The new Joker film has polarized its audience. To some it is a classic, and Phoenix deserves an award for his performance. For others the movie is an empty shell with nothing interesting to say. From what I have seen on Twitter a lot the commentary on the film seems to be along ideological lines. The director of the film Todd Philips; has recently complained about the far left’s supposed PC agenda ruining contemporary comedy. Philips complaints about PC culture haven’t endeared him to some journalists on the left and true to form lefty papers from the Guardian to online publications like i09 have panned the film.
Obviously journalists who disliked the film aren’t necessarily doing so because they disliked a few comments made by its director. It is more likely that the film’s theme and structure triggered certain reactions in the writers. It isn’t my job here to critique various different interpretations of the movie that others have had. Rather, I will here offer a few scattered thoughts on different aspects of the film.
The Joker is an iconic character who first appeared in the DC world in a 1940 Batman comic. The Joker was inspired by a 1928 film ‘The Man who Laughs’, which was about a man with a weird deformation which makes him permanently smile in an uncanny manner. In the DC universe the Joker has been portrayed in a variety of different ways over the 80 years since his creation. On screen the Joker has gone from being a campy character in the 1960 tv show, to the gangster Joker of the 1989 Batman Movie. To many fans, the most accurate on screen depiction of the Joker was in the early 90’s animated series of Batman, when the joker was voiced by Mark Hamill.
But in the popular imagination the Joker is Heath Ledger. Ledger played the Joker in the 2008 film ‘The Dark Knight’. While the film was being edited and prepared for release Ledger died of a drug overdose. The Dark Knight was a brilliant film and Ledger’s performance was superb. Ledger’s Joker had an ambiguous back story (the Joker told many mutually inconsistent stories about how he was scarred), his behaviour was portrayed as without reason. He was just a crazed mad man who liked to destroy things. Ledger’s fantastic performance, the film being excellent, and the Joker being genuinely unnerving would have been enough to cement Ledger as THE joker in most people’s mind. But his dying before the film was released added even more to the legend of his Joker.
But Ledger’s performance and its popularity presented a problem for those who owned the Batman franchise; how to create a new Joker. When the TV show Gotham (a show exploring Batman’s childhood) began in 2014 it slowly introduced famous criminals such as the Penguin and the Riddler. But the Joker was conspicuous by his absence. Slowly they began introducing a series different characters any of which could be a childhood Joker. This was a nice move. It meant that like Ledger’s Joker they were keeping his back story ambiguous. However, eventually the settled on a Joker played by Camron Monaghan. Monaghan is an excellent actor and his Joker laugh was terrifying. But eventually they overworked the story and in the last season the Joker was like a crude caricature of Ledger’s Joker. The 2016 film ‘Suicide Squad’ had Jared Leto playing the Joker and the whole thing was unbearably cringy. Try as they did to make the Joker edgy his entire portrayal was a disaster.
While Ledger’s Joker worked because of the ambiguity of the Joker’s backstory the new movie embraces his back story, using it as a way of describing how he ultimately became who he is. The overall theme of the film is of a lonely isolated man who suffered childhood abuse, who suffers from mental health issues and eventually kills a bunch of people and becomes a cult like sensation to thousands of people.
Given that the film is a backstory to a popular bad guy in a super-hero franchise one wonders why it has elicited such a polarizing response. The response isn’t your typical one where most people pan a film and some like it or where a film is greeted with general indifference; journalists seem to care about this film and are debating whether it is a work of genius or banal rubbish.
I enjoyed the film and thought Phoenix’s performance was brilliant. I would love if they built the DC universe around the movie; instead of the dross it has pushed out in the last few years (yes Justice League I am talking to you). But I certainly don’t consider the film some kind of movie classic in the way a lot fanboys appear to.
So, if we assume I am right, (I usually am 😉) that it’s a very good but not great movie. We must wonder why all the fuss? There are plenty of criticisms that one could make about the movie. Firstly, it is a cliché to portray the Joker as a mentally ill loner. Furthermore this cliché pushes a popular mythology about mentally ill people as being dangerously violent people. The truth is that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than perpetuators. So a critic could argue that the film pushes a dangerous stereotype that could result of further stigmatising the mentally ill.
But this criticism couldn’t be why people feel so strongly about the film. The cliché about the mentally ill and violence is used in a lot of films and doesn’t usually result in such strong reactions.
