It’s already clear that “Joker,” the Warner Bros. film scheduled to hit theaters Oct. 4, will be very, very popular. But will it be dangerous?
Yes, we’re having that debate again. But maybe this is a good movie to have it about.
“Joker” is an origin story about the longtime “Batman” villain, a character that has been brought to life by various actors over the years: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto. This time it’s Joaquin Phoenix, considered by many to be the consummate American film actor of his generation.
Directed by Todd Phillips, best known for writing and directing the “Hangover” movies, “Joker” has already screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Early reviews have been polarized. I’ve seen it, but this won’t be a review of the film — look for that on opening day. Instead, the rising furor over what effect, if any, “Joker” may have on audiences or individuals is worth poking at and testing for leaks. Could the movie create copycat acts of violence? Are we once again blaming pop culture for the madness of the few? Will the joke be on them or us?
It’s not like this particular franchise doesn’t attract the crazies. On Sept. 24, families and friends of the 12 people killed at an opening week screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., in 2012, published a letter to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff in which they described their distress at “a movie called ‘Joker’ that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story.” The letter went on to urge the studio to fund survivor programs and use its clout to actively lobby for gun reform.
The studio responded a day later with a statement that said in part, “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.”
This hasn’t stopped the FBI and the US Army from issuing warnings, based on “credible” sources, about the potential for violence at “Joker” screenings, specifically from men self-identifying as “incels,” or involuntary celibates, who idolize the Joker character, “the violent clown from the Batman series.”
The public response has been predictably split. To free-speech advocates and fans of comic-book movies (of which “Joker” is a very dark example), it’s ridiculous to blame the inspiration for the act. They have a point. Charles Manson believed that helter-skelter was coming; does that mean we should ban “The White Album”? Would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley wanted to save Jodie Foster (or whatever she meant to him); should we burn all copies of “Taxi Driver”? Wouldn’t a sick mind find something else to fixate upon if the offending work didn’t exist?
“Joker” director Phillips has responded to the controversy by wondering why critics aren’t just as critical of the gun-crazy “John Wick” films. (There’s an answer, and it has to do with the respective nature of the main characters.) But why hasn’t “The Purge” series spilled into the real world? Why do research studies repeatedly fail to find a causal link between violent video games and mass shootings? How is anyone left alive in New Jersey after “The Sopranos”?
When these alarm bells ring, I’m reminded of a 1989 New York magazine column on Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in which journalist Joe Klein, writing in the immediate aftermath of the Central Park jogger case, predicted that “black kids” would riot after seeing this “reckless” movie. Breaking news: They didn’t.
And yet don’t we all feel, rightly or wrongly, that visceral entertainments must do something to us, and something bad to some of us? Violent media repeatedly viewed has to have an effect, numb our souls, create a need for greater violence or a wish to see it in acted out real life. This feels intuitive, doesn’t it? I mean, you and I might not do anything, but that doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. Right?
At the root of this argument is a mistake we all make, which is to believe that our values, whatever they may be, are or should be inherent in the things we watch, whether they’re art or entertainment. But art has no morals; art isn’t concerned with consequences. Art is just art; its impact is the point and the only point.
“Joker” isn’t art (although one of its problems is that it thinks it is), it’s entertainment — the carefully concocted product of a large media corporation. It’s commerce, and commerce, too, lacks intrinsic ethical value or concern over how the object will be received in the marketplace. All that matters is that it is received: If the point of art is impact, the point of commerce is profit. Whether you think one or the other should be beholden to notions of “good” and “bad” says more about you than the thing you’re talking about.
A movie like “Joker” falls somewhere in the cultural gray area between art and commerce, which means right in the middle of the battle over what either owes to the public. “Joker” takes place in a diseased and dank Gotham City that is basically Manhattan, 1977. It is about a bullied misfit whose tenderhearted dreams and hopes for romance are crushed time and again until his misery turns to wrath and his wrath is visited on society. Phillips has remade Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” for a fan base that doesn’t get the sick joke of that film’s penultimate scene, in which Travis Bickle is lionized by the media as a savior.
There’s a lot of “King of Comedy” in “Joker,” too, as well as nods to “Death Wish” and other films of the era. The ’70s could sue. But the film’s motor, the central act of its self-conscious freakshow is Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker, who transforms himself from a quavering victim to a figure of strutting self-confidence, meting out payback at the point of a gun to everyone he imagines has ever laughed at him.
Arthur is the focus of almost every scene in “Joker,” and to call him an antihero is disingenuous: He’s the film’s hero. We’re meant to empathize with him at the start and re-examine our feelings as Arthur moves further away from us and into psychopathy. At least, that’s what the filmmakers presumably want us to feel.
But meet the guy who sat a few seats down the row from me at the film’s screening in Toronto three weeks ago. He was a fan; he settled in visibly rarin’ to go. When Arthur dispatched his first victims midway through, he whooped. During the film’s climax, which involves a sudden and horrific act of violence on Joker’s part, the guy stood up and literally screamed with delight, pumping his fist in the air and cheering. There was no question who he saw as the movie’s hero or whose side he was on.
We live in a divided age, when angry and isolated young men take guns into crowds multiple times a year. In such a landscape, it’s not hard to imagine one of them, and maybe more than one, seeing Phoenix’s slow, charismatic pirouette of triumph at the end of “Joker” and feel a burning in his veins that leads him to act, somehow, somewhere. If it’s only one, that’s one too many for the families of the people such a person might harm. Is “Joker” to blame? Not for the millions who may find it a compelling night at the movies and go home unsettled but satisfied.
Is it “reckless”? Honestly, in my opinion, yeah, and if that makes me this year’s Joe Klein, so be it. To release into this America at this time a power fantasy that celebrates — that’s right, Warner Bros., celebrates — a mocked loner turned locked-and-loaded avenging angel is an act of willful corporate naivete at best, complicity at worst, and blindness in the middle.
Our entertainments are mirrors, especially the ones that don’t think they are. “Joker” holds a funhouse looking-glass up to its audience, and plenty won’t like what they see. I’m worried about the ones who do, and I’d more than happy to be wrong about that.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.