Film criticism is a fun field to work in because it’s so subjective. Movies are made up of many moving parts that can be designed and orchestrated to impose meanings that may or may not be read by the audience, while even the elements that aren’t present may be analysed for a new base from which to judge any given release. This makes it possible for any film to be interpreted in a variety of ways by a wide range of sources, and every so often these interpretations become the discourse within the film community, opening the floodgates for opinions, hot takes and online discussion controversy. One such a film is Todd Phillips’ 2019 comic book character adaptation Joker.
Our Editor-in-Chief-, Joseph Wade, illustrates why in his Joker review:
“…Joker doesn’t really choose a side, it more offers a mirror to you as a viewer and asks you to read into it what you will… it is this distancing from the usually black and white, good and evil nature of comic book cinema, and culture as a whole in the age of social media, that is the biggest contributor to Joker being read as problematic.”
A certain segment of reviewers seemingly went in wanting to find evidence to justify an anti-Joker narrative, and used tone, poorly justified examples of problematic political ideology and vague criticisms of quality to denigrate the film. Here I will question, contradict and/or combat the criticisms leveled at Joker, a film I believe to be a legitimate contender for the Best Picture Oscar.
Don’t Watch It
Phil Pirrello, in a piece published by No Film School entitled “You Shouldn’t See ‘Joker’ This Weekend”, advocates against seeing the film at all.
From the second paragraph:
“The movie tries to give sympathy to… this person shunned by society in a way that violently turns him against it. Because people didn’t find his jokes as funny or as worthy of their applause and attention as he felt or believed they should. Sympathy for a guy whose ultimate coping skill is to put a gun in his hand and fire in the name of self-righteous anarchy.”
The author goes on to use the following arguments: director Todd Phillips refuses to engage with negative criticism, children might want to see Joker (c’mon, this is the textbook definition of a lazy attempt at moral outrage), and someone else said the movie is of middling quality.
What I find most troubling is that a film writer would be in favor of not seeing a film, and, instead, would favor demonizing it based upon perceptions and the opinions of others. The quote above didn’t come from the author’s personal experience with Joker, and it’s patently wrong. Arthur isn’t simply driven to murder because people didn’t laugh at him or give him attention… in fact, he often doesn’t even perceive any lack of laughter because of his delusions. And should we not feel sympathy for those that suffer at the hands of mental illness, social ostracization and crumbling social welfare? Isn’t that the sort of unifying and nuanced theme films should explore? That there’s more to a violent actor than the act of violence?
I have written extensively on why I refuse to watch Snyder’s extended cut of Batman v Superman [Part 1 & Part 2], but I did it by first engaging with the film that exists. You can’t base a thesis off confirmation bias and what you think the director has imparted onto a film without first seeing the work. Honestly, I went in to Joker expecting a problematic message, and walked out seeing the film in an entirely different light. This is the worst possible opinion on Joker, and one that is ultimately detrimental to the conversation it argues for.
Incels, the Alt-Right and Violence
“It’s an anthem for incels. It brings to mind Stephen Metcalf’s incisive 2012 essay in Slate after a disturbed man opened fire in a theater showing The Dark Knight Rises. Metcalf didn’t blame the movie, exactly. But he did trace a connection between civil massacres and characters like Joker.” – David Edelstein, Vulture
“Some critics thought Phillips’ portrait of the artist as a young murderer could be seen as an apologia for the violent ideology of the incel movement, and some family members of victims of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which took place at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, expressed similar concerns.” – Dana Stevens, Slate
“…the movie plays right into advanced fears that it could act as a kind of incel manifesto, offering not just comfort or understanding to disaffected young men angry at the world but a playbook for striking back at it.” – Sam Adams, Slate
“The protests, where people (nearly all of them white men) don clown masks and wield placards with slogans like “Kill the Rich,” are staged as a deliberate mixture of alt-right rally and antifa protest. There’s a slippery both sides–ism to it, a sense that provocation can function as its own end.” – Sam Adams, Slate
This was an easy point to jump to with the trailer. Knowing the Joker is a bad guy who commits violent actions and is positioned as an outcast gives the thought process rationale, but the film isn’t exactly the incel manifesto critics made it out to be. As Adams says, the protests are a deliberate blurring of one side or the other, but is that to make a statement that “both sides are bad”? Does Joker encourage literal violence? Are the parallels with the Aurora shooting the result of pattern-seeking irrationality?
Let’s start with the Aurora shooting…
The shooting’s link to Batman and the Joker is rather flimsy, and Vanity Fair details the (lack of) connection. The biggest takeaway is that the shooter himself had little to do with the comparison to the Joker, which was introduced by a New York police commissioner, inmates and public perception. A psychiatrist points out that The Dark Knight Rises was simply the packed blockbuster showing at the time, and common sense reminds any movie fan that TDKR has nothing to do with the Joker, the release of Nolan’s 3rd entry into his trilogy taking place four years after the The Dark Knight.
