from reality is the right course of action, far from it. The world’s terrible enough as it is, and though there are times when it’s worth it to engage with it thoughtfully. Emmet, and the other characters in The Lego Movie 2, come to realize that everything’s not awesome, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless, turns out it’s still worth it to try and make things better, you can still choose joy. I do like a bleak and twisted story (Roald Dahl’s “Genesis and Catastrophe” comes to mind, alongside Taxi Driver and Spec Ops: The Line), but I like them to have a point to it all. Darkness can be used to highlight society’s ills and our own relation to them, but grimdark bleakness for its own sake is, ultimately, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.