As Joker’s box office crests $300 million, and Oscar-talk of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance becomes a serious discussion, the typical conversations had around a massively successful film are being replaced by deeper concerns.
Many worry that Joker has emerged as an anthem for incels— a displaced and darkly simmering group of males whose self-termed name stands for involuntarily celibate. For this (mostly online) community that breeds hate, violent fantasies, and sometimes real-world violence, the Joker is hardly an innapropriate hero.
In our world of young people shooting up schools, perhaps there is cause for alarm when a movie like Joker emerges; and maybe it’s not difficult to see why this “hard-R” rated movie has been met with more than the usual amount of controversy. While previous films based on comic book characters have dealt in darker tones (e.g. Logan and the Dark Knight trilogy), Joker is different.
In Todd Phillips’ film there is no Batman. There is no hero. No good vs. evil. There’s only the Joker.
It’s strange and different for a film based on a super-villain to not traffic in any of the usual comic book cliches, perhaps the most important of these being that someone always comes to save the day. Joker abandons this notion entirely.
To me, the film feels less inspired by its comic book origins (though still clearly informed by them) than by two Martin Scorsese films: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; the first, an expose on a mentally deteriorating and dangerous loner; the second, a look at how the desire for fame and validation can ultimately warp a person’s worldview.
Joker is a film utterly dedicated to its portrayal of a dilapidated world where hope is in short supply; a Gotham on the brink of madness, waiting for a cult leader to come along and light the fuse that blows the city sky-high.
Gotham finds that person in the form of Arthur Fleck, a deeply disturbed young man with delusions of grandeur despite his unfulfilling life circumstances (working as a party clown and living with his ailing mother).
It takes Fleck a long time to fully embrace the Joker inside of him, and it’s a grueling process to behold: Fleck is ridiculed by co-workers, beaten up by children, and humiliated by a talk show host (Robert DeNiro in a terrific nod to The King of Comedy, where he played what might be called the Arthur Fleck of that movie), until one day he decides he won’t accept another humiliation — That’s when the body count starts.
As troubling as all this may sound, it’s his imagined relationship with a woman who lives in his building (played by Zaezie Beetz) that is most disturbing. After meeting the woman and her son on the elevator, Fleck begins to covet and stalk her. No fair telling what happens next, but one can begin to see already how single white men who can’t get laid are finding catharsis in Joker.
Sadly, I think those people have found a hero in the Joker. And since the movie chooses to present us with the Joker as opposed to judging him, you could find yourself believing that the filmmaker’s intent is to not take sides. However, taking that view and rejecting what the film is doing as cinema lets us off the hook too easily.
This film is about the Joker, but that’s not to say that the film approves of him. What Joker asks of us isn’t to root for the lead character: it asks us to understand the underlying problems and points of failure that brought him to this moment.
Arthur Fleck is a sociopath — one that might have been helped were he placed in the right home with the right parents, or with the right therapist at a young age (the film leans heavily into the idea that our mental health care system is broken). Maybe even as an adult, the actions that follow his full mental breakdown might have been prevented with the right help.
There is not a moment of this film that I found to be fun or enjoyable, despite its plentiful cinematic qualities (such as its remarkable decaying set pieces, ominous score, and taut direction). The extraordinary performance by Joaquin Phoenix simply does not allow for pleasure. At least, not unless you have a very troubled idea of what constitutes pleasure.
I understand the strong concerns levied by those who find the film reprehensible and nothing short of an anthem for disaffected white men. I absolutely see the opportunity for that portion of our population to glom onto this character and this film as something that represents them. But what I think the people raising these concerns are missing is that Joker isn’t inspiring the world we live in, it’s reflecting it.
It’s a terrifying thought. But after all, we live in a country where the elected leader is a vile, cruel, godless pig that nearly 63 million people voted for. Those 62.9 million took a look at that man and said, “yeah, why not?”
Donald Trump isn’t a perfect comparable to Arthur Fleck — he doesn’t even inhabit the same world — but, he appeals to the same people. People who feel unseen. People who feel unprivileged, frustrated, and left behind in a world they feel has been unfair to them. When they feel this way, people will seek out an agent of chaos. It doesn’t matter whether they are wearing red and white make up, or too much orange spray tan. They want someone who will burn it all down.
I don’t blame Joker for holding up the mirror to our current state. If anything, the film is simply a dark messenger. If we don’t like what the film delivers, if we are repulsed by what we see in that mirror, if we can’t abide the world it reflects — the one we live in — then maybe we should try to change it.
It would be a far greater use of our time.