Call For Comments: Joker and Irredeemable Protagonists

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.

11 Comments and 2 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: Joker and Irredeemable Protagonists”

  1. To throw it out there, on the anime side, you’ve got characters like Light Yagami (Death Note) and Lelouch Lamperouge (Code Geass) who both were given gifts and had a cause that the reader could sympathize with (Light, wanting to fix a broken justice system and Lelouch wanting to reclaim his family’s kingdom.) But, ultimately as the stories progress it very much becomes a Breaking Bad realization of “Oh… wait. They were ALWAYS terrible people. This life changing moment just gave them the excuse they were waiting for.”

    As for why we like these stories? I assume, ultimately, if you grow up religious (and not the type that picks/chooses from their holy text what to pay attention to) then your faith has probably instilled some kind of sense of “There’s good inside everybody.” in you. So, I think that’s why we root for these characters even the irredeemable ones because we WANT that redemption story for them. We HAVE to believe there’s something good in there, SOMEWHERE. Which I guess is somewhere in between us having faith in our fellow humans and us being total suckers.

    1. So is the story “ruined” if the character is truly irredeemable? Godfather and Sopranos for instance, end with “and nothing every changes. They’re just gonna be these guys” and I said in the post that Terra basically chooses death over redemption.

    2. I don’t know if it ruins the story per say. I think it definitely leaves you with a feeling of sadness though. I think people keep returning to these characters/stories in the hopes that “this time will be different.” Which I guess sounds more like an abusive relationship… which I suppose is apt when discussing the Joker. I think we’re just committed to looking for something that isn’t there.

  2. I’d say for me personally there’s two aspects to it. The lesser idea is enjoying having insight into the mind and experiences of a character that, I hope, is so very different than myself that I would have difficulty relating were it not for the experience of viewing/ reading so many of these narratives. The larger part I feel it’s evaluating those mindsets and experiences and contemplating the merits and flaws and what I might or might not do in those circumstances. A well done character study of an irredeemable character allows us explore moral and ethical choices we would normally find alien. Do the ends justify the means for instance? Was Thanos a madman or did he have a point? There’s something to be said for wanting our heroes to be relatable, but I think it’s also interesting just to peer into the dark recesses of the mind of an entirely unrelatable character.

    On a slight tangent, just today the YouTube channel Because Science released a video evaluating whether or not the Joker is actually criminally insane. Haven’t seen it yet, but sounds interesting.

    1. So you’re arguing that there’s value in empathy even for those that we can never truly morally relate to?

      I’ve seen similar arguments on Joker… they’re common. But link me to that one when you get the chance.

    2. I think you hit the succinct right wording perfectly there. I can’t agree with the Joker, and I won’t support his views or actions, but I still find value for the sake of relating to humanity as a whole in trying to at least critically evaluate the views of the irredeemable even when you can’t truly relate. If you can comprehend the motivations of someone that alien it should help to emphasize with someone who is simply different in less reprehensible but still very dramatic ways (perhaps significant cultural differences, religious views, or of course, political views).

  3. I mean, you kind of hit the nail on the head at the beginning. They make all of those characters the “cool” guys and even if there is an opposing opinion, that character is often shown to be a total drip who’s given considerably less screen time to flesh out their point of view. They get the cool clothes, cool weapons and the world of the film is often centered around only their experience. Do you think Joker is going to go into why that woman on the bus might be afraid to let her son interact with a rando in a time where there were multiple stories coming out about people dressed as clowns were luring children to their death (I realize many were false reports but it was a major fear after Gacy)? No, no they won’t because the story isn’t about that. It’s about a sad dude who’s gettin the short end of the stick and since its a character study of this one guy, her experience isn’t relevant aside from how it impacts him. When you create media where its set up to make those other points of view irrelevant or “killing all the fun”, what do you expect the people watching it to do? (I’m not saying this is always the case but it happens quite a lot).

    1. That said, the thing is there’s also an argument that part of the “cool” is the carefree amorality. I do think a big part of it is casting, yes… Brad Pitt is cool. But we don’t have people hero worshipping his Legends of the Fall character or his Thelma and Louise character the same way as we do with Tyler Durden.

  4. So, one of the reasons that I stopped watching Agents of Shield is because one of the major characters flips to the Hydra side and I just can’t handle it being the case 🙁

    It was Grant, dammit it.

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