Another criticism is that the films portrayal of the Joker is an attempt to humanise a monster, and these attempts are usually directed towards white male criminals. In her ‘Down Girl’ Kate Manne recounts in detail cases of where women have been raped or subject to domestic violence of various kinds. In her detailed analysis she demonstrates in case after case, white rapists are treated as victims by the press. People bemoan the ruined life of the poor white guy who was always a good student and had a bright future ahead of him only for it all to be ruined by one tragic mistake. In these narratives the rapist becomes the tragic victim and the person who is raped almost disappears from the story. Manne calls this misplaced sympathy ‘Himpathy’ .
So it is possible that some critics’ problems with The Joker movie revolve around its misplaced himpathy for a brutal murderer because of his whiteness and maleness. Indeed some of the criticisms I have seen on Twitter do have this tone. Personally I didn’t think the Joker was portrayed that sympathetically; it was possible to feel pity for him at times; e.g. for his general awkwardness and the childhood abuse he suffered. But I didn’t get a sense in the film that the Joker was anything other than a psychopath; and his past doesn’t justify his behaviour at all.
The real reason that the Joker freaked out a lot of journalists was that his cult following is something we see over and over today. The Joker as portrayed in the film stands for nothing and is killing all around him based on delusions and repressed anger. Yet despite him being an inane man with nothing coherent to offer he has inspired a mass following of idiots who have little problem with killing innocent people. The Joker is set in the seventies, cults surrounding mad man were more contained in the seventies. But with the internet and social media such as Twitter, YouTube etc cults are difficult to contain. Today disenfranchised people are flocking in their millions to sociopaths like Tommy Robinson, Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux and being deluded with various different conspiracy theories.
The Joker is an uncomfortable reminder as to how easy people are riled up by idiotic clowns with no message other than anger. In the Joker film we get to see Bruce Wayne’s father as a thoroughly unsympathetic character and part of a vast network of powerful people who don’t care about the disenfranchised masses. Rather than focusing on unhinged psychopaths like the Joker perhaps we should be focused on uncaring people in power. Perhaps we should try to create a more nurturing society and hence decrease the people who will be led by clowns into a homicidal rages.
There has been speculation that Todd Philip’s comments about PC culture was a cynical attempt to sell the film to Incels who may relate to the Joker. Some have argued that they want to market the Joker to incels in the same way the marketed female Ghost-Busters to SJW types. I wonder whether liberal critics of the film with this incel interpretation in mind may have unconsciously viewed the Joker film as a metaphor for the dangers of cults lead by dangerous clowns and whether this may have led to their overly emotional interpretation of a movie about a superhero badguy.
(disclaimer I am just spit balling here and most of what I have said is probably false 😀 )
 In a blog-post I wrote last year I discussed the case of Bridget Cleary a woman who was murdered by her husband in Ireland over a hundred years ago. A lot of scholary treatment of that case involves Himpathy for the murderer https://www.academia.edu/38237428/The_Logic_of_Misogyny_and_the_Burning_of_Bridget_Cleary.docx
“To some it is a classic, and Phoenix deserves an award for his performance. For others the movie is an empty shell with nothing interesting to say.” I haven’t watched the movie, but I have read a number of reviews of it. My sense is that few people actually believe it has nothing interesting to say. More likely, they either agree with what it says or they disagree.
“He was just a crazed mad man who liked to destroy things.” I’ve thought that there is a better interpretation of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
“In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth describes the Joker in saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But that isn’t quite right. In his own words, the Joker explains himself: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” Exactly! It’s fair. Death and destruction is the last refuge of fairness, what is necessary to bring on justice, even if it is the justice of a mad man’s chaos. The slate must be wiped clean. Then something new can emerge from the ashes. An apocalypse is a revelation.”
You bring up many good possibilities of why people react as they do to the movie. But I’d look to the larger context. All of those possibilities are contained within a sense of society-wide anxiety and mistrust, instability and breakdown. The specific response is less significant than the underlying sense of unease that is provoking it. We all sense that something is profoundly wrong about our society, even as we each have our preferred explanations and rationalizations, beliefs and biases, our chosen scapegoats and heroes.
Thanks. Yes your take on Ledger’s Joker seems to me to be largely correct. I just jotted out my blog-post over a few beers after watching the film. I am in agreement with you with your ‘something is profoundly wrong with our society’ comment. We all feel it but as you note we don’t have an adequate explanation of what precisely is wrong