The Joker is a pretty straightforward villain in the DC universe. He robs and kills for no reason, he is abusive to his girlfriend Harley Quinn, and he constantly challenges Batman’s morality to make him switch sides. He is basically the embodiment of chaos and evil. It’s been made clear multiple times he shouldn’t be worshipped in any way.
What makes the Joker’s existence even scarier is that it’s unclear where he came from and how he ended up like this; he doesn’t even have a canon name. Many comics say he was a thief who jumped in a vat of chemicals, while “Batman Confidential” issues seven to 12 say Batman disfigures him, giving him the iconic grin. In “The Dark Knight,” we hear Joker (Heath Ledger) telling two different stories of how he got the scars on his face.
Probably one of the most popular origin stories of the Joker is the source material for director Todd Phillips’ film: “The Killing Joke.” The comic by Alan Moore explains Joker is a failed stand-up comedian and he turned into a villain because of “one bad day.”
The premise can be problematic, especially when the film portrays anarchist behavior inspired by the Joker. In previous comics and films, Joker would have henchmen following him around, but not a riot that uses his likeness to take down the wealthy.
True enough, “Joker” and its director received flak before the film’s theatrical release. Many were concerned it would glorify violence, which is something Phillips has tried to debunk. He told The Wrap, “We didn’t make the movie to push buttons. I literally described to Joaquin (Phoenix) at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f***ing Joker.’ That’s what it was.”
But after watching and thinking about the film, and also seeing Phillips’ recent statement regarding “Joker” and his career, I have a couple notes.
Does it glorify violence?
Yes, it does, but you probably already know that.
It’s not new to DC fans that Joker incites violence and enjoys doing it—he’s not called the “Clown Prince of Crime” for nothing. It makes sense when he’s paired with Batman because they’re polar opposites and the hero would always save the day.
In “Joker,” it’s clear this isn’t a superhero movie, nor is it an anti-hero movie like “Deadpool” or “Suicide Squad.” It’s chaotic to the brim.
One of my friends actually made a good point about how they found themselves agreeing to some of Joker’s violent beliefs. Of course, he wouldn’t follow the villain’s example, but it could easily be misconstrued as “moral” by some fanatics.
Granted we’ve seen how people choose to side with the villain because they’re the protagonists. An example is “Money Heist” and how viewers would root for the robbers to steal Spain’s money. Another is “The Punisher” where Frank Castle’s murderous spree is justified because he’s exacting revenge for his family’s death.
But when you have a standalone Joker film with a mentally unstable White man who had “one bad day” and his actions have no repercussions, it’s bound to get criticized for glorifying violence. Especially when deadly mass shootings in America and New Zealand are mostly committed by White men, and individuals like Brock Turner who almost got away with heinous crimes because of his privilege. Not only that, it creates this notion that mentally ill people are dangerous—full stop.
(Note: The “Arkham Asylum” series—the comics and video games—revolves around mentally ill and violent criminals like Joker, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy who are confined in an insane asylum, and Batman beats up all of them. So the latter point isn’t a new concept in the DC universe.)
Let’s talk about Todd Phillips
In case you didn’t know, Todd Phillips directed “The Hangover” and “Starsky & Hutch,” and co-wrote “Borat,” so he’s no stranger to comedy films and crass humor. So taking on the “Joker,” which is a psychological thriller about a failed comedian-turned-criminal, is sort of a perfect fit for him.
But apparently, the reason why Phillips has stepped away from comedy is because people are allegedly so easily offended today. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the f***ing funny guys are like, ‘F*ck 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?” he told “Vanity Fair.” “With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but f*ck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but now it seems like “Joker” is a reflection of Phillips’ frustrations with how his brand of comedy doesn’t work anymore. It now feels like he’s showing how oppressed and unnoticed he is—a successful White man—because people don’t understand his humor. He just exaggerated it and used it to justify Joker’s actions and beliefs in the film.
Don’t get me wrong, I think “Joker” is a well-made film and Joaquin Phoenix did a hauntingly great job at portraying the character. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets Oscar buzz because outshining Heath Ledger’s Joker has clearly been difficult. (Shoutout to Jared Leto and his poorly written “Suicide Squad” character)
However, it can easily be misunderstood and promote violence as a means to protest against wealthy and corrupt individuals. You can defend that it clearly shows why you shouldn’t support villains like Joker and the film is meant to give you an origin story to the madness, but you can’t expect other people to have the same understanding as you. It also doesn’t help that Todd Phillips sounds like an oppressed White man, and the fact he doesn’t seem to understand the repercussions that come with a film like this.
So, should you still see “Joker” despite being problematic? Yes, but don’t get carried away with the humanization of the Joker and take director Todd Phillips’ statements about it with a grain of salt.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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