Warning! Major SPOILERS for Joker ahead.
Joker has been surrounded by controversy, but with the film now released we can see that not only was this completely overblown, but that pushing the backlash suited Warner Bros’ own agenda. Directed by Todd Phillips, with a script from himself and Scott Silver, Joker has so far been divisive.
While Joker won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, it’s also faced a major backlash for its apparent violence, which hasn’t been helped by various people involved (especially Phillips) weighing in on the matter. That hasn’t prevented the film from being a major box-office success, and it’s even apparent that the controversy has helped Joker in that regard, since it drummed up so much extra interest in the movie.
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It’s not just at the box-office where Joker‘s controversy has come in handy though, but also the discourse around the movie. That has centered on the backlash, and the subsequent backlash to the backlash, but this has been used by Warner Bros to sell the movie and cover up Joker‘s actual problems.
How WB Pushed The Joker Controversy
Although the idea of Joker being a controversial movie didn’t stem from Warner Bros., the studio has actually leaned into it. When the backlash was ramping up, WB released a statement about the controversy. While they focused the discussion on gun control and rejected the notion of Arthur Fleck being seen as a hero, they also didn’t try to play down the conversation around the movie too much, instead stating that “…one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues.”
That has continued throughout the Joker press tour, where Todd Phillips has made numerous remarks about violence in cinema, many of them somewhat outlandish, such as comparisons to John Wick and blaming PC culture for some of the negative responses to it. Warner Bros. then made the decision not to have reporters on the red carpet for Joker‘s premiere (along with extra security), a decision that was framed around avoiding the controversy, but in actuality ended up continuing it further (which they likely knew). The Joker backlash has completely dominated the film’s conversation, but that has at least in part been pushed by the studio. As mentioned above, it’s helped the film be so talked about and ensured people want to see what the fuss is about, but it also hides other issues.
Joker’s Controversy Hides The Film’s Real Flaws
With so much talk ahead of Joker‘s release being about the violence – both that in the movie and that it might inspire – you’d be forgiven for thinking that was the only problem with the movie. While Joker‘s reviews have been divided, it has often seemed like the problems critics had with it started and ended with fears it was a dangerous and irresponsible movie. That may have been true for some critics, but it’s also clear that this hid bigger problems with the film.
Joker gets a lot of things right: Joaquin Phoenix’s Clown Prince of Crime is incredible; the cinematography from Lawrence Sher is superb, and there are numerous other more technical aspects it excels in. But where Joker suffers is the script from Phillips and Silver, which has little to do with the violence in the movie, but more to do with what’s actually being written and then spoken. Joker makes some vague nods and allusions to big ideas and topics – mental healthcare, gun control, financial and societal inequality, how a person can be driven to do such things as Arthur – but it never goes into the depth required to do them justice.
Take, for instance, how vague and ill-defined Arthur’s own mental illness is, or how the enemy of Gotham is the catch-all “rich” without any direct specifics of what’s happening or why. Phillips uses the iconography of Martin Scorsese masterpieces such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but the script offers little evidence that he truly understands them, or at least that he can’t add anything new.
Again, much of Joker is excellent, but it’s not because of the writing, where the story, dialogue, and character work are all lacking and need to be elevated by Phoenix’s performance (a testament to just how astonishingly good he is) and those other elements. But so much of these criticisms, even if they were buried within reviews, were overlooked, ignored, or not made in the build-up to the film, because everything was all about the backlash.
Joker Proves The Violence Backlash Was Dumb
What’s really striking when revisiting the Joker controversy after seeing the movie is that, well, the whole thing was incredibly dumb in the first place. There have been some major concerns raised over the film, and while it might be going too far to say that none of them are understandable, it has been blown so far out of proportion that it’s actually hard to believe quite how big a deal it all became.
Is Joker a violent movie? Yes, of course it is. It’s an R-rated comic book movie that tells the story of a murderous clown; by it’s very nature, it has to include violence. Arthur Fleck shoots people dead from close range and, in one particularly gruesome scene, beats a supposed friend to a bloody pulp. Sure, it’s a bit grim at times, but it’s not worse than anything that has been shown in countless other movies – from Scorsese to Tarantino to foreign language dramas and beyond, many of which have received waves of critical acclaim. There’s not even that much violence in the movie, which is quite a startling realization after reading so much about it beforehand.
Of course, the Joker backlash wasn’t just about the violence, but how it might inspire copycats. As with anything, there are no guarantees that no one will take the wrong message from Joker, or that acts won’t be committed in its name. But there are no guarantees that it will either. And for all the issues with the script, there’s little in the movie to support the notion that it encourages this kind of behaviour or glamorizes the Joker. If by the end someone is watching and still somehow thinks he’s in the right or a hero of some kind, that’s not the movie’s fault. Joker deserves criticism for a variety of legitimate reasons, but the violence controversy isn’t one of them.
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