We Need to Talk About Joker

It isn’t unusual for celebrated new movies to suffer a bit of a backlash. La La Land was widely lauded at all of the big film festivals and had great reviews on its release but after a while people started to resent it and it got fairly widely criticised for being twee, lazy and derivative. I know! La La Land! What’s that about?

Joker is a particularly interesting case though because the backlash started even before it came out for public viewing. First we heard it was a magnificent new entry into a heavily populated comic book genre, how it was powerful and important and how it was sure to win an Oscar for its lead performance. The five star reviews quickly followed but almost as rapidly came the suggestion that it was nasty and irresponsible and that it glorified its disturbed and violent protagonist.

In some quarters Joker has been discussed as a film that dangerously presents the incels with a new patron saint and that it is sure to be adopted as a welcome parable by this dark and potentially growing section of our disenfranchised society. Incel, if you don’t know, is a blend taken from ‘involuntary celibates’ which refers to men who present themselves, generally online, as unfairly unable to find romantic or sexual partners. Their views are commonly angry and misogynistic, are often full of self loathing and have been known to incite violence toward those that have what they feel they themselves are entitled to. Apparently at least four US mass shootings have been committed by men who have either self-identified as incels or who have cited well known incel poster boys in their internet postings. All in all then, not a group you want people saying your film is playing to.

As an attempt to explain how a comic book villain could originate in the our world, Joker is actually quite brilliant. It really does paint a believable picture of a man with a painted face who callously terrorises people. Even more than Christopher Nolan, director Todd Phillips has lifted a character from the pages of the Batman comics (and freed him from the campiness of the 60s TV show) and portrayed him in a truly realistic way. Unfortunately in doing this I do think he has done what the naysayers are accusing him of and despite how good it might be as a character study or a piece of story telling, it is a bit nasty.

Call them incels, or what you will, the fact is that there are people out there who are guilty of vicious hatred and monstrous violence and making one such individual the centre of a movie that, for all its realism, is for entertainment purposes does not feel right. The other film that may be accused of this is We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the mass murderer in that story is not the main character and he certainly isn’t put forward as a hero in any way. The same cannot be said here. The damaged and dangerous man at the heart of this film is initially depicted as a victim of the world around him and his response to this does play out as some kind of campaign of revenge. This could be an antihero story we are being presented with. It could conceivably be possible for some people to think that this guy is cool not cruel, and that’s not good. Also the Joker is already a popular and favoured cult figure, his face is already on t-shirts and lunchboxes and some of that established cool rubs off on this new version. Even with some reinvention this is the Joker we know too. The film actually sticks quite closely to the familiar artificial world of Batman which only makes this characterisation seem more out of place and poorly judged. The idea that people will be dressing up as this guy at Comic Cons actually makes me feel a little sick.

Sadly the film never takes the opportunity to address any of this when it could so easily have done so. If anything the end only cements the idea that this man could be idolised. There are parts of the presented plot that are shown to be fantasy, laboriously so at one point, so the final moments that put him on a pedestal could be all in the title character’s mind too. They could also easily not be though and if they’re not it’s an alarming message to be sending, especially in Trump’s America where open prejudice and threats do not prevent someone receiving adoration, as they should.

I’m not normally puritanical in my reactions to movies but in this case I do actually think the film makers have been irresponsible. In the Hangover trilogy Todd Phillips unapologetically presented a picture of distasteful masculinity and legitimised some unpleasant behaviours and I’m afraid he has done the same here, to the power of ten. Even if it doesn’t celebrate a certain group of people, it does showcase them and it shouldn’t.

Those that rate the film are saying that those that don’t are just missing the point. This is patronising as hell but maybe I am because for me Joker does nothing to justify its existence. It doesn’t matter though, I just didn’t like it. My world would be a better place without it and I can’t shake the idea that there is even a chance that our world could be a worse place because of it.

It’s not a joke.


