Spotlight: The Joke’s On Us
Friend of the show, André La Roche, shines a light on the controversy surrounding the release of Warner Bros.’ Joker.
By now, it’s safe to say that the movie Joker is unlikely to incite self-professed incels to violence—a fear that’s been well documented across the internet. What interests me is the question of why, when so little was known of the movie, was the fear amongst certain individuals so strong and so palpable? And now that the movie has been in theatres for three weeks, and the threat of violence diminished, what value can its skeptics find upon viewing it?
It’s always difficult to enter a discussion on a topic when emotions have run high, hot, and intense. The emotions themselves that people felt leading up to Joker’s release—fear, anger, revulsion—are all obviously real and experienced, especially in light of the potential for politicized real world violence such as the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. There is no arguing with the fact that those emotions were validly felt. However, there is plenty to gain in evaluating why we had those emotional reactions to this particular movie in the first place.
I remember first seeing this narrative of “Joker as inciting violence” when the first trailer dropped. Scenes of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck sitting heavy with defeat in therapy or walking around the squalid streets of Gotham City. This contrasts with his voice-over telling the therapist how his mother thought that his purpose was to bring laughter and joy to the world. Fleck is presented as a man relentlessly abused by society and takes it with a quiet restraint: a victim. A wordless montage set to the crooning vocals of Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” depicts him dancing with his mother, on a date with a young woman, at Arkham State Hospital (or Arkham Asylum for the cool comics readers in the back of the room) before the chaos escalates. “I used to think my life was a tragedy,” he informs the viewer, as the montage cuts between scenes of his own personal deterioration and adoption of the Joker persona, and Gotham City’s wider descent into lawlessness. “But now I realize it’s a comedy,” he concludes, as he strides confidently down a white hallway, fully clad in clown face paint, green hair, and a purple suit, exuding a confidence that we can assume is only gained by fighting back.
The legal act of inciting violence essentially requires a specific call to violent action against specific targets in a specific manner…something that a movie about a fictional character living in an early 1980s fictional city is unlikely to do.
One of my friends wondered via Facebook posting, “Is this the right time for a movie about a loner white male out to get revenge on society?” From there, I only began to see more and more individuals pose the same or similar questions. All from just a trailer and description of a movie.
There were fears about a repeat of the Aurora, Colorado shooting conducted by an individual who was (erroneously) reported as having dressed as the Joker. But there were no concrete threats. At least not until after the narrative had gained traction and taken root in the public consciousness. But for the majority of time leading up to the film’s release. . . nothing. Much ado about that.
“Well,” some might say, “This film could have incited violence.” But again––“could”, devoid of any actionable evidence or credible threats seems like a large leap to make. Moreover, the legal act of inciting violence essentially requires a specific call to violent action against specific targets in a specific manner—such as saying, “I implore my listeners to find local attorney Joe Smith as he’s on his way from home and kick the living tar out of him.” This is something that a movie about a fictional character living in an early 1980s fictional city is unlikely to do.
The film’s focus was untethered to any single ideology, but rather promised an ur-mythology regarding a fall from grace of a favored son set against the backdrop of revolution. A paradise lost, if you will.
So, in the absence of evidence of a credible threat, or of incitement, why so much fear about a movie that was yet to be seen? Why so much fear about the mere artistic treatment of notions of alienation, loneliness, and violent reprisal? I’m honestly unable to provide an answer to that, because I didn’t count myself among those concerned about the film’s influence on society. For one, I simply didn’t see anything in the trailer that inclined me to think this movie was going to have a message that resonated with incel culture. Instead, its focus on personal deterioration, and a vague implication of social upheaval were untethered to any single ideology, but (as is the nature of comic books) rather promised an ur-mythology regarding a fall from grace of a favored son set against the backdrop of revolution. A paradise lost, if you will. These themes can be found in any and all political or religious doctrines. In short, I saw this film as promising to deliver tantalizingly dark cinema. By the time it arrived in theaters, I was not disappointed.
So why the initial outrage? Instead of trying to answer the question, I’ll turn it back on those who were the most concerned about Joker’s impact. Why did the mere idea of this movie unsettle you so much? What was it about the vague descriptions and trailers of its themes and contents that caused this movie to register as politicized agitprop that would inspire alt-right and incel mass shooters as opposed to just being about a violent and nihilistic madman?
And dare I make the suggestion that the best, most honest way to answer the above question for yourself is by sitting down and just watching the movie. Now that Joker’s out, you know you won’t merely be consuming political propaganda that you disagree with. Observe how it depicts its fictional reality and characters, observing within yourself the moods that those depictions stir, and how they impact your worldview? And then maybe, just maybe, after walking away from the movie fully informed, reflect upon why you reacted as you originally did. Perhaps the answers and insights that you derive will surprise you.
Otherwise, if the reaction that was directed at Joker is indicative of what future “dangerous movies” can expect, it’d be enough to make an individual wonder whether it was just them, or if it was getting crazier out there.