Earlier this month, Todd Phillips' Joker enjoyed a tremendous night at the 92nd Academy Awards, picking up a whole host of Oscars including Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix's virtuoso portrayal of Arthur Fleck. However, the road did not begin as sweetly for the movie; even before it ever hit theatres, criticism was flooding in regarding the violent nature of the content and how it may impact viewers.
Straightaway, it goes without saying that some movies and shows make it extremely clear what message they are trying to send, with subsequent confirmation from directors or other relevant figures. It is also sad to note that many times those messages are rather regrettable, *cough* Kabir Singh. However, we still live in a world where thankfully, the majority of entertainment content available to us remains unbiased with regards to their social narrative.
Going back to the first example, the initial reception may seem incredibly strange given the Clown Prince of Crime is generally seen as one of the most violent characters in all of pop culture. But Joker is certainly not the first film, TV show, song or any kind of art form to be called into question for the supposed message propagated by it. This leads me to ask, is it really an obligation for movies and other forms of entertainment to explicitly tow a line of morality when it comes to the expression of its characters? Is it a movie's job to repeatedly tell you which of its people are bad and why?
Let's start by looking at a movie from the perspective of a general viewer. When you go to a theatre or start streaming something on Netflix, the idea is to experience a story that is larger than life and that leaves you on the edge of your seat. And of course, in order for that to happen, said story must be centred around interesting characters and their developments. But does interesting storytelling and intriguing characters mean they have to be good people, or that the narrative has to clearly establish who is good and why? After all, the beauty of art is often in its subjectivity. You want to be able to debate the decisions made by a character, and see how your opinion of them stacks up against those of others. Good art can never have only one way of looking at it.
And on the subject of good art, or more specifically good movies and shows, most critics and experts agree that the best stories are the ones that do not constantly underline and reiterate the meaning behind what we are seeing. "Don't bash your audience over the head with it", as it is often said. Subtlety is arguably the most important of all storytelling elements, which allows plots to be deeply layered and nuanced. Hence, creative freedom and excellence often necessitate the disguising of meanings, allowing the viewer to decide what they find to be good and what or who they find to be bad. At the end of the day, art is a representation of the world, the whole world, which of course includes people and emotions from all parts of the morality spectrum.
Thus, whenever an individual consumes an entertainment product, they have their own part to play in this particular seller-consumer dynamic. The seller will create their art and present it to the consumer. The consumer must then decide on what it really means. And the question of whether or not people are able to interpret the meanings correctly and in a non-damaging way, is basically a question of whether or not people have an understanding and acceptance of what is ethically correct and what isn't.
So whether it be the Joker instigating anarchy or Ki-woo conning his way into exploiting a wealthy family, the underlying negative emotions and motives are presented as they are, for the purpose of telling the story of their characters. It is this tapestry of dark desires that made these movies such a gripping viewing experience. Similarly, even with story lines such as Clarice Starling putting everything on the line to pursue Hannibal Lecter, or Tony Stark sacrificing himself to save the universe, it is still up to the viewer to decide how much they agree with their actions and how they think the characters could have achieved their goals in a different way better suited for everyone.
Art is meant to depict life in ways that we could not have thought of otherwise, but what it means and the message it sends, is also up to the audience.
Saam Hasan is a pop culture writer for whatculture.com.