‘Joker’ furor: Do disturbing stories have a place in today’s unsettling world?

Why We Wrote This

Does backlash over the new “Joker” movie indicate a shift in thought about storytelling that is uncomfortable? The Monitor’s culture writer and its film critic sit down to discuss the movie and others with similar controversies.

Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
Joaquin Phoenix stars in the film "Joker," opening in theaters Oct. 4, 2019.

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The origin story “Joker” opens this weekend amid backlash about its content and concern that it might incite violence. Americans will see the movie and decide for themselves. But the early reaction to it – from movie critics and theater chains, among others – raises questions about how tolerant society is now when it comes to stories that push boundaries. 

Monitor film critic Peter Rainer and culture writer Stephen Humphries recently discussed the movie and some of its prerelease reception. Among the ideas they raised: How this film compares to others in terms of its violence, what it does to make the Joker a sympathetic character, and how it might have been different had a hero, even a flawed one, been included.

They also considered what the reaction to “Joker” portends for other films that tell difficult stories. “I think unsettling movies have as much right to exist as any other film,” notes Peter, “and have proved to be no more predictive of violence in or out of theaters than any other kind of film.”

This weekend, movie theaters are doing everything short of sending up the bat signal for the release of “Joker.” Security is heightened to thwart any attempts to copy the 2012 mass shooting at “The Dark Knight Rises,” in Aurora, Colorado. The U.S. Army has issued a warning to its service members that didn’t cite a specific threat, but advised caution at screenings based on an FBI tip. The Landmark theater chain has banned costumes at screenings. And members of the New York Police Department will be wearing an entirely different kind of costume to screenings – they’ll be undercover. 

The furor stems, in part, from some movie critics who’ve decried the sympathetic depiction of the clown-faced comic book villain whose demented grin is as deep and wide as a hammock. Some have wondered if the R-rated, violent origin story – starring Joaquin Phoenix – will have a dangerous resonance for disaffected loners and “incels” (involuntary celibates). Some family members of the Aurora victims have also expressed those concerns. 

The Monitor’s culture writer and its movie critic sat down for a phone discussion about the controversy and the movie’s handling of its subject matter. The following conversation includes a few mild spoilers, and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Stephen Humphries (culture writer): Why is this particular movie stirring up so much consternation? 

Peter Rainer (film critic): I think that the reason why this movie may be touching a nerve is partly its connection to the Aurora shooting in 2012 where “The Dark Knight Rises” was shown, and where it was incorrectly rumored that the shooter was dressed as the Joker. The shooter was not explicitly dressed up as the Joker, but it was close enough. And I think that just really strikes a nerve with people on a very personal, practical level. And I think the other reason is that this movie is an origin story without any superhero in it, or a hero like Batman. 

It’s interesting that you weren’t hearing this kind of a backlash against a film like “John Wick: Chapter 3,” for instance, a recent example of a movie where the body count is much higher and the violence is much more graphic than in “Joker.” But it’s in a comic-book style alternate reality, so it doesn’t strike home the way “Joker” does with its gritty realism and its somewhat nuanced depiction of mental illness.

Stephen: What does the furor portend for future movies with storytelling that is unsettling? Some critics have labeled the “Joker” movie “irresponsible” and “reckless.” They’re worried one or more disaffected loners will be inspired to act out their rage. Other critics, and also star Joaquin Phoenix, have pushed back on that narrative by saying it's condescending to assume audience members aren’t able to distinguish between right and wrong.

Peter: I very much agree with what Phoenix says. I think it is real elitism to say, “We critics can see the difference. You know we can see this for what it is. But the great unwashed out there, the hoi polloi, are just waiting to be manipulated.”

The fear that “average audiences” are going to see this movie and feel compelled to act out what’s in the movie is a time-honored fear that’s existed from the beginning of movies. The Brad Pitt film “Fight Club” and “Do the Right Thing” were two large examples of films that were predicted to cause violence. And there was, you know, basically nothing. People are projecting their fears onto a film and to the reaction of the film. And it had no real basis in reality. There’s a specific reason why those families who are grieving over Aurora would feel antagonistic toward this film, and I fully understand that.

But I think unsettling movies have as much right to exist as any other film and have proved to be no more predictive of violence in or out of theaters than any other kind of film. 

