‘Joker’ Isn’t Out Yet, But It’s Already One Of 2019’s Most Divisive Films. Why So Serious?

'Joker' might re-invent the superhero movie, but it's also been called a "toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels". Here's why.

Todd Phillips' Joker

Debuting to an eight-minute standing ovation, Joker‘s proved a surprise favourite at Venice Film Festival — and that was before it took the top prize. Considering that the last two Gold Lion winners also swept the Oscars, there’s a good chance Joker will dominate this award season. Depending on whether you’re talking to comic book aficionados or cinephiles, this is either terribly exciting or terribly mortifying.

Directed by Todd Phillips, whose credits include The Hangover series, Road Trip and Old School, Joker is somewhat of a left-turn both for him and the DC Universe (which, on canon terms, it will stand alone from, even if it’s DC’s next big film). As a gritty, art-house leaning anti-hero study, Joker‘s far removed from the tropes and tone of most superhero films, including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Heavily indebted to ’70s and ’80s Scorsese character studies, such as Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, Joker grounds the oft-enigmatic Arthur Fleck’s anarchy with an origin story, empathising Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker where Heath Ledger’s largely didn’t.

For some, it’s not only a daring and powerful film, but a possible turning point for a genre which in the last decade has ballooned in size and clout without ever really stretching its artistic limits. For others, Joker‘s a dangerous, ill-advised choice to turn a man who feels ignored by society into a violent anti-hero at a time where MRA’s and incel ideology are at the heart of most misogynist and white supremacist violence, including the US’s daily mass shootings.

Joker will be released October 3 in Australia; while we’re little under a month off, it’s already proving to be one of 2019’s most divisive films.

Without spoiling anything, here’s why — and what it represents on a larger scale.

The Darkest Knight

Since its announcement, Joker has been controversial — given how acclaimed Heath Ledger’s Joker was (and that The Dark Knight came out in 2008), it was hard to imagine even someone as revered as Phoenix not acting in Ledger’s shadow. They were big clown shoes to fill.

Then, when the script — co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver (8-Mile, The Fighter) — leaked earlier this year, new fears arose. People worried the film could prove too sympathetic to the Joker, a terrorist who bases his killing sprees off Red Pill-esque ideologies about the inherent evils of a society that rejected him. Plus, without Batman to beat the Joker up, how would the film balance his voice out?

As reviews trickled out from its debut at Venice last week, critics were split on the film’s politics, but rarely its quality. Joker, by most accounts, is an excellent film — Phoenix’s acting is supposedly superb, the gritty style exquisite, and it’s packed with meaning for our time, with Time Out calling it “a truly nightmarish vision of late-era capitalism” and “arguably the best social horror film since Get Out”.

Reviews praise it for not playing safe, either. According to IndieWire‘s David Ehrlich, it’s “unquestionably the boldest reinvention of ‘superhero’ cinema since The Dark Knight: a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century”. In the very next line, he then called it a “toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels”.

Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek agrees, writing that “Arthur inspires chaos and anarchy, but the movie makes it look like he’s starting a revolution where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the sad guys who can’t get a date become killer heroes.”

Ehrlich says the superhero skin of the film makes the Joker’s story aspirational, and finds that it ultimately falls under his spell. He fears audiences will do the same. It’s this last point — that audiences will be incited into violence by the film — that’s proved divisive.

In a Guardian op-ed, Christina Newland called the take “alarmist”. Now, a bunch of people who haven’t seen the film are arguing online about its content.

Is The Joker Critic-Proof?

For many fans, the criticism’s ‘real purpose’ is clear. It’s yet another example of cinephiles trying to undermine superhero films as ‘movies’, even when one is given the seal of approval from one of the world’s most esteemed film festivals.

And, to some extent, that’s true. The wide-spread disbelief to Joker’s Golden Lion win betrays a fundamental belief that superhero flicks could never match the same heights of ‘true film’. That snobbery comes through loud and clear in Ehrlich’s review, where he calls Joker “the worst case scenario for the film world”, where giant IP reboots, spin-offs and remakes — already swallowing most cinema screen-times — shoot off into different genres as a guaranteed money maker.

