Against my better judgement, since the trailers just made it look like a noxious movie-watching experience, I decided to see Joker yesterday. What I saw is a movie that is an insult to the mentally ill, but it’s still a well-acted film. It is an insult to the victims of white terrorism, but it is still a well-plotted film. It is an insult to fans of Batman comics, but it is obviously Oscar-worthy. All in all, seeing it will likely have you feeling as conflicted as I.
Back in 1997 with the release of the insultingly puerile Batman & Robin, I wished for nothing more than comics to be taken seriously by Hollywood. But not like this. Now that we’re in the age of comics-dominated cinema, I think Joker represents what happens when Hollywood takes comics too seriously. This thing seems to forget, the entire time, that the Joker is a comic book villain, and, therefore, exists in a realm of suspended disbelief. Making the character “realistic” by giving him a grim, realistic backstory that matches that of any other white terrorist we see on the news seems like a misstep.
The creators of this film made a point to (proudly) announce that this story would not be based on any preexisting Joker origin story from the comics, and it shows, because comics fans will not find a recognizable Joker here. At. All. This feels like a comic book movie made by people who are ashamed of comics books. I’m the first person to defend comic book movies making necessary, thematic, aesthetic changes to characters and stories to better suit the film medium, but this is ridiculous. Comics fans will likely cringe when they see the people of Gotham embrace the Joker and celebrate him as a hero of the down-trodden rather than scream in fear of him and his homicidal, humor-themed killing sprees.
Here is where some of the more disturbing elements of the film come into play, the elements that make it such a controversy; its mixed messages and its aforementioned tone-deafness. Release this movie in any other time period, and we would call it a masterpiece, but now? In this age of mass killings by white terrorists, most of whom are young, straight men who blame “society” and “others” for their perceived hardships, do we want a movie that confirms that narrative in their heads? In this age of right-wing media lying to its followers by telling them that those “left-wingers” protesting against the rise of fascism are violent “anti-fa” thugs, do we want a movie being marketed to millions of people conflating left-wingers with violence by showing the people of Gotham take up clown masks and riot, all while carrying very familiar “resist” signs? In this age of right-wing politicians blaming gun violence on the mentally-ill (a marginalized and diverse group of people who, wholesale, aren’t any more violent than the rest) instead of on our lack of common-sense gun control, do we want a film showing audiences that Arthur Fleck begins his downward spiral when receiving a gun but also claims something akin to “this is what happens when the mentally-ill meet a society that doesn’t care”? It’s disturbing to think what impressionable, angry white minds think when they hear Arthur say that he’s only “noticed” and knows that he “exists” after shooting three people.
Alas, here is where I feel so conflicted and why the movie is problematic. To argue that this movie shouldn’t exist or be seen because it could cause violence brings us directly into reifying ridiculous right-wing talking points where media such as violent movies and video games are blamed for white terrorism instead of lack of gun control, racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. To say that this movie will cause some of those out there with a predisposition for violence to engage in violent acts is an insult to all those who see the movie, recognize its cultural value (which there is some), and don’t choose to murder people. In all likelihood, if someone is going to commit white terrorism, they don’t need Joker to do it. If it’s not Joker that inspires them, then it would just be something else, something else they would latch onto, so the movie per se is not to blame. Honestly, I don’t like even going there, as it were. As a librarian, I am dedicated to standing against censorship, so telling people not to see this movie isn’t really my style. But proclaiming the movie to be in poor taste and tone-deaf? Yeah. I can do that.
There is a greater discussion here about the social responsibility of media. What sort of responsibility does fiction, in particular, have to society? I cannot answer that question alone. But if it is possible for fiction to be socially irresponsible, then surely this is it. However, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say that I was entertained and utterly entranced by Joaquin Phoenix’s (no relation, I think!) performance during the entire 2 hours and 2 minutes in the theater. So, again, there is value here.