Joker has come under heavy fire for seemingly getting audiences to empathize with its central villain, but this controversy ignores the past decade of comic book movies. Joker was always going to be a tough sell: Todd Phillips of The Hangover fame wanted to reimagine the origin story of the most iconic villain in DC Comics' history as a grungy Scorsese-esque ‘70s thriller, with echoes of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke crossed with Taxi Driver. Fans and critics alike were skeptical of such a project when it was announced, even with the attachment of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role.
Then the film premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews, with Joker winning the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. Its success continued when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival and it is next set to make its American premiere in New York this month. Suffice to say, this is a movie that Warner Bros. have high hopes for. However, the controversy remains looming overhead. It may have critical acclaim in its corner, as well as a projected record-breaking opening weekend at the box office, but many reviewers have vocally expressed fears that Joker could be the wrong film for the current political era.
With some critics referring to the movie as “incel bait” and fearing it could incite violence, a lot of pressure has fallen on Joker to deal with the fallout from such accusations. Joaquin Phoenix dealt with the question by walking out in the middle of an interview with The Telegraph. It’s something that many people will be forced to grapple with once the film receives a wide release on October 4. However, a lot of the hubbub around Joker ignores its place in the wider conversation of comic book movies and their respective villains.
Why Joker is Controversial
Joker has already caused a lot of controversy, firstly attracting ire for its take on a very familiar character. The Joker’s origin story and the various facets of his personality have been rewritten countless times over, but always within the specific context of Gotham City and the Batman lore. That’s not the case with Joker. It’s an entirely separate narrative that, while technically part of Gotham and an implied wider Batman universe, works best when the viewer pretends Bruce Wayne doesn’t exist (even though he makes a very brief appearance as a kid).
The idea of such a story was controversial enough for some fans before they even got to the story’s depiction of violence and its depiction of one man’s descent into pseudo-vigilante justice. This version of the Joker is a mentally ill man whose murders inspire a revolution among Gotham’s trodden down masses, and it is this aspect that had some critics wondering if the movie would inspire copycats or, at the very least, celebrate violence as a justifiable act. The biggest worry seems to be that some fear the film could be too sympathetic towards its central character, thus encouraging audiences to side with him on his bleak and violent plight.
These Criticisms Could Apply to All "Empathetic" Villains
These criticisms are not unique to Joker. Fittingly for a film that borrows so heavily from the filmography of Martin Scorsese, responses to it frequently mirror those received of titles like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street. There is no one uniform way to respond to films and such attitudes should be discouraged, but it is worth noting how often films that depict nasty, violent, and obviously bad men (for it is frequently men) are judged as defending or supporting them, regardless of intent or framing. It’s understandable why audiences and critics alike would feel so on edge about such issues – there are plenty of films and pieces of pop culture that openly celebrate such figures without critique or pretend their stance is “satire” – but so much of the controversy surrounding Joker overlooks not only this cultural context but where comic book movies of the past decade have been heading.
What remains fascinating about so much of the Joker discourse is how familiar it feels. Many of these conversations evoke memories of last year when the internet argued over whether or not Thanos was right to wipe out trillions of lives in the name of supposedly bringing balance to the universe. Black Panther’s Killmonger had his fair share of supporters despite obvious problems, and there’s a reason Loki continues to inspire fan devotion over Thor despite all the murder and scheming. These villains and many more in the Marvel oeuvre are all rooted to varying degrees in real social questions as much as Joker is and inspired all the same questions, but without receiving even close to the same degree of backlash.
Why is Thanos Praised and Joker Vilified?
It would be too easy to draw clear lines between Joker and Thanos or any other comic book villain of the current era or to use one as an example of why the other is treated the way it is. There are obvious parallels to make and conversations to be had but it’s seldom as simple as X equals Y. In the case of Thanos' plan and actions, while the idea of a villain committing mass genocide is nothing new or all that fantastical in real life, the character himself and the world he inhabits is so wholly unreal compared to our own. The MCU is a world where violence seldom goes above PG-13 levels, even when trillions of people die. The violence can still be impactful but there’s a clear barrier between it and our reality.
Joker, on the other hand, is totally devoid of the expected comic book speculative lore. It’s entirely rooted in the real world and the violence it depicts is unflinchingly so. Blood is spilled, people are punched, and bruises remain. Joker fully earns its R-rating in that regard. Audiences instinctively react in different ways to such violence in comparison to, say, Black Widow shooting down aliens without a drop of blood touching the ground. Perhaps this is why audiences and critics are reacting so viscerally to Joker and becoming concerned about its violence.
It’s also worth noting that critics are worried that Joker implicitly endorses its hero’s murderous journey, painting him as justifiable in his descent from isolated man ignored by society to the leader of riots. This is something that may end up being subjective from viewer to viewer. Personally, having seen the film, I didn’t feel it endorsed the Joker’s agenda but rather showed a deluded mind’s reasoning behind the unforgivable.
Why Joker Gets Treated Differently
The Joker, unlike other major comic book villains, also exists in a very specific historical and cultural context. He’s arguably the most iconic villain of the medium and the one with the greatest weight attached to them. Think of how being cast in the role is now seen as something of an actor’s rite-of-passage, a prestigious honor not attached to, say, Loki or even Lex Luthor. The Joker comes with a lot of baggage and the ways he’s been interpreted by fans come into that. There’s a reason so many memes use the Joker’s iconography. He's a symbol of anarchic joy and that's easy to appropriate for whatever political cause you're pushing. This is why so many fear that Joker could become a right-wing symbol. The film already has a fervent fanbase ready to shut down anyone who disagrees with them or questions the movie's intent.
It took a lot of fandom awareness, cultural context, comic book history, and Hollywood lore to get to where we are today with Joker. The discussions will continue, and no doubt there will be plenty of disagreements about what the movie does well and does badly. However, it’s worth remembering how, in many ways, the idea of creating an empathetic, if not especially sympathetic, villain is now par for the course for the comic book movie genre.