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It seems fairly obvious that Joker director Todd Phillips wanted to court some controversy. And not just for the disturbing content of his R-rated film. Last week, in the run-up to Joker’s Hollywood premiere, he gave several interviews practically guaranteed to set media tempers flaring. “Outrage has become a commodity,” he told one trade publication. He then lambasted “woke culture” to Vanity Fair, claiming it’s killing the comedy genre.
Since then, Joker, which received top prizes and long ovations at last month’s Venice Film Festival, has started to see its Rotten Tomatoes score drop—something that probably says more about the political preoccupations of the reviewer class than sudden shifts in opinion about the movie.
So while not wanting to defend a violent, profanity-heavy film I can’t recommend to WORLD’s audience, I nonetheless have to push back against the collective sneer that’s dismissing Phillips and the central themes of Joker as so much angry, white maleness. Part of the reason it works as a visceral gut punch is because it acknowledges some of what’s driving the epidemic of rage among America’s isolated young men.
Typically, movie villains are less-than-relatable monsters. What do they want? Destruction and death. Why do they want it? The best answer the Batman mythos has come up with so far is “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” Yet even Satan is motivated by more than this—namely, pride and envy make him want to devour the chief of his rival’s creations. And pitiable, pathetic Arthur Fleck is being devoured.
In the past, especially in the Heath Ledger incarnation, it was accurate to call the Joker nihilistic. But the reviews that do so with this film are simply wrong. To nurse grievances, one must believe in some form of justice. As played by a lurid but effective Joaquin Phoenix, Arthur believes fervently, and not without some reason, that he’s getting the short end of life’s stick. Brain damaged as a child, he’s the butt of every joke. The punching bag of every gang of street toughs. The rejected, fatherless orphan.
Added to this seething resentment, his violent tendencies are nurtured by a pornographic environment. Phillips is surprisingly restrained with his R rating here. We see billboards advertising strip clubs as well as vague glimpses of skin in the journal Arthur maniacally scribbles in. Enough to make it clear that his lust is compounding his loneliness. It’s impossible not to feel empathy for this excruciatingly sad clown.
Most of the controversy surrounding the film centers on the idea that a character who shares so many characteristics with recent mass shooters could elicit our compassion. But shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t they? Christians make great efforts to show love to murderers once they’re behind bars, but what about the strange, repellent loners before they become Jokers?
As Scottish Pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote, the seeds of every sin known to man is in each of our hearts. None of us has a position from which to feel superior, only grateful. Phillips’ treatment of this iconic villain, intended or not, shows that watering those seeds seems right to a man. Even as we’re watching the film, it, at times, feels right to us. But it ends in death.
After Arthur murders a trio of wealthy, entitled alpha males, he begins to amass followers who carry signs declaring “Resistance” and “Kill the Rich.” They cheer Arthur because of their own grievances, some of which have merit. Show me the human being who isn’t sinned against. The evil of Joker and his followers reaches full flower when they burn down all the institutions because of the dereliction of duty of some.
Of course, a remaining question, Are comic book movies—though unquestionably the collective myths of our time—really the best place to explore such highly charged, complex ideas? Phillips actually has a decent answer for that. Hollywood doesn’t make big-budget movies that aren’t about comic book characters anymore. “Look at [it] as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film,” he said in one of those interviews.
Ultimately though, Joker fails because of its genre. The character has to hit those DC marks. He has to become the mastermind supervillain directing hordes of minions. He has to rise to the top so he can take on the man in black. It’s a preposterous finale that turns all that came before into a twisted fantasy. Real Arthur Flecks don’t end that way. And in a different kind of movie, a better movie, neither would this one.