It’s hard to think of a film in recent years that’s garnered as much controversy, debates and hot takes as Todd Philips’ Joker. Opening first to rave reviews and Joaquin-Phoenix-for-an-Oscar calls, the more people that saw the film in the weeks preceding its public opening weekend, the more pervasive the idea that this origins story was actually in danger of inciting violence. Critics who have dared to discuss their dislike of the film have been subject to online slander from those who brand it a masterpiece. The discourse has been relentless, not helped by the seemingly doomed press trail of the film, with Phillips claiming that “woke culture” has made it impossible to be funny, Phoenix walking out of an interview on the suggestion that his character could inspire copycat violence.
The connection between Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck – a lonely, unwell man who literally utters the words “what do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” – and the angry, hateful world of the ‘incel’ community, is an easy one to make. Arthur lives with his mother and is bullied and harassed by strangers on the street. He loses his beloved job as an entertainer, where he first dons the clown outfit, after the gun given to him by his co-worker falls out of his trouser leg and onto the floor of a children’s hospital ward. He is rejected by the woman he likes, the worsening mental health services in the Reagan-era-esque Gotham of the film, and even the talk show host (Robert DeNiro) that he has idolised since he was a child. One of the film’s closing scenes depicts the carnage that Gotham’s divisive politics has erupted into, as a mob of clown mask-wearing men passionately praise Fleck after he has just shot DeNiro’s Murray Franklin in the face on live TV, and the link to the idolisation of mass shooters that incels are known for is impossible to ignore.
However, to say that Joker is capable of being “dangerous” for this reason is to give the film slightly more credit than it is worth. When Fleck has only his second real interaction with Sophie, his neighbour (Zazie Beetz), he enters her apartment, sits on her sofa and tells her he’s had a rough day. This is, crucially, the moment we realise that previous scenes of Sophie and Fleck dating were actually a figment of his deranged imagination: a Fight Club-style montage portraying the solitary reality of seemingly happy earlier scenes makes sure to spell this out for us. As he sits in her apartment now, Sophie is obviously perturbed and asks him to leave, and Phillips makes a wise decision here not to depict any violence towards her. Fleck doesn’t even seem to believe that the situation could have gone any other way: painfully aware of his precious grandeur delusions, he has resigned to the fact that the only thing Sophie feels towards him is fear. It’s also worth noting that by this point Fleck has already killed five people – three of these being the exact type of Wall Street yuppies that this version of Gotham City (and the film’s overarching ideology) rails against.
It is the murder of DeNiro’s Murray Franklin that epitomises Fleck’s feelings of rejection and isolation from society, rather than an attack towards a woman, and it also serves as the catalyst for the violent riots that form the film’s climax. After asking Franklin his ‘joke’ about crossing mentally ill loners with an unbothered society – as well as telling other inappropriate jokes and admitting to the Wall Street murders – he tells the punchline: “I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve!” Then, in a startlingly realistic shot (if only for its lack of quick-cutting or dramatic soundtrack), Fleck shoots his childhood hero in the face in front of a live audience. The viscerality of this scene may be intensified by the fact that there are multiple videos on the internet replaying the real-life on-air shootings and suicides of the past (Christine Chubbuck, R. Budd Dwyer, etc.), or it may be due to the realisation that Franklin was the only living character left whose presence in Fleck’s life had, at least in this particular scene, been real. One by one, Fleck eliminates the characters we’ve been asked to care about, whether literally or by revealing that their relationship to him was fabricated, until all we have left is the deranged Joker figure that we are, by now, certain of our hatred for.
