It’s hard to imagine 2019 producing a more divisive film than Todd Phillip’s “Joker.” New York Times writer Jennifer Vineyard collected a sampling of reviews, interviews and commentary about the film: the NYT calls it “an empty, foggy exercise in secondhand style.” The Observer says it “borders on genius,” and Variety and the New York Times Magazine have pieces that debate the polarizing nature of the film and why it struck so many nerves. There’s a reason it’s hard to find some kind of consensus on the film: it’s messy, dark, hypnotizing and taps into a complex character history and supernaturally tense current political environment. It’s not as simple as lauding it or condemn- ing it. Is it a brilliantly done mov- ie? Yes. Should it have been made now, in the way that it was? Prob- ably not.
“Joker” may feature Batman’s most well-known nemesis, but he’s not straight out of the comic books. The new film didn’t de- rive its titular villain’s origin story from any specific comic arc and instead borrowed from a few different sources.
The story follows Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged man down on his luck and living with his mother as the fictional Gotham City suffers an infrastructural collapse
Viewed in a vacuum of zero cultural context, “Joker” is an amazing film. The combination of Phoenix’s acting, gor- geous cinematography and editing and an abso- lutely phenomenal score by Hildur Guðnadóttir makes “Joker” a superbly crafted movie. But it’s hard to view the film in a cultural vacuum, which is what critics and movie go- ers into has thrown a frenzy. “Joker” is not the first movie of its kind; it’s gotten many comparisons to the equally disturb- ing and renowned 1970s “Taxi Driver.” Making movies about supremely creepy people is not new. So what about it has set everyone off? Many reviewers and commentators have actually praised it: Jeff Yang of CNN calls it a “political parable for our times” while Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune describes how the movie lays out motives and that Joker is the result of “our social contract [being] shattered and no one—not politicians, not the rich (who are targeted in the film)—are held accountable to anyone any- more.”
There is certainly political commentary in “Joker.” But it feels overshadowed by seeing a man so bro- ken down and twisted that he takes to the streets with a gun with nothing to lose.
Ambiguity in villains is com- pelling, but perhaps the reason “Joker” has been so widely con- demned is that no one wants to see ambiguity in a character like Fleck. While Phillips and Phoenix worked to create a multi-faceted character, it’s not one that peo- ple actually want to sympathize with. Even though the movie may be released internationally, its American audience is embroiled in a toxic battle for gun control. “Joker” might be trying to make a point, but it’s one that hits too close to home and doesn’t han- dle every- thing with- the care it might have deserved. Art should be provocative, but also self aware. Try- ing to get the world to sym- pathize with one of pop cul- ture’s most recog- nizable villains at a time of national and international upheaval and vi- olence was not a good call. In particular, it harkens back to the Aurora, CO movie theater shoot- ing in 2012 that took place during a showing of “The Dark Knight.” Variety reports that the Auro- ra shooter wasn’t dressed like or inspired by the Joker, but the fear is tied to the franchise just the same. According to The Hol- lywood Reporter, survivors and family members of victims killed in the shooting petitioned to have “Joker” banned from the theater where the shooting took place. They succeeded.
It’s hard to say if there is a place for movies like “Joker,” or if there should be. “Joker” is tricky because everything it brings up is something worth critically ex- amining. Using a big platform like film to constructively discuss toxic people (and all the complex- ities that can feed into that) and societal and structural decay can be useful if done thoughtfully. But the line between “conversation starter” and “fire-starter” can be pretty thin. “Joker” seems to have started a fire, turning a ca- sual conversation into a shouting match. Once you release some- thing into the world it is no longer wholly yours, and regardless of the filmmaker’s intentions, “Jok- er” has left a mark of darkness and discomfort as it intermingles with discussions of gun violence.