Joker, Uncharted and Indiana Jones | Be careful who your heroes are

Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Nathan Drake in Uncharted. Why do we love our screen heroes when they do such awful things?

Joker

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Nathan Drake in Uncharted. Why do we love our screen heroes when they do such awful things?


Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Humans can be a bloodthirsty bunch. Take 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example. The classic Spielberg action flick features a scene where Indiana Jones faces off against a fearsome Arab swordsman. When challenged, Jones, who is somewhat preoccupied with preventing the Nazis from achieving world domination, elects to nonchalantly shoot his opponent so he can get on with more important stuff.

The sight of Indy casually gunning down the scimitar-wielding villain is an iconic movie moment, played mainly for laughs and cheers. Sure, you could argue that bringing a gun to a blade fight is more than a tad unsporting, perhaps even dishonourable. But Jones doesn’t care. After all, as posits the film, the ends justify the means here: the fate of the world is in the balance, so Indy does what he must to save it.

Of course, the Indiana Jones movies celebrate that 1930s pulpy adventure serial feel too: the violence has a comic strip kind of inevitability about it. Much like mainstream video game storytelling, bloodshed and broken bones are usually the only way anything gets done in an Indiana Jones film.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

In films at least, that makes it okay for us to cheer for our hero as they kill without remorse. Although there’s a shared DNA of violence that connects action movies and video games, the cheering tends to be tutted at with the latter. Whilst nobody has ever accused Indiana Jones of being a serial killer, his closest videogame counterparts, Nathan Drake and Lara Croft have not escaped examination in this regard. Drake, the lovable scoundrel whom players guide throughout the popular Uncharted series of video games is like Indiana Jones in many respects: a charismatic and good-natured adventurer whose indomitable spirit allows him to scrap his way out of seemingly-impossible situations.

Likewise, Croft, the intrepid protagonist of the Tomb Raider games, takes more than a few cues from the Dr Jones playbook: robbing tombs to prevent powerful ancient artefacts from falling into the wrong hands, death-defying leaps and dealing with bad guys present just another day at the office for the English archaeologist.

So why does Indiana Jones, one of the most celebrated cinema characters of all time, get a pass when his identikit counterparts don’t? The internet is full of articles questioning whether Drake and Croft can be considered as serial killers, whereas Jones is hailed as an icon. It isn’t even like Indy just gets a pass for being one of the most celebrated movie heroes of all time: the character has faced criticism for insensitive cultural depictions in 1984’s Temple of Doom, as well as for celebrating an outmoded colonialist ideology, not to mention that unfortunate episode with the fridge. For some reason with Dr Jones, it’s specifically the violence that nobody seems to mind, whereas Drake and Croft, videogame characters modelled after their cinematic predecessor, are accused of the type of monstrous acts of mass bloodletting that in real life would get you a summons from The Hague.

SEE MORE: The lost art of the action-adventure movie

So why the double standards? Is it all to do with the mechanics of action-oriented video games? Typically, games task players with killing foes by the hundreds. Compare this to Indy’s handful of kills in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (the Ark of the Covenant itself is responsible for more deaths in the movie, which is maybe why it got top billing over Jones) and you can begin to see the distinction become clear.

Plus, the nature of those deaths is pretty telling too. If Indiana Jones is battling with two swordsmen in true derring-do fashion, and one enemy accidentally impales the other, can Jones really be said to be the killer? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many arch one-liners you deploy as Lara Croft: when the game’s developers allow you to burst out of swamps and shank unsuspecting henchmen in the neck, it’s hard to make the argument that a character still occupies the moral high ground. (Unless of course, you’re doing it to Nazis, something the Indiana Jones movies figured out early on: when it comes to Nazis, anything goes).

Uncharted

Uncharted

As the developer of the Uncharted and The Last of Us sagas, both of which are critically-lauded, Naughty Dog, prides itself on the quality of its narratives, and as such, felt compelled to respond to chatter that there is an unsettling disconnect between the tone of Uncharted’s narrative and its gameplay. Upon the release of Uncharted 4, the game’s director Neil Druckmann rejected the notion that Drake’s actions in the game damaged the story’s narrative element, arguing “we don’t buy into it. I’ve been trying to dissect it. Why is it that Uncharted triggers this argument, when Indiana Jones doesn’t? Is it the number? It can’t be just the number, because Indiana Jones kills more people than a normal person does. A normal person kills zero people. And Indiana Jones kills a dozen, at least, over the course of several movies. What about Star Wars? Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, are they some sort of serial killers? They laugh off having killed some stormtroopers. And in The Force Awakens, we see that a stormtrooper can actually repent for the person he is and come around, and there are actually real people under those helmets.”

Ultimately, Druckmann would chalk it up to a “stylised reality where the conflicts are lighter, where death doesn’t have the same weight.” As such, as long as we as an audience accept the ‘rules’ of such a reality, the consequences of mass bloodletting need never be explored. It’s a fair point, especially when it comes to Star Wars, which has adopted a darker tone in recent instalments. It calls into question the morality of blowing up Starkiller Bases containing hundreds of thousands of Imperial soldiers when lots of them could have been simply enslaved into serving the Empire.

