Director Todd Phillips' Joker arrives in theaters Friday with plenty of controversies stirred by Phillips himself, along with the risk of an active shooter in some locations. Is a movie worth the price of admission when that is a factor?
I won't see Joker. Not this weekend. Not ever.
Even without the active shooter warnings possible at unspecified locations screening the film, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Batman's most famous villain, DC and Warner Bros. latest entry into their comic book movie canon is problematic at best... incendiary and dangerous at worse. It all brings up valuable questions in the long-standing debate about the responsibility of filmmakers to an audience and for what their films may or may not incite within them.
It's a movie that, when it's not recreating the themes and plots of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy (and perhaps missing the cautionary tale aspects of them), is chronicling the fall of a very disturbed, aspiring comedian/citizen of Gotham City -- who suffers from a tick that makes him laugh inappropriately -- as he ascends to infamy by way of crime, terror, and homicide. The movie tries to give sympathy to this anti-arc, this person shunned by society in a way that violently turns him against it. Because people didn't find his jokes as funny or as worthy of their applause and attention as he felt or believed they should. Sympathy for a guy whose ultimate coping skill is to put a gun in his hand and fire in the name of self-righteous anarchy.
This is dangerous. Is it dangerous on purpose?
There is an ongoing cycle of 'taking offense' in our culture. Someone is offended by one thing, then another group or person is offended by the offense taken and they feel trapped by the initial offense. We get a backlash, then a backlash of a backlash and then we all soon have whiplash. And it seems to just go on and on with name-calling.
Do Joker and Todd Phillips HAVE a message they are trying to impart? Or is the message just the chaos?
To combat some criticism instead of facing it people often employ straw man arguments and false equivalencies. It's not a stretch to suggest this is part of what's going on when Phillips' suggests "woke culture" is the reason he left the comedy world to make Joker. In recent interviews, Phillips comes off as someone that doesn't like that people are asking certain questions about his movie. These feel like the kinds of questions that would be core to the conception of the project in the first place.
Questions like "why make a movie about a murderous criminal that endeavors the spotlight after feeling his attempt to earn it fell short?" "Who is this movie for?" "Should we really make a movie that, to a degree, both celebrates and decries what Joker does in light of the Colorado shooting?"
There are debates about how much violence in entertainment connects to violence in real life. This movie does a little more than just depict violence, it depicts it in a manner and fashion that sets it apart. On purpose? By accident? Do we hold the filmmakers responsible for the messaging?
It's all part of a larger discussion.
But there is another big problem.
Children like Batman and Joker. They like comic books. These are, historically, things for kids. And despite the film's R-rating, children will want to see Joker on screen this way. Because they may see their parents excited about it. Because adults like the Joker, too. And those parents may take their kids to the movies, and, well, we don't need to paint that whole picture.
And it is a shame that the situation exists. For some audiences, the thought of parents taking kids to see this is ridiculous. It'll happen though. It doesn't mean we should all be deprived of the movie as a result, but it is something to consider when the movie is conceived of... maybe? Warner Bros. has not had any merchandising associated with the film so on some level they obviously get it.
And let's also be clear; people will see the movie in droves, it's spurring the conversation. It's winning awards. But we propose it's worth considering the reasons why. There is an excellent review of the film on Deadspin that places the movie squarely in the context of today. The review suggests that the movie, on a quality level, is middling and barely merits this level of discussion. It suggests the movie is just pushing buttons to push them, almost by accident, and without having any lasting purpose or reason to do so.
Todd Phillips' comments about woke culture and the inability to be effective in comedy due to it spurred the comedy community to discuss, at length all over twitter, if such a thing was true.
A recent Twitter thread by user POC_Culture summarizes the reactions and criticism leading up to the release of Joker -- and Todd Phillips' complaints about problematic "woke culture":
I'd love it if people could drop the straw man arguments re: #Joker to validate their own perspectives. Most of the worthwhile convos aren't simplistic. It's not just "it's too violent" or "violent movies make people violent." Stop acting like there isn't a real convo to be had— POC Culture (@POC_Culture) October 4, 2019
This person is spot-on. We are at a point where a problematic director who damns the very Writers Guild he is a member of is upset because people are upset by his, on the surface, problematic choices. It's ok to have this discussion right? It would be nice to have the filmmaker join the discussion more actively.
Joker also exists because of IP (Intellectual property). It's safe to say this movie only gets made if you pitch it as "and it stars the Joker in a way we've never seen before." That's troubling for the aforementioned reasons. Imagine what it would be like if this movie wasn't built around The Joker, but was more like Taxi Driver. Does it still work? Do people still want to see it? Forgetting that it would be much, much harder to fund.
Joker isn't John Wick. Video game movies and their source material don't inspire shootings the way certain pundits and politicians would like you to think they do. We're also not saying, the violence on screen is in and of itself a problem.
What may fuel the potential for another Aurora-level shooting or a very contested thread on social media, is the way this type of subject matter is seemingly glorified despite its problematic nature. The way Phillips dismisses people's criticisms of it doesn't feel responsible.
One would think Phillips would enjoy that he's started a conversation.
To quote Aaron Sorkin, everyone has the right to speak. But not everyone has the right to the microphone.
Or, in Phillips' case, the right to invalidate others' concerns and thoughts and feelings simply because he is unable or unwilling to understand, respect, or accept them.
I personally, do not wish to validate the worldview with my money at the box office. In my opinion, there are better ways to spend my cash and time.
Joker is both an arsonist and a fireman in a whole new kind of fire and it's hard to tell if there is a good reason or any reason behind it. It seems plausible that some men do indeed, just want to watch the world burn.