The Joker, as portrayed in Joker, isn’t an incel. Incels, a term that shortens “involuntarily celibate”, are driven by misogyny and an expectation of sex. While the Joker does delude himself into an imaginary relationship, he isn’t motivated by sex. The Joker is driven by a desire to be happy, a universal feeling. The lack of social definition outside of “poor” and “worker” means that the Joker is purposefully a representation of “average society”, not a group or individual within. While he deals with the extremes of mental illness, his delusions and anxieties aren’t any different than those we all face. We all build ourselves up to an extent in order to function properly and maintain self-confidence, and we all deal with worry or stress no matter our station in life. That’s what makes the empathy or sympathy audiences feel so strong and helps create the dissonance between feeling bad for the Joker and disagreeing with the particulars of his actions.
The political takes, even the “leftist” ones, are quick to dismiss or ignore a Marxist view of Joker in favor of selling it as a dangerous film that will motivate right wing violence. The film takes place amidst a garbage strike, leaving piles of trash filling the streets, social safety nets (city care in the film) are cut, and the populist one percenter Thomas Wayne could not be a more obvious analogue for Trump and his gang of wannabe oligarchs and kleptocrats that want to profit off the working class. Chaplin’s Modern Times, which is shown in the film, portrays the personal and societal danger of industrialization while also reflecting several themes relevant to Joker. Marxism says that the ruling class (and, by extension, those who stand to profit from the status quo of unbridled capitalism) should tremble at the idea of a united proletariat. The film’s lack of division amongst protestors shows a united worker uprising, be it literal or otherwise. There’s a clear preference for collectivism, presenting said collectivism as the key in the fight against fascism, which presents an individual (in this case Thomas Wayne) as a cure-all to the city’s ailments. Keeping in the realm of leftist stances, the film critiques the proliferation of guns to those who ought not to own them (Arthur comments that he shouldn’t have a gun when his co-worker gifts him one), while also taking aim at police violence and a rage against a centrist media that for decades has misrepresented and smeared protestors and advocates for societal change, whether they be Black Lives Matter, Antifa or Malcolm X, all the while granting undeserving airtime and “fair” coverage to Donald Trump and people of his ilk.
If the Joker is an alt-right figure who is dangerous for his lack of real conviction, he’s shown as one born from a system, not one created by personal choice or responsibility. The “society” so many want to point to as the cause for his downfall is the capitalist system he exists in, not the everyday people he encounters. It isn’t the rude woman on the bus or his disinterested therapist that drive him to violence, it’s the way he’s treated by those in authority over him. While his co-workers Randall or Gary are kind and empathetic, their boss tells Arthur that everyone thinks he’s weird, going out of his way to be cruel. Murray, Robert De Niro’s TV anchor, mocks him on live TV. His mother, another victim of the failing system, allowed or partook in his mistreatment and abuse as a child (her unbridalled support of Thomas Wayne being representative of a boomer Trump supporter who sees him as a savior that cares about them individually). “Society” is a cop-out, an answer that allows the interpreter to fit the Joker into their preconceived notion of the film. There are deeper questions to be asked about the necessity of violence as a driver of social change – or, why we’re in a position where a film can so easily petrify and divide people – that some seem too afraid to discuss.
Richard Brody is one of my favorite writers, and his review in The New Yorker brings questions about race to the forefront. However, Brody seems to be seeing things that don’t seem present in Joker.
“A group of teen-agers of color hassle him and steal his sign… Then the whole group swarms him, pummels him, kicks him, and leaves him bruised and bleeding and sobbing… The crime alluded to is the attack wrongly attributed to five young men mislabelled as the Central Park Five—an attack on an isolated and vulnerable white person by a group of young people of color. The scene waves away history and says, in effect, that it may not have been those five, but there was another group out there wreaking havoc; they’re not figments of a demagogue’s hate-filled imagination—here they are, and they’re the spark of all the gory action that follows.”
“When Arthur is assaulted on the subway by three young men (whites, in suits), he pulls out the gun and fires—and even pursues one of the men onto the platform in order to shoot him dead. It’s an evocation of the shooting, in 1984, by Bernhard Goetz, of four teen-agers in a subway who, Goetz believed, were about to rob him. They were four black teen-agers, and Goetz, after his arrest, made racist remarks. In “Joker,” the director, Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Scott Silver), whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.”
In each case, Brody has taken an event in the film, compared it to an event in reality, and points to how each scene has changed the details to push a racist narrative, whether that be intended or not. Does Brody believe Phillips is endorsing racial profiling/fear mongering, or violence against people of color? I find it to be an absurd notion that completely ignores the actual circumstances of the film in an attempt to find something to complain about. In the subway scene, those three young white men in suits that work for Thomas Wayne are literally beating Arthur… I don’t know how one looks at that and doesn’t see a downtrodden member of the lower class lashing out against actual, tangible abuse by those with privilege.