13 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Joker

  1. Thanks for this; I can’t think of a film which was so lauded by film festival critics and derided on release; did a bbc report yesterday on the backlash. A Joker origin story could have reflected on society, the media, disenchantment with politics; instead it equates mental health issues with violence. The film has exciting moments and images, but it’s point is garbled and irresponsible. What kind of superhero villain executed unarmed people with a handgun? And who is Batman if he’s locked in a lifelong conflict with a man suffering from a brain injury? Like the film’s time setting, it’s not been thought through. Thanks for your post, one of the best I’ve seen so far…

    1. Following this I’ve been thinking about other movies like Psycho, American Psycho. While these films may ask you to identify and even sympathise with the killer, they don’t ask you to side with them. Whether it is all in his head or not, this Joker does generate a rabid following and to some people that may be seen to be in some way celebrating his actions. The same thing happens in Bonnie & Clyde (and The Highwaymen) but in this case the film takes a very definite position against this and here they don’t. In the end I do think the director is trying to say, ‘look, this guy is kinda cool’ and they should have steered right away from that because it is a dangerous message. That bit at the very end, where Joker is running away from the guy in the asylum reminded me of something I’d seen in another film and I couldn’t work out what. When it dawned on me that it I was finding it oddly reminiscent of the fun moment when Heath Ledger (still the best Joker) is running away from the campus guards at the sports ground in 10 Things I Hate About You then my heart sank all over again.

      1. Absolutely agree. Cinema is a broad church and main characters don’t always have to be good. But to show how Arthur Fleck executing unarmed people might turn a loser into a hero is a message that should stop all of us in our tracks. Just to throw another log on the fire, the music that Joaquin Phoenix dances to on the steps is by Gary Glitter, and has not been used in films since his convictions for pedophelia. Both star and director would be aware of this when they chose to use the track; it’s one way to add edge to a film, but not one that we have to accept as being cool in any way.

      2. Yes, I read about the Gary Glitter track. I hadn’t clocked it in the film because I don’t know his music that well but it does seem to be a deliberately provocative move on the part of the film makers and one that does give the impression of responsible decision making.

      3. Since we are discussing spoilers I find the unresolved scene with the neighbour and her little girl particularly interesting. I know it is left ambiguous but there is every likelihood that Arthur killed them and I’m guessing the reason they didn’t show this was because they thought it might be too much and it would stop the audience from supporting the main character. In doing this though they are saying that all that other stuff you see him do is fine. It’s not fine and suggesting it is, that’s not fine either.

      4. He’s entitled to his opinion, although you could just as easily say rip-off as homage. Maybe there is a political message here that’s just too subtle for me to discern; I just feel let-down that of all the people that the Joker movie might have gone after, the ones who will suffer are people with genuine mental health issues. Looking at Moore’s comments, I doubt many people will interpret the film as he does. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      5. Moore puts forward a strong argument (of course he does, this is not his first rodeo) but curiously he doesn’t seem to hold the Joker character to account for his own actions which is the same problem the film makes.

      6. I the radio debate I had on the BBC, another critic said there are no consequences for the Joker from his actions. But it seems to me that the film actually shows positive consequences; violence makes him a character, and a star, and a leader. Moore seems to be reading a political subtext while ignoring the text.

  2. I loved the film, because it really portrayed the loneliness of the male experience. He was a mentally ill man, abandoned by society. The point of the film was to turn a critical eye towards society, not towards socially-isolated men.

    I’ve spent a lot of time researching the incel community, and when that movie was just about to come out, the vast majority of incels I saw speaking about it were rolling their eyes at the normies losing their shit over a movie. The general consensus was “Bruh, it’s a movie. Calm down. None of us care as much you all.”

    And as you said, 4 mass shooters have identified with the incel community. Only 4. That’s not a lot and probably has more to do with depression/mental health issues than inceldom.

    People are always freaking out over the incels, when I think we need to be way more worried about the Columbine fandom. That corner of the internet has produced WAY more mass shooters. But I think because the majority of the Columbine fandom is female, people don’t view them as a threat. They are though. Sol Pais came very close to doing real harm.

    1. I agree that attaching this film to one particular group is wrong and I attempted to move away from the incel comparison in paragraph 5. My issue is that I felt the film celebrated a range of people with dangerous psychosis, irrelevant of any group they may fit into it identify with, and I was deeply uncomfortable with this. That’s just the way I read the film and even though I’ve tried, I can’t see it differently. You can argue someone out of their views but not their feelings.

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