Stephen: I agree. If one starts to single out movies as supposedly causing violence, that’s not just a slippery slope, it’s more like a black diamond slope coated with ice. Unsettling films have every right to exist and they have the potential to illumine our awareness of desperate conditions – mental or physical – that require attention and remedy. But I’m always mindful of the underlying expression. Does it offer a nihilistic vision, one that wallows in bleakness? Or does it elevate our view toward an understanding that allows for change? So, when it comes to “Joker,” I felt it trafficked in familiar tropes. Because ultimately what you’re left with is a movie explaining all the bad things that happened to this character that made him turn out bad. And then you think, “And so what?” A failing with a movie is that I don’t think it offers any new insight into villainous behavior. It doesn’t make me view the world differently afterward.

Peter: I don’t think that it’s necessarily a requirement of any movie, of any work of entertainment or work of art, to come to conclusions that we can point to as the message. I don’t think that’s necessarily the responsibility or the job of filmmakers. I think it’s OK to put stuff out there that you haven’t resolved yourself as an artist. It’s just that in this case, I think they are trying to say something, but despite all the highfalutin stylistics, it’s not new stuff. It’s pretty much the same old, same old. You know, the rich against the poor and the unjust society and those who rise up against it. 

Stephen: During a recent interview, the movie’s director Todd Phillips, said, “The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world.” The movie seems to attempt to get the audience to sympathize by stacking the deck against the character – from the opening scene onward, he suffers one indignity after another. Apart from a single mother who lives in the same building as the protagonist, most of the people in the story are pretty unsympathetic characters. The second time Joker is beaten up during Act 1, the bullies are Wall Street types who make Gordon Gecko seem as warm and fuzzy as Fozzie Bear the Muppet by comparison. I found it to be very heavy-handed, manipulative storytelling. Do you think the movie veers too close to excusing the way the Joker turns to violence by making us think he had no other choice? 

Peter: I think it veers close to that, yes. All of these people who get it in the neck are people who we feel on some level deserved it. The fact that he spares the mother and child was, I thought, indicative of the game plan of this movie, which is basically to put all of the violence that he perpetuates in a sympathetic context. If the film had really wanted to go all the way out, they would have had him go after her as well. Similarly, when Frankenstein sort of accidentally murdered a little girl in “Frankenstein,” that scene was cut out of a lot of showings.  

It’s very much closer to a film like “Taxi Driver,” which it references continually, in that it’s a psychological film. The Joker is someone who we can try to understand from a psychological standpoint.  

Stephen:  I feel as if the movie would have been stronger if the Joker had a foil. Perhaps someone who also suffers and yet chooses a different path in spite of it. Someone like, oh I don’t know, a certain man in Gotham City whose parents are murdered in front of him during a robbery when he was a child. I think there was a missed opportunity perhaps to delve into these themes in a more nuanced and interesting way. What’s your take on that? 

Peter: That was clearly a conscious choice because they wanted the Joker to be the whole show. I don’t object in principle to this movie being as dark as it is. But one of the problems that I have with the film is that there isn’t some countervailing lightness. In other words, it doesn’t show you what could have been or might have been or was there and it’s been snuffed out. If it’s just all dark all the time, then you end up with what you get here, which was a kind of muddiness, a sameness. I mean as powerful and as well-made as a lot of the movie is, it’s almost generic darkness that runs out of steam after awhile. And that’s one reason why I think the film kicks up to this big apocalyptic eruption at the end. It’s because they feel like they have to do something to out-dark the dark. And I think that doesn’t even work for the film’s agenda of showing how dark things are. I think that the darkness would have been more strongly played up if we had seen the light.

Stephen: Phillips has said that the movie isn’t political. During the movie itself, the character of the Joker says he isn’t political. But both statements struck me as disingenuous. There’s a subplot about the 1% – including Bruce Wayne’s father, who is running for mayor – ruling the city of Gotham while a vast underclass suffers. At one point, the city cuts social services, which means no more therapy sessions for Joker. At the end of the movie, the Joker blames the system in a speech and he incites an uprising

Peter: It’s a movie that ultimately culminates in a dark apocalypse of the have-nots versus the haves. It’s a movie about class warfare in a very literal sense. I don’t mean to read too much into this, or turn this into an Op-Ed announcement, but I do think that’s clearly an aspect of this film which again may be one reason why some people are nervous. They think that with everything that’s going on in the country, that this is just going to be another way to ignite the furor that’s happening. 

If we’re talking about Joker being a populist antihero, what would have made the film much stronger is if there had been some level of irony in his leading the charge. You know you can lead the charge in a righteous cause and still do more harm than good. I think that the damage that this character is poised to do, and has done, in the end is really not acknowledged. That’s one reason why I think we both feel that the ending of the film is ultimately a bit hollow, because it comes out with the same old grievances, just tricked up in very dark apocalyptic duds.

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