One thing I really liked about Joker was that it didn’t divide along racial lines. Arthur’s social worker/therapist is a black woman, his neighbor is a single black woman, the Arkham psychiatrist is a black woman, and there’s a black male administrative assistant in the hospital. These characters are either “above” Arthur in a social sense or “on par” with him, each a human struggling within society (Arthur’s therapist tells him that the system doesn’t care about her either, and his neighbor obviously lives in similar conditions), but they are each empathetic to Arthur’s developing situation and/or circumstances and are presented as at least taking the time to not judge him so outwardly. This represents how the struggle against racism is inherent to the overall struggle a class-focused Joker offers, as racism has been an important tool used to exploit and divide humans both historically and within our world today.
“The experience of sitting through it is highly unpleasant, but that unpleasantness has less to do with graphic violence—there are only one or two scenes that go hard, gore-wise—than with claustrophobia and boredom.” – Dana Stevens, Slate
“To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting…” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“And when Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” plays to Phoenix dancing down a stairwell, becoming the manifestation of who he will become, it feels completely empty, a nod to some kind of gravitas that this film really strives for, but never, ever gets.” – Josh Kupecki, Austin Chronicle
“Here’s the deal. “Joker” is not a great leap forward, or a deep dive into our collective unconscious, let alone a work of art. It’s a product.” – Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
“This was one of the most middling films I have ever seen. It may have been fully bad, but I just graded it higher due to how great Phoenix is.” – Felix Biederman, Deadspin
Now we get to the fun part, where the filmmaking aspects of Joker are thrown to the wind by reviewers less interested in engaging with the film than they are lambasting their idea of it…
I’ll begin with A.O. Scott’s point…
Products can be art, films are inherently art, and all films are products. Notice how the comparisons to the film aren’t Marvel or DC, they’re Scorsese and Chaplin. To simply call this a “product” ignores the artistry that goes into making such a film. His review implies expectations for the character and film (“the result is less a depiction of nihilism…”, “It barely even works within the confines of its own genre, the comic-book movie”, “The Joker, an embodiment of pure anarchy…”), perhaps unveiling the root of disappointment. Maybe the film wasn’t trying to embody nihilism, anarchy, or work within the comic book genre?
Whether that artistry has merit is the question other reviewers tackle, and I think calling it “middling”, “empty”, “uninteresting”, or “boring” is unfair to the film and requires a point of reference to make sense to a reader. Joker’s cinematography is claustrophobic, probably on purpose. Shots show Arthur trapped by walls, or use the frame to trap him in comparison to intercut shots of others in the same scene. These contrast to wider shots that pervade the third act. The primary colors presented throughout the film express the emotional states of happiness, sadness and anger, and show that their use in wardrobe can signal Arthur’s mental state and perception of reality. The score presents an audible expression of the dissonance felt by Arthur, as well as the audience’s feelings towards empathizing with an evil character. I don’t need to mention Phoenix’s performance, as almost everyone agrees that it was incredible no matter their other views.
There is an artistry at hand at least within these elements, something for any given reviewer to hook onto, to explore, to criticise or enjoy. How do these elements come together to create a middling film? I’m curious as to what these reviewers have specific issues with, or what could have improved the film. Is it the cinematography? The pacing? The sound design? The structure? Just because you missed the positive filmmaking aspects, themes or point of view, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, just as criticising a film wholly upon your interpretation of its ideology isn’t entirely useful either.
When I write, I aim to express my original thoughts and viewpoints, but what is key is that I justify their existence. I feel like this is something missing in the reviews of Joker that have focused more intensely upon reading the film as a political message, and as such these reviews have failed to fulfil a large part of their responsibility. Maybe striking “don’t see this movie” headlines about one of the season’s biggest releases gets clicks, and perhaps finding outrage in art is a sort of overwhelming experience, but there are more ways to explore a picture than its perceived ideologies, and; if a film is reaching out and tugging on people’s political leanings so violently, is it even possible to be for it to be middling in terms of quality?
If nothing else, it’s a positive to see a film spark so much discussion. Too often the best movies have a large group of writers concurring and finding thousands of different ways to say the same bland, universally appealing thing. Joker‘s stance, or lack thereof, is the cause of thoughtful engagement that is tinged by emotional reactions – which makes sense, as film is a medium designed to play on emotion. While I believe those on the side of “it’s a good movie” have the most text-based evidence for support, every aspect of the discussion has merit and brings perspectives that contribute to conversations about larger cultural issues Americans generally avoid, making Joker a useful point of discussion regarding politics, societal discourse, personal concerns and so on.
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