The fact that Fleck believes the people he is killing are simply getting what they deserve for their indifference to his tragic existence does not mean that Phillips is inviting the audience to also feel that way. Whether we do or not is an uncomfortable consideration; we have no reason to empathise for the Wall Street bullies, who we witness harassing a woman travelling alone before moving onto Fleck, but the violent impalement of Fleck’s ex-coworker is more complicated. However, while Phillips’ perceived encouragement of his audience to empathise with his protagonist has been widely hailed as the danger at the heart of Joker (though Michael Moore believes it’s actually more dangerous not to watch the film), it’s the perpetuation of the well-worn trope of mental illness being linked to violent tendencies that is more concerning. Scenes which take place inside a mental hospital are shrouded in cliches, from showing a man thrashing and screaming whilst tied down to a stretcher, to the ideology that children abused at the hands of mentally ill parents will go on to abuse others, as well as developing violent depression and psychosis, as Fleck does. As Hannah Woodhead states, the film “undermines anything it attempts to say about the need for better mental healthcare by presenting Arthur Fleck as an unstable man prone to violent outbursts, whereas in reality, multiple studies have proven that the mentally ill are among the most vulnerable in society”.
One of the already infamous scenes of the film is soundtracked by convicted paedophile Gary Glitter’s song Rock & Roll Part 2, which plays after Fleck has committed his sixth murder and dances down the steps near his house that become something of a MacGuffin in the narrative (and have also, uncomfortably, become a major tourist attraction at their real-life home in the Bronx). It’s hard to know whether the problematic song choice was intended to reflect Fleck’s descent into irrevocable insanity and violence – two things which, as mentioned, go hand in hand in the film – or whether it was simply chosen due to Phillips’ love of the song, but fortunately it’s now been confirmed that Glitter won’t in fact profit from any royalties. Still, the top Google search result when you type in “Rock & Roll Part 2” is a fan-made “Joker Music Video”, comprising of clips of Fleck from the film and, of course, set to the tune of the controversial song.
In fact, there are plenty of scenes in Joker which hone in on Fleck’s worsening mental state and unpredictable affinity for violence, and they’re generally the most effective and memorable. We zoom into an unsettling smile as he stands in a lift in his building, on his way to appear on Franklin’s talk show and likely planning how he’ll execute the on-air murder. After killing for the first time, he dances in a dimly lit abandoned bathroom dressed in his clown get-up, the visceral cinematography of the scene hinting at Fleck’s transformation into the Joker. There’s an important conversation to be had about the danger of glamourising murderous characters, or marketing their insanity as ‘cool’, but Phillip’s film is far and away not the first to do so. When we remember Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it is not for the performance of Christian Bale’s virtuous Batman, but for that of Heath Ledger’s unstable, unpredictable Joker. Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules reciting Ezekiel 25:17 before murdering someone in Pulp Fiction is one of the most infamous scenes of the film, is endlessly quoted and often appears on bedroom posters on the walls of Tarantino, and indeed film, fans. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigur. Psychopathic male characters – and recently sometimes female characters, too, such as Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne – are often a film’s most memorable factor, and uncomfortably idolised by its audience. The only difference with Joker is that Todd Phillips doesn’t try to hide his desire for us to obsess over Phoenix’s performance and Fleck’s mental state. Having his protagonist utter lines such as “All I have are dark thoughts” to his therapist, and dedicating more than one (beautifully filmed) dance scene to portraying the irrevocable descent into insanity that Fleck undertakes, Phillips determines that this iteration of the Joker will attract an army of fervently passionate fans, despite the upsettingly violent murders we see him commit.
The gargantuan amount of discourse™ surrounding Joker undoubtedly says something about the cultural landscape that the film has been released in, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular comic-book film is ultimately dangerous, or that it should be avoided. Furthermore, for the film to be censored in any way would follow an unnerving pattern after the recent cancelling of The Hunt, the satirical, Hunger Games-style film that drew in criticism after its trailer promised scenes of shootings as a group of people are hunted by ‘elites’. Limiting the release of these films, or dissuading audiences from seeing them, won’t stop people like Todd Phillips from wanting to make them. And as he should; Joker certainly perpetuates some harmful, yet pervasive stereotypes, but its ideology isn’t complex or nuanced enough to add anything new to this conversation. And, perhaps, no more should Phillips be chastised for his portrait of a psychopath than Christopher Nolan should for his.