‘Joker’ Movie Controversy, Explained: Will ‘Joker’ Inspire Violence?

Prepare for an absolutely chaotic Oscar season. That’s, naturally, what the Joker would want, and it figures the Clown Prince of Crime will likely play a crucial role in the race for Hollywood’s most prestigious award thanks to Todd Phillips’ Joker, an origin story for Batman’s most famous foe starring Joaquin Phoenix in the role.

Of course, it’s not like the character is a stranger to this scene: Heath Ledger famously and posthumously won a Supporting Actor trophy for his interpretation of the villain in The Dark Knight. But that doesn’t make Joker‘s ascension in 2019 any less surprising. It’s still rare that a movie based on a comic property breaks through in this hoity toity arena — save for Black Panther‘s great Oscars night earlier this year — and this one comes from a director not regarded for his, let’s say, elevated material. (Phillips is best known as the director of The Hangover franchise.) And for reasons beyond even this, Joker is already shaping up to be the most controversial movie of the fall following its festival premieres in Venice and Toronto. Here’s what’s currently in the process of unfolding.

How did this all start? 

Joker‘s rise began to feel inevitable when the big fall film festivals began announcing their lineups in the late summer and we discovered he’d be popping up in Venice and Toronto — a clear sign that Warner Bros. was angling for an awards player, given those locales are where the loudest buzz starts to form. There would even be a “special screening” during the New York Film Festival, alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, in late September. (If Joker is indebted to anything, it’s Scorsese’s oeuvre, so this is bizarrely fitting.)

The hype started to become real out of Venice with some overly euphoric tweets, but critics like Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek countered those excited responses with wariness. Both Zacharek and Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson argued that it has an “irresponsible” streak in the way it tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who ends up turning to violence. Divided reactions are not unusual for a festival setting, but the Venice narrative took a turn when Joker was awarded the festival’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, a prize that has gone to Roma, The Shape of Water, and Brokeback Mountain. By the time it screened at TIFF, Joker’s Golden Lion had already been announced, making the press and industry screenings a madhouse of people lining up early to see what all this fuss was all about.

What’s ‘Joker’ even really about? 

Attempting to bring a dose of gritty reality to the genre, Joker is relatively straightforward in demonstrating how Arthur goes from sad party clown to leader of a reign of terror in 1970s Gotham. While Phillips has essentially attempted to recreate Taxi Driver’s New York, every so often you are thrust back into the realization that, no, it’s actually Gotham, home of Arkham Asylum.

We meet Arthur, a wannabe stand-up comedian, after he has been institutionalized for unknown reasons. He has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at inopportune moments, and is treated as a human punching bag by nearly everyone, save for his dotty mother (Frances Conroy). As Arthur suffers injustice after injustice, his anger swells, abetted by the fact that he is denied access to his mental health medications. He’s taunted by three douchebag Wayne (as in Bruce) employees on the subway, snaps, kills them, and finds a confidence in that power. From there, he grows further disillusioned, adopts his “nothing matters” ethos, and finds a grim giddiness. (That dance sequence you’ve seen popping up in all the marketing is an indicator of this, but there is an issue within that too: It uses the music of convicted child sex offender Gary Glitter.)

What’s the focus of the ‘Joker’ controversy? 

The long and short of it is this: Just how much of a handbook will Joker be for the disaffected looking to see a hero journey for someone who resorts to senseless violence in this era of mass shootings? In presenting Arthur as a “nice guy” at the mercy of a society who does not care about him, does it directly cater to the embittered incel crowd? Just as the Joker, in the end, inspires a wave of violence, could the movie do the same? Telegraph critic Robbie Collin tweeted: “Here is my opinion of Joker: I think it’s a very good film and I’m worried someone’s going to get killed.” To counter, a piece in The Outline readily dismisses “the assumption that violent media breeds violent behavior.”

Here’s the thing, from someone who has seen Joker: Anything resembling a “message” on screen is deeply confused. Phillips somehow manages to both stigmatize mental illness while still championing Arthur’s crimes. The director posits that his brain makes him a monster, while still finding his mania both entertaining and, somehow, heroic. Most of the people he murders are rich jerks! But also, he’s bad! Movies don’t need to moralize, nor are they forbidden from grappling with murky ethical stances, but Joker isn’t nuanced enough to yield thoughtful explorations of any of the themes it teases.

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