Meanwhile, whilst Drake and Croft could have long been declared certifiable, if we choose not to subscribe to Druckmann’s theory, there are a whole host of characters from the world of games, film and TV that could join them. Halo’s Master Chief has killed enemies in the thousands for a start.

And what about everybody’s favourite Italian plumbers, Mario and Luigi?

Nintendo’s own version of the Brothers of Destruction might be brightly-coloured, perennially-smiling figures who jovially make their way through the Super Mario games, but they’ve also left a trail of death and destruction in their wake, spanning 35 years. If you ever wondered why Luigi keeps getting haunted by ghosts in the popular Luigi’s Mansion series, games, now you know: it’s the spirits of the countless souls he’s murdered, thirsting for justice from beyond the grave.

The Super Mario Brothers are particularly egregious killers, that we somehow seem to love regardless, in spite of the horrors they inflict on the Mushroom Kingdom. Perhaps worst of all is the duplicitous nature of these pathological murderers: one minute they’re karting around with their so-called friends, engaging in harmless fun and hijinks, the next they’re baying for their blood, stomping a destructive swathe of carnage, through as many bodies as it takes.

Perhaps, as Neil Druckmann was perhaps delicately alluding to, the problem isn’t with the creators of hyper-violent ‘stylised realities’, or even those realities themselves, but instead with us.  Of our reception to action films, games and TV where self-actualisation isn’t inherently linked to violence, despite that violence being the propelling force within the narrative.

Joker

Joker

Look back at 2019’s Joker, for example. Appreciating that a sizeable amount of dissent was voiced about the film’s propensity to narratively align audiences with Arthur Fleck on his path to becoming Joker, the film was a commercial and critical juggernaut. This in turn suggests that in such fictional worlds, a majority of audiences hunger to see characters find out who they truly are by engaging with that violence in some way beyond simply cheerfully committing aggressive acts.

Joaquin Phoenix’s narrative trajectory of blossoming into a maniacal serial killer in Joker focused first on his being a victim of violence, before ultimately becoming an increasingly-enthusiastic perpetrator of it himself. That in itself is not particularly novel. What’s noteworthy about Fleck’s metamorphosis into Joker is how the audience is aligned into rooting for the character to commit those acts, a complicity that we seem to be becoming increasingly comfortable with. When Hitchcock famously veered audiences away from Janet Leigh’s narrative perspective a whopping 47 minutes into Psycho, he then made us watch voyeuristically along with Norman Bates as Leigh’s Marion Crane undressed for a fateful shower with destiny. Crucially though, when it came to the actual murder of Marion, audiences were divorced from Norman’s moment of violent self-actualisation, unable to narratively align with ‘him’ because he was of course, not ‘him’, but ‘her’, the murderous embodiment of his dead mother.

Some 60 years later then, Joker marked the inexorable conclusion to us wandering down such a dark cinematic path. In creating a sympathetic character for the audience to root for in such a bleak and uncaring world, audiences demanded that Arthur Fleck ultimately engaged with that world on its own bloody terms. Quentin Tarantino, something of an expert in fictional violence himself, seemed to support this idea, saying recently that “while the audience in a movie theatre is watching Joker, they wanted to kill Robert De Niro. They wanted to take the gun and stick it in his eye and blow the back of his fucking head off.”

And therein lies the problem with Neil Druckmann’s ‘stylised reality’ argument. Each ‘stylised reality’ is unique to its particular text, and audiences do not simply passively consume such stories, especially in the case of games where interactivity is baked into them. Whilst it may not have been to everybody’s tastes, the actions of Arthur Fleck at least made sense within the fictional world of Joker. Even Indiana Jones insouciantly gunning down an outmatched opponent can be justified in the cartoon world of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Nazis’ faces melt off in hokey stop motion and oafish villains can’t hear giant aeroplane propellers sneak up on them. Let’s face it, even if Indy didn’t kill a few Nazis here and there in Raiders, they’d probably find a way to dispatch themselves anyway, the fools.

The problem with titles like Uncharted and Tomb Raider isn’t so much that they “kill more people than a normal person does,” as Druckmann puts it. Their issue boils down to the nature of the ‘stylised reality’ that they create. Both games, in their later iterations, want to have their ‘pathos pie’ and eat it, creating worlds that are full of tragedy or melancholic reflection when the narrative demands it, but then free of such trappings when the need to satiate a player’s thirst for bloodletting arises.

Audiences are not passive sponges, mindlessly soaking ‘content’, but active spectators or players, engaging with and constantly redefining the relationship between themselves and a text. Whether you agree with the vocal contingent who criticised Joker’s presentation of violence or not, one thing we can surely agree on is that whilst there will always be part of us wanting to revel in the violence of our heroes for the necessary cathartic release it provides us, the voices out there that are willing to question and examine their actions are of equal necessity too.


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