Why is Joker so divisive?
The new origin movie about Batman’s greatest villain has been the center of numerous controversies, and most occurring before the film was even released.
I think more than anything, Joker and several other recent flicks (Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Green Book, to name a few) prove that movies are still relevant in our culture because they are avenues for people to talk about deeper issues. Movies are mirrors, and people see different things in them. Joker sure seemed to want to be taken seriously as it marketed itself as a gritty, realistic, and edgy film.
To help explain the wildly different reactions I’ve seen from people about Joker, I’ve come up with three main ways people are interpreting the film. These are generalizations, sure, but overall I think whichever interpretation you have of Joker will predict your reaction to it, and these may help you understand why someone else can see the exact same film and feel completely different than you.
1. The world sucks. I hate my parents. The Man is out to get you. Life is suffering and pain. We need to take to the streets or something and get rid of all authority so we can all live free. People don’t care about you. Knock know, who’s there? Boom! Gunshot! You’re dead.
Joker plays like the graffitied poetry under the desk of a 13-year-old edgelord who has become aware enough of the world to know there is suffering but is not mature enough to know how to engage with it or others. The film is self-absorbed and pretentious, wanting to be serious but ending up hollow and derivative. It’s dark but not deep. Director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have stated disdain for comic book movies, but what they have made is completely dependent on comic book movies, both for artistic precedent and the film’s box office. It is not as shocking or interesting as many of its peers. Some people have feared that Joker would provide rationale for violence, but the film is so half-baked that I don’t think that is much of a concern. We shouldn’t be giving Joker this much attention- it is embarrassingly shameless in its desire to provoke without actually questioning or confronting anything.
The film shouldn’t even exist on principle. Joker is a character whose menace comes from not having a clear background or motivation. By rationalizing everything about him through an origin story, this core component of the character is destroyed. Also, this is the third feature-film adaptation of the Joker we’ve had in ten years, and yet it’s still in question if women or people of color can get their own movies. It’s exhausting that we can’t share the spotlight with other characters and properties.
2. Joker is a much-needed wake-up call about our country’s mental health crisis and the marginalized in our society. We need to take care of our unseen citizens and be kinder to everyone we meet, or we can only be held responsible when things devolve.
Todd Phillips uses comic book tropes and the genre’s current popularity to tell a story many people wouldn’t otherwise see or care about. Despite working within the studio system, this film really does speak truth to power.
The film is set in the 1980s, but it’s extremely relevant to today. With the likes of President Trump, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, the top 1% have too much power and influence our day to day lives, and it’s clear they don’t care about us. This goes for everyone from billionaires like Thomas Wayne to the talk show hosts who make fun of regular people who accidentally become viral sensations, usually for humiliating purposes.
Joker shines a light on how mental health resources are being taken from people, how social services are underfunded, and the current trash problem in New York Ci- I mean Gotham. The human condition is explored unflinchingly, and by the end of it, it’s easy to see how this world could make anyone go mad, especially someone who is as vulnerable as Arthur/Joker.
The plotline about Arthur maybe being Thomas Wayne’s son and therefore Bruce/Batman’s half-brother adds so much to their dynamic and cements this idea of them being two sides of the same coin. The only difference between them is their environment. Bruce grew up wealthy and privileged. Arthur didn’t, and like he points out in the film, that’s the reason that if he was lying dead in the streets, people would just step over him. It’s only when you’re wealthy and powerful do people care.
The soundtrack slaps, Joaquin Phoenix is truly phenomenal here, and it’s exciting to see the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) continue to make films with an emphasis on auteur directors and their visions. Joker delivers on all fronts and will surely bring new blood into the superhero- or should I say supervillain?- genre.
3. The most troubling thing about Joker is that it makes its titular character out to be the hero of the 99%, which, dear viewer, is you. In the eyes of the film you are either someone who has been screwed by the system and is righteously angry against it, or you are someone who is so led by pure aggression and hatred that you commit acts of violence and find a clown-faced murderer to be the symbol of your cause.
The final protest scene in Joker, which is directly instigated by Arthur’s actions, borrows imagery from various real-world protests, from the current ones in Hong Kong to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the scene where Joker is laid on the police car reminded me of Starr’s climactic speech on top of a car in last year’s criminally underrated The Hate U Give. But what does this mean?
Yes, as Joker insists, he’s not political. He’s not the reason people are angry. But his actions are the tipping point. When protestors lay him, crucifixion style, on the police car, he becomes the symbol of the protests.
If the protests are justified because people have been mistreated, then does Joker becomes absolved of all personal responsibility because he too has been mistreated and is simply calling out his oppressors? Is he some sort of folk hero of the marginalized? Is there a point where society can push you and mistreat you so much that it is to blame for your actions?
But if this Joker is the truly monstrous Joker from Batman lore, then how do you feel that Todd Phillips aligns you, the 99%, with the Joker? That your protests, what you think is righteous anger, is really made of the same base, primal, chaotic urges that Joker acts upon? You are so easily manipulated. You are sheep.
Perhaps most troubling of all is that Joker shows all the ways society fails people without offering any solutions or hope.
Video essayist Lindsay Ellis points out in her piece about the 2005 Rent movie adaptation that, “A light, user-friendly sort of anarchy does not work in a narrative about the AIDS crisis because there is nothing noble about extolling the virtues of quietly giving in to your disease when there is a system right there that can help… but you reject it because f*** the man, I’m not a part of your system!… It reinforces a worldview in which the only way to rebel against a system is to reject it…It gives you a sense of power, in a world that makes you feel powerless. But in reality, the only thing it fosters is actual powerlessness. Because in rejecting the system, you are not only failing to tear it down, but you are forfeiting any voice within it” (42:44 – 43:54).
This is exactly what Arthur/Joker is doing. At the beginning of the film, Arthur is trying to be a good person, even when it is difficult. He takes his medicine for his various illnesses that aren’t named (this decision is questionable in itself but that’s another discussion). But because of the events of this film he gives up and embraces the villain the world has made him be (in light of everything else that is revealed about his past, the events of the film don’t seem dramatic enough on their own to spiral him further down, but oh well).
He stops trying to change the system or hold it accountable and instead gives into his psychosis, and advocates anarchy. And while it may not make him more powerless, as he is a fictional villian, it makes an impressionable viewer powerless.
For a film that tries to diagnose society and rage against it, it ends up looking a lot like the society it critiques- passive, wallowing, angry, violent, and without any solution. Nihilism may feel rebellious and exciting, but it isn’t compelling.
*A special thank you to my friend Shea, who has been my movie-going-buddy for years. Her thoughts are present throughout this blog, but especially here. Thanks for taking an hour-long walk with me after seeing this film to let me talk it out!