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.