On Joker and raising boys

I saw Joker on Canadian Thanksgiving. First the whole family went for a walk in Colonel Danforth park and along the lake, and then we ended up hungry enough to stop at Swiss Chalet (we did our Thanksgiving meal on Sunday, as I usually do for long-weekend holidays as it gives me a day to laze around afterwards.)


During the meal, Noah said that he was interested in seeing Joker. I’d been of two minds about it. I am still really angry about the Toronto Van Attack, not just the horrific fact of it but also that the perpetrator was not accused of a hate crime. I know that it’s probably not necessary to put him away appropriately, but I feel like attacks designed to take out as many women as possible should by definition be hate crimes. And I thought that this movie would probably reignite that anger. I was worried about its portrayal of mental illness (I still am) and the legacy of abuse (ditto.)

When the 1989 Batman came out, I, err, liked it. Actually I decorated my entire dorm room in a Batman theme, painted a mural of Gotham city in the stairwell, and memorized a lot of the script. The reason wasn’t just my glorious geekdom, although that was a big part of it. But it was the urban grittiness of it — a grittiness that now, decades later, looks like 80s glitz nonsense. But at the time, contrasted to something like the Christopher Reeve Superman, it was. It felt true. Yes, like so many things, it’s problematic now but at the time…it really spoke to me. I’ve seen most of the franchise and reboots since, and The Dark Knight stands out, but it hasn’t really continued as the superhero epic of my dreams.

Still, I wasn’t sure I was ready to confront what seemed from some of the reviews to be an incel-friendly version of Gotham.

But, I have kids, sons, one of whom is a teenager, and when he said he really wanted to see it, I decided that it would be wise to see it together. So off we went right away, because the next few weeks are madness here at the Gruden household.

I came away profoundly sad. Not for Arthur Fleck per se, although that too, but for the world.

I think it’s very well done, particularly some of the writing and the way that it’s shot. Like most people, I thought Joaquim Phoenix’s performance was amazing in its physicality and in his ability to convey a kind of alien use of the human body — when putting on his shoes stands out — that will stay in my mind for a long time. And it did allow a lot of ambiguity in so many ways. It definitely did not come across to me as justification. It asked for empathy, but not sympathy.

But it’s a film that’s possible because…that world is. I thought seeing it together might be another way for Noah and I to talk about what it is to be men and women in society right now, about a society where our respect for the dignity of people requires that we behave in certain ways – listening, accepting different viewpoints, respecting boundaries, paying taxes and supporting services for those in need. And of course, we could still have that conversation.

But in the moment, instead, I felt a world-sadness. What if this is the world we’re building? There were so many flashes of things that are all too real that it’s hard to do anything but try to keep your head above water in the pain of it. And that feeling, while I think it was an artistically aligned one, that the film worked because it did leave that ambiguity, is one that I find I am still breathing through. It’s all well and good to open your heart to the suffering of man, but then what? There’s almost nothing to say after that.

You don’t worry about telling your kids to watch out for Thanos, but the Joker…

I don’t think it touched Noah as deeply. He took the film on its face value, an origin story about Gotham City, an imaginary place, and one of its supervillains. And that in itself gives me hope. Maybe as long as our children know the world is better than that, it will be. Getting back to work yesterday and looking at my young staff and our students, there is so much good there.

And yet, this same weekend, signs went up in my neighbourhood for the Canadian Nationalist Party, a party that promotes “eurocentric” values, is anti-LGBTQQ+, and is running three candidates across Canada, one of them in my riding. That made me angry too, in a strange political-meets-not-in-my-backyard way. I believe in the democratic process. I also wanted to deface the signs. These things are not compatible.

As it turns out, after a couple of days they were gone; I assume because they didn’t meet the municipal bylaws, but also reported to the city by people who wanted them down. These tools — bylaws, laws, elections, social supports, therapy — seem so vulnerable these days. It’s hard to trust them to keep us from a world full of Jokers.