“The next Lost in Translation will be about Black Widow and Howard Stark spending a weekend together at a Sokovia hotel,” he prophesies. “The next Carol will be an achingly beautiful period drama about young Valkyrie falling in love with a blonde woman she meets in an Asgardian department store.”

Ouch. But still, the feverish need to defend Joker from all criticism before seeing it is its own (minor) radicalisation. Once a minority, comic-book lovers are far from the stereotypical image we still hold onto.

Superhero fans aren’t just downtrodden nerds: they’re a global box office heavyweight audience, one that crosses every intersection of identity (economic, racial, sexual, gender and geographic). Just as they can be anyone, they can also be bullies, ones who will fling abuse at anyone who dares suggest Avengers: Endgame was anything other than the decade’s film pinnacle, failing to separate its economic success and fan service from its legitimate flaws — let alone what it stands to mean or say.

But the personal connection people have to these stories renders them the underdog who needs to fight back, misunderstood by the critics and establishment, while ignoring that the IPs they champion (largely owned by one company, no less) currently have the rest of the film industry at its knees.

Another Batman Film? You’re Joking!

And then there’s the unspoken issue with Joker. If The Dark Knight came out just 11 years ago, is this just yet another reboot disguised as artful interpretation, fortified by casting one of our most renowned character actors?

Of course, Joker isn’t rendered pointless just because the The Dark Knight exists. But it is worth asking whether both are necessary — not in the sense of entertainment needing an artful/social purpose, but whether its guaranteed box office success outweighs its risks.

Unlike Joker, The Dark Knight keeps the villain as antagonist. Without an origin story, Ledger’s Joker’s violence lands without legs, rendering his monologues as manic ravings. But even if Nolan’s film ultimately frames Joker as an evil to be overcome, the character captures an anger felt by a male audience. Just as with Fight Club‘s pseudo-intellectual terrorist Tyler Durden before him, Ledger’s Joker was elevated into a martyr by an audience eager to miss the point.

It’s fairly innocuous for teenage boys to wear shirts emblazoned with the Joker’s cool dialogue; it’s another for him to become the symbol of a half-ironic  ‘We Live In A Society’ meme, which, depending on the context, lionises or deprecates him. In one extreme case, the mass shooter of a cinema screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 referred to himself as the Joker.

That’s cause for concern — but, at the same time, this is far from Joker‘s issue alone. The Matrix, Natural Born Killers and Fight Club have been cited in acts of violence: Joker’s own ur-text, Taxi Driver, was the main inspiration behind Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassination in 1981. All are, to some extent, films which interrogate the urge towards violence, rather than promote it.

To what degree any film (or video game) can be the cause or catalyst behind a horrific incident is dubious at best, completely unfair at worst. But it’s undeniable the media we consume can erode empathy as much as it can cultivate it.

Joker may not be the film we all want (what is, besides Paddington 2?), but neither does it seem to be the film we deserve. Whether intentionally or not, its valorisation of a loner seeking revenge will speak to the angry and lost men of the world who feel discarded by society.

The troubled, misunderstood male genius isn’t a new story: it’s at the centre of the 20th century canon, from Coppola to Catcher In The Rye, Pablo Picasso to The Shining. Most of these portraits try to argue that the innate failure many men feel is a crisis of masculinity — a failure to accept that the grand economic successes they were promised aren’t possible. But even still, there is almost always more empathy for the man stuck on the ladder than those a rung below who take their wrath.

It’s also a story that cinephiles repeatedly dish out awards for. We love men behaving badly, and part of the disdain surrounding Joker is unmistakably snobbery — it’s too curious that the line is being drawn now. And as Christina Newland wrote for The Guardian, “when people prepare themselves to hate a film based on its perceived political position, the culture of cinema suffers.”

Still, there is something particularly garish about Joker wrapping up incel anger in comic book shrink-wrap. Whether intentionally or not, a burgeoning rage will be sold through movie tickets and tie-in merch, not to mention literal trophies.

Perhaps it’s just a way to truly diversify the DCU in a way Marvel hasn’t yet: where the feminist leanings of Wonder Woman target one audience, and Joker covers another. It’s important to hear both sides, right?

Joker will be released in Australia October 3.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.