The movie is called “Joker,” but most people aren’t laughing.
The highly-anticipated film by Todd Phillips, previously best known for directing “The Hangover” franchise, arrived in theaters Oct. 4, to record-breaking box office — and a bucketload of controversy.
The film chronicles Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the alter ego of the titular Batman villain, as a failed stand-up comedian who goes on a killing spree against those who mistreated him in his life. Meant to be a play on the current superhero fad, “Joker” turned heads at the Venice Film Festival, winning first prize and drawing praise for Phoenix’s performance. Not long afterward, however, the film got hit with more scathing reviews saying it, among other things, portrays mass murderers as sympathetic.
The movie’s subject matter is also making many people nervous about theater safety, causing many movie theaters to take extra security measures at screenings. Many theaters won’t let you see the movie in a costume or bring in large bags. The theater in Aurora, Colorado, that was the site of a 2012 mass shooting during a screening of “The Dark Knight” declined to screen the film at all.
Despite the backlash, “Joker” has still been dominating the box office, bringing in record-breaking numbers for October. But the internet has been very active in questioning whether the film deserves the attention, while also mocking, praising and parodying it to death in the weeks since the release. And this may be exactly what Phillips wanted.
Phillips says he made “Joker” with the racy “Hangover” style of humor in mind, seemingly intending to either challenge or scandalize its audience, depending on your viewpoint. "With all my comedies — I think that what comedies in general all have in common — is they’re irreverent," he told Vanity Fair. He explained that he felt that disrespect was being throttled by modern culture. “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out," Phillips said.
The problem with that statement is that Phillips treats irreverence in film as if it were the same as offensiveness. With “Joker,” he did not try to create a film that was challenging to stereotypical or cinematic norms, he created a film that was meant to upset and offend people and the ideas he used are not even that original.
First, it’s an issue regardless that the film blindly promotes the idea that mentally ill people are just murderers waiting to happen. Depicting a mentally ill person as a killer is not as revolutionary as Phillips seems to think it is. Neither are films sympathizing with killers — there are plenty of films that have done so, many in a more nuanced way.
It’s also simply not very intelligent to create a film — especially in a time when mass murders are a nearly constant fear in our country — that portrays violence as a natural reaction to just being down on your luck. There is no one to be helped by that kind of story.
But does any of this make “Joker” "cancel-worthy?" Many of the film’s largest defenders have used the excuse that "art should be uncensored."
While all art, including cinema, should be free expression, this controversy creates an opportunity to reevaluate the kinds of things we make and consume. Was there truly a deeper social commentary within “Joker”? I doubt it, but it also doesn’t matter.
As much as I and many others may have a distaste for the message of “Joker,” the greatest takeaway from this controversy should not be a strict condemnation of any current media, but an invitation to evaluate what media we put in the world, as well as take out of it. While they have significance in their place in time, we are not in the world of the “Hangover” films anymore, and I believe our cinema should reflect that. Others may disagree, but either way, we need to be much more active in reflecting those viewpoints, beyond just complaining about it online.
It is not a job for some invisible “movie god” to determine what films matter. There will always be a Todd Phillips in the world making a movie like “Joker.” If you think it’s wrong to create media that can inspire violence, don’t just Tweet about it. I encourage you to instead actively make and patronize media that has a point, that is not made simply to offend.
And if you think that the backlash against “Joker” is too restrictive of art and artists, feel free to go see it as many times as you possibly can. Just don’t invite me.