‘Joker’ is currently at the centre of heated discussion across the political spectrum, capturing a wave of passionate debate in a way few films can. Typically, the Express and the Mail will attack films with anything that even mildly offends their strict moral sensibilities. From the violence of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ to the introduction of LGBT characters in Disney films, there seems to be no shortage of material for the tabloids to fearmonger over. However, Todd Phillips’ new vehicle has conjured similar outrage from more traditionally left leaning papers such as the Guardian and from broadsheets that normally wouldn’t comment on the idea of moral panics surrounding films, referencing the by now infamous Telegraph walk out.
The film can be an incredibly uncomfortable watch, the opening scene features an underweight Joaquin Phoenix being robbed and beaten by a gang of teenagers, later, we witness a brutal subway shooting, and finally, a particularly vicious stabbing does lead to a film that can seem a touch lost in its own bloody carnage. While the individual acts of violence are indeed difficult to watch, the greater objection seems to be based on what they represent. Before its release, controversy had already appeared based on a fear that Joker panders to the alt-right, giving a voice to a dangerously charged subset of incels, men who feel that they have been wronged by the world and that violence is a natural solution to wrong this. Indeed, the question over whether or not the film could create real-life monsters is what led Phoenix to walk out of his interview with the Telegraph. Perhaps it was difficult to explain how complex the theme of political violence becomes in the film.
The nuance of the politically charged violence can easily become lost in the internet controversy machine. After watching the film, I firmly believe that it tries to offer counter-arguments to incels and the alt-right, the issues presented are directed at society and social structures, not at any marginalised group. I believe that the marketing and the hype surrounding the film can give a fundamentally warped perspective of what it is trying to communicate.
While I am truly sympathetic to legitimate concerns over whether or not ‘Joker’ could embolden a potentially unstable individual to commit dangerous acts because of how high-profile it is, I believe we have to see that in terms of substance. The film tries to address the deeper reasons behind how such people are created, without justifying what they do.