This is why we can’t have nice things. Following last week’s Emmy Awards, a photo emerged of an exultant Phoebe Waller-Bridge nursing a victory margarita in one hand and a Marlboro in the other, surrounded by glinting golden trophies. It was almost subjectively a pretty cool image, especially for those long enamored with the artist. But nothing gold can stay. First, Phoebe-fanatics went a little overboard yas kween-ing, run me over with a car-ing, and, of course, this is everything-ing. Then came the media coverage, complete with reporting on how the photo came together and how it almost fell apart. Finally, there was the backlash from people upset that the photo dangerously glamorized cigarettes and margaritas, and from people sick of seeing this same image on their feeds again and again.
This is how we ruin everything: over-amplifying adulation, stratifying into tribes—and being utterly exhausting.
The latest victim of that same insidious cycle is the new film Joker, out in theaters Friday.
At first, it sounded like, well, a joke. Just one year after Jared Leto scuzzed up the screen with his dud gangster take on Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, the director of The Hangover and Old School announced that he was making a stand-alone Joker movie. Here we go again. How far Batman’s most worthy adversary had fallen from the cinematic heights of yore, presumably.
A few months later, though, the casting of soulful-eyed Joaquin Phoenix piqued fan interest. As did the first trailer a year later. Finally, Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival in late August, which is how cineastes entered the broken house of mirrors in which we now find ourselves.
Much like the Waller-Bridge photo, it started with applause: an eight-minute standing ovation, followed by a Golden Lion win, the most prestigious award at the festival. Ecstatic takes pinged rapidly around Movie Twitter, echoed by the most corrosive kind of fans in the world.
Since every action inspires an equal and opposite reaction, then came the preemptive backlash. “Just what the world needs—another story of a sad white dude taking his hostility out on everyone else,” et cetera et cetera. In response came a different wave of backlash, citing the film as dangerous in its potential activation of an incel uprising. This line of criticism was then elevated in the past week, when the U.S. military issued a warning about potential violence at Joker screenings after picking up some chatter about it on the dark web. Now, undercover cops will be stationed in select screenings throughout Gotham, er, I mean New York City.
So, depending on whom you ask, Joker is either the best movie ever, the least necessary movie ever, or irresponsible agitprop.
After attending a screening and Q&A last night, however, my opinion is that it’s none of those things.
Anyone who thinks they’re not going to like it probably won’t—and shouldn’t waste any time on it. For anyone else uncertain based on what various factions of the internet claim the movie is, here are some things Joker is not.
A straight-up remake of ‘The King of Comedy’
No sooner was it revealed that this version of the Joker was a failed comedian and Robert De Niro would play the talk show host he idolized did the King of Comedy discourse begin. Joker was either an homage to Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film or an outright remake. What’s clear from the actual movie, though, is that director Todd Phillips has a lot of affection for Scorsese and De Niro’s late ’70s/early ’80s collaborations, and decided to nod to one of them in particular while emulating their aura altogether. Because the Joker’s attempts at being a comedian are comic-book canon, and the new film doesn’t lean on King of Comedy quite as heavily as the trailer implies, the inspiration makes sense in context.
A sympathetic portrait of a supervillain
Pitiable is not the same thing as sympathetic. It’s sad that Arthur Fleck was born into the life we find him in. What he does once we meet him does not require us to be on his side, though, nor does it particularly demand that we do so. At least not any more than TV shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos ask us to relate to their antihero leads. Personally, I felt more uncomfortable being asked to consider Dick Cheney’s humanity in Vice than I did contemplating the societal and neurological circumstances that lead to Joker’s rampage.
An incel call to arms
There is indeed some political commentary baked into the movie. This take on the iconic character is emblematic of empathy-devoid MAGA hats. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck has a Tourette’s-like mental condition where he laughs at inappropriate moments. He also has a tendency to target elites, and his rampage threatens to inspire a populist revolution. What could be a better metaphor for the disaffected sociopaths who memed Trump into office, the people who celebrate his constant cruelty as though it were all just Twitter trollage?
However, the movie does not seem designed to appeal specifically to the incel set. Arthur is a bit obsessed with a woman who pays him a brief kindness, but he is never driven by spiteful horniness. Nor does he want to kill all the chads. If this increasingly dangerous community adopts this character as its newest hero, it would be a stretch to argue that they’ve been courted.
One long distillation of its director’s opinion
The argument around separating the art from the artist has come up a lot more in the past couple of years—and in some wildly unpleasant ways—so it’s a nice change of pace just to caution that one need not love everything Todd Phillips says in order to enjoy Joker.
“Take away the Joker and this movie couldn’t get made,” Phillips told the crowd at the screening I attended earlier this week. It’s a comment about the sorry state of cinema these days, where only superhero movies and remakes can flourish at the box office. No matter how many movies like The Big Sick, The Favourite, and The Farewell rack up awards and deliver a significant return-on-investment, some people always pretend as though original ideas are verboten. They’re not. I’m glad Phillips experimented with superhero movies by grafting one onto a different, gritty genre and removing the franchise drive, but the idea that this was the only way Hollywood would greenlight a violent character study now is garbage.
Worse still, Phillips has tilted the conversation around Joker this week toward an interview in which he claimed he’d moved away from making comedies because the culture would no longer permit his brand of humor. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he says in the piece. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell 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.'” It should be noted that Phillips’s last three movies were The Hangover II (2011), The Hangover III (2013), and War Dogs (2016), none of which were well received, although the first two made tons of money. Politically correct audiences aren’t standing in the way of anyone being funny these days, but lord knows that they’ve become a popular punching bag among middle-aged funnymen. I’m almost convinced that Phillips’s comments were designed to be used as stealth marketing for a film in which someone who can’t make people laugh goes for a very different kind of reaction.
Either that, or he wanted the Joker to seem more sympathetic by turning himself into a villain.