Contains minor spoilers
Todd Phillips’ Joker opened this week to mixed reviews after its release was marred with the controversy surrounding its violent content. Indiewire called it a ‘toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’, and the families of the victims of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado cinema shooting penned a letter to Warner Bros., the studio that produced the film, appealing for them to support the anti-gun movement in a variety of ways, including stopping donations to politicians who accept funds from the NRA. Warner Bros. responded with a statement, saying:
“Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”Warner Bros
Despite attempts by not only the studio but Phillips and lead actor Joaquin Phoenix to denounce claims that the film encourages violence, several screenings across the US have been forced to hire a larger police presence, with one cinema in Huntington Beach, California closing for the day after a ‘credible threat’ was made. However, box office statistics have now placed Joker ahead of last year’s Venom for the best October opener, showing that audiences are ignoring the critics and choosing to find out for themselves the nature of the film.
The choice by Phillips to go a different route for Joker’s origin story (against the ‘unrealistic’ choices made in other versions) was a risk, and as a standalone film it paid off. Phoenix’s Joker, Arthur Fleck, isn’t one for sequels, but as a character study, the film works, especially in contrast with the spate of recent comic book films which seem to focus more on appealing to young fans. Joker is firmly an adult comic book film, with the darkest of humour (such as when Arthur’s colleague, a man with dwarfism, has to ask a murderous Fleck to undo the chain on the door because he cannot reach). And it works- Fleck’s transformation into the Joker improves the film vastly, mostly because, yes, in the beginning, Phoenix’s character seems to be building the origins of a modern internet incel.
Arthur Fleck is a loner. He still lives with his mother, is teased by his colleagues, and despises the state that Gotham City is falling into, and Phillips emphasises this with the first part of the film essentially composing of Fleck being repeatedly beaten down- literally. The repetitiveness becomes a bit tiring, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats waiting for something else to happen, and when it finally comes in the form of Fleck shooting 3 rich white men who attack him on the subway, it’s several moments too late.
A slow start doesn’t mean the whole film is unsalvageable. From his first killing, Phoenix’s Joker rises like the actor’s namesake, and we see the man behind the clown in a whole other light. Phoenix has perfected the laugh of the character, a key personality trait within the film, based on people who suffer from pathological laughter, and it’s the perfect mix of comedy and creepy. The audience never knows whether he is serious or not- and that’s the best part. Fleck’s resentment for his mother begins to show as he descends further into the hereditary madness that, despite the audience knowing the character, still manages to blindside us. The violence has been overhyped by audiences- yes, there are gory moments in the film, but they’re no more violent than most horror films, suggesting that the concern over the portrayal of such dark scenes is simply because of the original link to ‘inceldom’.Joker has even been tipped for Oscar nominations. Does it deserve them? The film could easily be nominated in several categories without film buffs questioning the choice. However, the controversy surrounding the film could impact the decision of the Academy members. Both the brilliance of the film and the terror of the message it shows have been overhyped in a politically toxic world to create a hysteria that has only served to propel the film to record-breaking heights. Overall, I came out of the film having enjoyed it, but not glorifying it as many feared. Maybe that’s just because I’m not an incel.
Image Credit: Empire