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Joaquin Phoenix dons clown make-up in the movie “Joker”. Image: Warner Bros

“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”                                                                  African proverb

So begins Chritian Mahai’s review of the movie, “Joker.”

“Just trying to gather my thoughts and emotions about this movie makes me feel like crying.

Those who are high in social intelligence/empathy will find it hard to watch this movie. It is, contrary to what some might expect, not the origins story of a maniac supervillain who only wants to watch the world burn. Joker tells the story of a man who has to go through one of the worst fates, that of an outcast rejected by society, abandoned by those whose companionship he seeks…

Joker is not your typical comic book adaptation. It is an ode to the downtrodden, the misfits, the disturbed. It will deeply unsettle those who are comfortable in their beliefs of the world, and will challenge your perspective of good and evil, villain and hero.”

I chose to begin my annual series on the place of violence in our times with this cultural moment – this brief exploration of the banality of evil. In this light I want to review some of the wide ranging responses to the movie as the BBC Entertainment and Arts editorial reported:

“The Guardian called Joker “gloriously daring“, while Total Film said it was “challenging [and] subversive”…

According to another reviewer… the film is guilty of “aggressive and possibly irresponsible idiocy“.

Director Todd Phillips, writes Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek, “may want us to think he’s giving us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture. But really, he’s just offering a prime example of it”…

According to Time Out’s Phil De Semlyen, Joker is an “unrelenting, grimly funny and brilliantly visceral reinvention of the DC supervillain”.

Yet the film is dismissed as “pernicious garbage” by online critic Glenn Kenny, who accuses it of being self-important and “chicken-livered”.

The Wrap, meanwhile, says Joker is “comic book nihilism… wrapped up in a convincing but ultimately hollow simulacra of better, smarter movies”.

Perhaps the more trite criticism that can be laid on Joker is that it tries too hard. It tries to help us understand the back story of a villain – in the hopes we will be more sympathetic with anyone different from ourselves. That’s the contemporary narrative, isn’t it?

So what? It’s just a movie about a fictional character. It’s just another movie from the growing catalogue of films that blur the distinctions of “good” and “evil”. What’s that anymore?

These are the Days…

These are confusing days of competing messages and convoluted consciences. These are the days when evil is called good and good is called evil.

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).

In his article, “Confusing Evil with Good“, the late Billy Graham wrote:

“Humanity has always been dexterous at confusing evil with good… If evil were not made to appear good, there would be no such thing as temptation. It is in their close similarity that the danger lies.

… Someone has said: “A wrong deed is right if the majority of people declare it not to be wrong.” By this principle we can see our standards shifting from year to year according to the popular vote! [and by what] is glorified in our literature and films…

Hazen G. Werner… once said:

There is no more startling phenomenon in our day than the respectabilization of evil.

We accept in stride the false promises of politicians, the misrepresentations in advertising, the everyday dishonesties of Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, the cheating on exams, the usual exaggerations in conversation and the common immoralities of our times. We no longer blush, and we’re no longer shocked by the immorality that’s going on around about us. ‘Woe to those who call evil good!'”

This is nothing new, it’s just that these are the days when fewer people seem to exercise discernment or seem to recognize the difference between good and evil.

These are the woeful days mentioned by the prophet Isaiah who spoke them some 700 years before Christ. Woeful, because our collective consciousness seems to be losing its ability to distinguish what is good, enlightening, and sweet with what is evil, darkening, and bitter.

This is as true for politics as it is for popular culture:

A few years ago, Founder and Director of Christian Democrats of America, wrote “Calling good what is evil and evil what is good.” She pointed her words to “those religious leaders and Christians who have embraced ideology of hate and judgment and supported, even promoted, values that are completely contrary to God’s Word and called it ‘holy’.”

Partisanship notwithstanding, she makes a point we should heed. Partisan politics reduces what is good to what is entirely self-referenced – mutated into what’s best for oneself or one’s politics. To paraphrase Graham,

We can see our standards shifting from year to year according to the popular vote – and by what is glorified in popular culture.

How do YOU discern What is Good in Violent Times?