‘The Joker’: A Reckless Narrative from an Increasingly Irrelevant Voice
By Kaitlin Konecke
A Reckless Narrative from an Increasingly Irrelevant Voice
I confess, when I saw the trailer for The Joker, the newest iteration of the popular comic book villain’s origin story, I was intrigued. But I’m easily swept up in grand, sweeping musical cues, and darkly artistic slow-motion movements in movie trailers. But when you strip away these visuals and music, what you’re left with is a story that not only isn’t that compelling, but is borderline reckless in this current American climate.
Because The Joker isn’t really saying anything new. It’s simply a story about a man who society beat down—women rejected him, his career didn’t flourish, he was bullied by rich and poor alike. He is a lonely outcast who becomes an agent of chaos, eventually inspiring others like himself (that is, self-declared “clowns”) to join him in committing violent acts. And THAT narrative is a big problem.
I get why the Joker is a compelling character in the comic book universe. He’s the unstoppable force to Batman’s immovable object. He’s chaos in Batman’s rigid rules of order. He’s fun to watch and weird and insane. He’s a psycho in a clown costume. And in film, he has been portrayed by some fantastic actors—Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, and now Joaquin Phoenix. Each of these actors brought something new and interesting to the role, but a good performance shouldn’t be a distraction to trick us into thinking a movie has depth. Because all the Joker is and should be is a psycho in a clown costume. If you are going to make an origin story about a person who ends up being a crazy murderer, you shouldn’t frame him or romanticize him as some victim or antihero.
Which is exactly what The Joker does. What this film wants is for us to feel sympathy for him; it wants us to see him as a victim, and it wants us to see catharsis in the Joker really sticking it to the society that rejected him. And that is not a story that should be told; not now, not in this America.
The character of the Joker is already put up on a pedestal by disturbed men. In Aurora Colorado in 2012, when James Eagan Holmes burst into a movie theatre and shot into the audience with multiple firearms, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others, he was dressed as the Joker.
In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, before killing himself. He left behind a YouTube video and a lengthy manifesto detailing his hatred of women, and explaining the mass shooting was his “retribution.”
Four years later, in 2018, 25-year-old Alex Minassian deliberately drove a van into a crowd of people in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, killing 10 and injuring 16. It was later revealed, via a Facebook post made by Minassian, that he was seemingly inspired by Elliot. Rodger, declaring himself an incel (or, involuntary celibate), and bestowing praise upon Rodger, who he called the “Supreme Gentleman.”
What does any of that have to do with the Joker? It is clear that some of those in the incel community (particularly violent extremists) relate to his story—a reject who enacts revenge with violence. He’s a glamorized character. He embodies chaos. He justifies violence, promotes hate, excuses anger. He’s exactly the kind of character a certain faction of alt-right white men with a vendetta against women would relate to.
Now, is it the fault of the character that he is these things? Does the Joker really make anyone or convince anyone to commit murder? Of course not. But it’s downright irresponsible to make a film where the audience is meant to feel sympathetic towards such a character. That should not be the message of your movie, especially when your movie doesn’t even say a whole hell of a lot about anything.
What really seals the deal for me that this film is problematic, is director Todd Phillips’ recent comments in Vanity Fair on why he left comedy to make a dark drama.
“Go try and be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Phillips says. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do i do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh, I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
“That,” being this film, which the magazine described as “a critique of Hollywood” that centers around “an alienated white guy whose failure to be funny drives him into a vengeful rage.”
And someone who says he stopped making bro comedies because he feels ostracized and threatened by “woke culture” (which in this instance really just means people who don’t think his offensive jokes are funny) is not the person who should be making a movie about a character that is the embodiment of that idea and is essentially incel propaganda. Because, ultimately, that viewpoint that he expressed in that article not only leaks into the film, it IS the film. So what we are left with is a nice-looking movie with a great performance, that is doing its damndest to convey to the audience that mass murder and insanity are not only understandable outcomes when the world doesn’t work out the way you want it to, but justifiable ones. Someone with twisted ideals is susceptible to being swept up in something that reaffirms their already problematic and dangerous beliefs. The Joker is not an antihero. He’s a psycho. To portray him as anything else is reckless. And the last thing this world needs right now is reckless filmmaking by a white man who is outraged that his privileged take on the world is no longer relevant.