You have to be careful out here in these Joker discourse streets.
You got to decide which debate (there are no conversations) you are attempting to have. Are we having the comic canon debate, the cinematic merits debate, the political outcomes debate, or the racial debate? I can have any of them, but it’s important to be clear on which one we’re having up front because I got things to do and don’t want to waste an hour of my life debating the racial implications of the film’s many black characters with someone who thinks the movie’s primary win is that it supplants Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Unlike other films that attempt to intentionally disturb audiences into a deeper cinematic experience (you’re not being sensitive; the film is very much seeking to push as many of your buttons as it can find), I can tell you flat-out that I’m not a fan of the movie. Yes, I get what it was trying to do. No, I’m not remotely squeamish. Yes, I’m exceedingly familiar with the character in its many print and cinematic forms. The movie is technically sound and reasonably cast, but it’s not a slam dunk, and I didn’t like it. Joker is derivative, not as smart as the material it is borrowing from, and not nearly as aggressive as its critics portend. There isn’t a device or production decision in this film that hasn’t been done elsewhere better or with more heart. It has simply re-skinned a character audiences have known their entire lives. The film is ultimately mediocre, offering well-trod method acting chops used not only by scores of other actors, but by actors who have played a Batman (Bale, The Machinist) and a Joker (Leto, Dallas Buyers Club).
Then there is the question of its “powerful” and affecting violence: I call bullshit on that one as well. This film isn’t the most violent film in a theater right now, let alone of the year. Almost no one went to see it, but there’s a new Rambo film playing in a theater as I write this. Not to mention that Joker contains less violence than appears within any 15 minutes of any John Wick film. And yet, Joker’s single digit body count is deemed as more relevant, more dangerous. Perhaps it is because a real person already did what everyone is worried this film will inspire others to do: go out and kill people. It’s not like there isn’t precedence. But movies aren’t why people decide to kill people, even violent ones. It just feels like the wrong time to be playing with The Joker as an emotional interrogation tool right now.
Except the director, Todd Phillips, isn’t interested in interrogating your emotions. He’s interested in breaking them. But don’t take my word for it:
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
– Todd Phillips (Vanity Fair, Nov 2019)
Ultimately, Joker comes off as a sensitive white boy revenge fantasy. That the character is mentally ill is irrelevant as a defense against this charge because the story presents a ton of snowflake-adjacent triggers as motivational spawning: the gang of thugs, the snappish stranger, the lowly clerk who denies you service, the social worker who doesn’t listen, the doomed love interest (all of whom are people of color without stories, which the film seemingly dares you to note for fear of being called a reverse racist). These are not ingredients you need to make a film about why a person might kill people, but they are things you use when you want to pour a little woe-is-me into the wound to troll a bunch of Twitter snowflakes.
There is something about this film that makes things that we see all of the time in films a noteworthy problem here, even as every problem it presents is tame when compared to dozens of other films no one wrote an interrogative essay about. And that is the irony: Joker is not progressive or original or overly challenging for even the comic book genre. Watchmen had deeper and more subversive questions. Deadpool is more violent. One of the most outrageous comics to ever be put to page, Preacher, just wrapped up its fourth season, weighing in with 46 episodes of pure carnage, political irreverence and extreme violence. It may be the most blasphemous viewing experience I’ve ever had. Even Amazon’s series, The Boys, is a gluttonous feast of middle fingers raised at social conventions. If you follow a smattering of what passes for the genre these days outside of a Marvel film, Joker isn’t doing anything outstandingly subversive. It doesn’t move the needle on any of the issues it seeks to address or undermine. The movie isn’t breaking any new ground.
This same film could have been made 15 years ago and, for better or worse, we wouldn’t have blinked at it. In fact, it was made several times. It was Falling Down and the Rampage series of films and Taxi Driver. The only thing that changes about these films is the strain of entitlement coursing through the veins of the pissed off white guy on the poster. But now, in a more culturally critical society constantly embroiled in a never-ending shouting match combing over every inch of everything, it hits different. And it hits different in part because the world has more naked access to how white men think and operate in real time, and that’s terrifying. I’m not saying the film is harmless. The film is speaking on the emotional behalf of a certain kind of dangerous white male – I’m thinking of incels specifically but not exclusively – all while denying it has any investment in the emotions it generates. Here are all of the things in the world that are pissing on your head, my good man, but don’t listen to me. I’m crazy. (But not so crazy I can’t feel your pain, and hey, does anybody else hear that whistle?)
For a 1980s period piece, Joker is a spot-on manifestation of what passes for racial discourse in 2019: white hegemony passing off its hurt feelings using the language of the people it oppresses because somewhere, someone in their day challenged their authority or got something that they felt entitled to. The cynical and weak class “debate” that the film engages in is telling. There is the frustrated man-child angle once pre-Joker Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne, but then the idea that a city would engage in “eat the rich” riots and protests over being called “clowns” by a guy running for mayor was also a tough pill to swallow. By the end, the city of Gotham becomes consumed by a class riot, infected in part by the misinterpreted motivations of The Joker. It is at once an indictment of Republican acolytes, while at the same time holding nothing up of any use in response except more chaos. It is a city tearing itself apart because its rich won’t deliver unto the plebian mass a piece of the pie (delivered here with almost no conviction whatsoever), while at the same time unaware that the de facto leader of its movement could equally care less about their well being. That’s Republican emo as hell. Too bad Phillips didn’t mean it.
Joker is many things, but it is most notably a spiritual avatar trolling on behalf of every mediocre white dude who can’t figure out why everyone is “shitting on” him even as he proceeds to do something problematic. On a level, it is a campaign shoring up the feelings of the grumbling white guy at your job who fails to recognize his elevated station and the power that comes with it, while using said power to press down on coworkers who can’t afford to tell him he’s being an asshole. The movie feeds this to audiences in small doses, but they add up.
Again, these are not all things The Joker does explicitly in the film, but they are things a sizable portion of an audience in 2019 can be reasonably expected to take away from such a film considering the way the director frames it. There is a patina of self-pity to Joker that cannot be extricated from similar sentiments made by the modern Average White Male American, and Phillips has no interest in separating the two so that less inflammatory interpretations might be made. Phillips knew those takeaways were on the table and made this film anyway, as if to say, Fuck you, SJWs and party-poopers and people who can’t take a joke. He is a good enough director to put enough English on the ball to make this sentiment less obvious, but it’s there if you’re looking for a fight.
And before anyone says it, you’re not wrong to go into this looking for that fight. The movie is trying to start political and emotional fights with certain audiences. It shares DNA with the abhorrent Funny Games, but has 50% less experimental disdain for its audience. Joker doesn’t want to turn everyone off. It only wants to turn off the people who Phillips thinks have made it impossible for him and his buddies to tell a decent ethnic joke in peace. It is a film made by a guy who feels – FEELS – he has been shut down even as he was given $55 million to make this movie.
Lord, let me catch the hell of a downtrodden white man for just one day.
Reactions to the dark nature of Joker suggest that audiences have been engaging a goofy, lovable Puck figure for the last eight decades instead of a mass murderer with a body count rivaling a dictatorship. The movie is a dish stewing in a Hollywood pot, cooked by a director who thinks we’re all a bunch of pussies, heated over a flame comprised of all the marketing a contentious social media campaign provides.