From Mav: As I write this, we are about two days away from one of the most highly anticipated comic book movies of all time being released, Todd Phillips’s Joker. I admit that I am very curious about it. Even though I haven’t seen it yet (though I will have by the time we record this episode), it seems clear that this “isn’t like other superhero movies.” For one, there’s apparently no superhero. It’s just Joker. This appears to be the story of one man’s descent into madness. The comparisons we’re seeing from both creators and early critical reviews is that it attempts to be more in the vein of Taxi Driver or King of Comedy than anything else. We’ve talked on the show before about the differences between high culture and low culture. If anything, to me (at least from trailers) this appears to be Phillips and Joquain Phoenix taking a stab at making a Oscarbait film and dressing it up in DC Comics IP in order to trick the filmgoing audience at large into giving enough of a damn to buy tickets.
I’m so there for that.
But then, as I have mentioned before, I like Oscarbait movies. I’m supposed to be interested in stuff like this. But one of the reasons I am especially interested in this one is that I expect that the “trickery” will work. And honestly, I think so does everyone else. There’s obvious buzz here. Tons of people are excited about this. And a lot of the think pieces are already being written. Many of them are sort of “pre-bashing” the film. People are worried about the way in which it glamorizes toxic masculinity. They’re worried about copycats… about people hero worshipping this horrible man. In 2019, as woke and progressive as we are trying to be in the face of Trumpian America, what positive thing could this film possibly have to say? And frankly, that’s kind of why I am so excited to see it. Because it looks like a character study in depravity, and I think that it would be a fascinating movie that I’d be interested in even if it didn’t have DC Comics IP vomited all over it. In fact, I know it would be… because again, we’ve made that movie before… and we called it Taxi Driver and King of Comedy… and also Godfather, Scarface, Wall Street, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, American Psycho, Fight Club, Gone Girl, Wolf of Wall Street, and everything Hitchcock did ever. Basically… a lot of movies, but also TV shows like Sopranos and Breaking Bad or even, to an extent, I’d argue, Game of Thrones. We like examining the irredeemable protagonist.
Granted, all of those movies also have their fans who think that the point of the story is to emulate the protagonist. They confuse them with heroes. This happens in other media forms too, of course. Comics have always had this problem. For instance, dating back to Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent leading to the Senate Subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency. One of Wertham’s fundamental complaints was that EC Comics weren’t morally upstanding enough for children to read, to which William Gaines testified before congress that investigating the depravity of the bad guys was sort of the point. More recently Alan Moore (not exactly the bastion of sanity or upstanding moral fiber and Judeo-Christian values) famously was freaked out by the realization that people idolized Rorschach in Watchmen.
And… to take it back to Joker, a couple years ago, when Harley Quinn and Joker stated getting uber in the zeitgeist because Suicide Squad was coming out in theaters, we started seeing a bunch of memes going around that proclaimed the couple to be “#RelationshipGoals” despite the fact that they are literally the story of a tortured woman with borderline personality disorder and abandonment issues in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with a violent and toxic sociopath. Like, that’s not reading stuff into it. That is literally their canon-love story… in pretty much all versions from the cartoon, to the comics, to the movie. There’s no interpretation necessary. That’s just the actual plot. But at the end of the day… well the Joker is cool. The Jack Nicholson version is cool, the Heath Ledger version is cool, the Mark Hamill version is cool. People WANT to like the Joker… logic be damned. I’ve even published an academic paper where I talk about the mental gymnastics even people who DON’T LIKE Batman: The Killing Joke go through to make Joker “not a rapist” simply because it feels better to think of him as not one.
Because admitting that he is would make him irredeemable. Like Terra!
Ever since we started this show I’ve wanted to take some time to talk about Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, a comic that both Wayne and I have mentioned is an absolute favorite of ours. For those unfamiliar, back in 1982, in Tara Markov, aka Terra, was introduced in Teen Titans #26. She was a gruff but spunky 15-year-old runaway tomboy with a host of trust issues, who gets taken in by the team and then over time begins dating another member of the teen, Changeling (Beast Boy to modern fans). After about about 16 issues, the writers then pull the rug out from under the readers by showing that Terra has secretly been fucking the Titans’ arch-nemesis Deathstroke the Terminator. We see her hanging out with the villain (a man old enough to be her father if not grandfather) while wearing heavy makeup and smoking a cigarette and discussing all of the Titans’ secrets with him. Comic book logic leads the reader to believe that somehow he has been brainwashing the poor girl into being his unwitting accomplice. Eventually the Titans discover she is a mole and they defeat Deathstroke only to find out that Terra wasn’t being manipulated at all. She’s not his slave or even his lackey. She’s his partner. She’s just bad. She’s evil. She always was. I mean, smoking cigarettes, sex and slutty makeup… how do you come back from that? She literally chooses to die rather than let Changeling save her. She is irredeemable and her narrative purpose is to teach Changeling and the Titans (and the reader), that some people just can’t be saved.
I still struggle with that story to this day. I’ve never taught it because it’s hard to really put a new reader in the mindset of reading it AS IT CAME OUT. This wasn’t Breaking Bad. As a reader you have no idea that you are going down this path with Terra as it starts. There’s no obvious twist. If you go back and read the issues later, you can see the evidence, but as it was coming out, the book manipulated the reader into falling in love with her only to have her stab out your heart. Even once you find out she’s working with Deathstroke, the book wants you to feel as though it is his fault. After all, she’s an underaged girl in a relationship with a much older evil man. But no… she’s just bad. There’s no saving her. And the book causes you to question “why?” Why do we feel?
And over the decades since then, DC has made repeated attempts to try and retell the story in reboots and on cartoons and hamper Terra… adding a little redemptive tissue to the character. It doesn’t work. But what I’m wondering is… why do we try? And that’s what I want to explore on this episode. Why are we drawn to irredeemable characters like Terra, Joker, Tony Montana, Catherine Tramell, Walter White, Tony Soprano, Amy Dunne, Gordon Gecko and others? Do we want them to get better? Do we enjoy exploring the psychosis of someone we know can’t? Do we somehow idolize the capacity to do evil… with or without consequences? Do we need the redemption story at all? And really… is there just something wrong with us as people?
Let us know your thoughts and if there’s any other questions we should be asking or characters we should be thinking about.