Todd Phillips' Joker movie is receiving great reviews, so why is it also facing a backlash? The DC movie, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, premiered at Venice Film Festival this weekend, and was also screened for critics elsewhere, and the early reviews for Joker have been very positive.
Phoenix stars in Joker as Arthur Fleck, a would-be stand-up comedian in Gotham City who, after a series of failures and setbacks, finds himself turning to a life of crime and becoming more deranged while he's at it, which sets him on the path to becoming the Joker. Directed and co-written by Phillips alongside Scott Silver, Joker has been on many most anticipated lists since its first trailer dropped, showcasing a very different kind of comic book movie.
As per the reviews, that's what Phillips, Phoenix et al have delivered with Joker, which received a standing ovation in Venice, and yet online the discourse about the movie has already started to sour, with multiple backlashes and controversies emerging before the film has even been properly released.
The Joker Movie Backlash Explained
Joker's backlash started before anyone had actually had a chance to see the movie, and instead came when the script leaked online. Despite the fact that this was just a script, and even if real not necessarily the most up-to-date version, it led to some general unhappiness and ill-feeling towards the film online from those who read it, because Joker isn't going to be a typical comic book movie.
Many who read Joker's script weren't happy with the direction it was going in, which represented a shift away from the version(s) seen in the comics and previous DC movies. There was talk that it was going to make the character of Arthur Fleck too sympathetic; that its handling of more topical or political issues was way off; and other controversial elements that we'll not mention outright here for sake of spoilers, but needless to say made some big deviations from what's generally known or accepted about the Joker.
A lot of Joker's script, and the backlash to it, seems to be that it wasn't what people expected or wanted from the film. Of course, the script was an early one, and Phillips has since confirmed Joker's script changed, and it doesn't include the fact that direction, performances, and just about everything else can elevate a weak script into a good movie. What's on the page and what ends up on the screen are often very different things, but that didn't stop people being unhappy with Joker's script.
Some People Are Worried Joker Might Incite Terrorism
Something that was noted by reactions to Joker's leaked script, but has definitely gained more traction now that critics have seen the film, is the idea of Joker being a dangerous movie. Joker is about a man who is rejected and deals with that in a very violent, aggressive way, and it has been suggested by various critics that the film could lead to people taking the wrong message from it: that it actually supports incel culture, and that it could lead to acts of terrorism. That's not to say that Joker openly encourages such acts, but that it could be interpreted that way by the wrong person.
There is some historical precedent for this, in fairness. One of the biggest inspirations for Joker, and a film it's long been compared to, is Taxi Driver. When John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Taxi Driver formed part of his delusional fantasy that triggered the incident. Hinckley Jr stated that his actions were to impress Jodie Foster, whom he was obsessed with, and he had copied the hairstyle of Travis Bickle, while his attorney even played Taxi Driver in court as part of the defense.
In more modern times, and within the DC universe, there was a shooting that took place during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. At the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman - James Eagen Holmes - opened fire on the theater during the movie, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. According to initial reports, Holmes identified himself as the Joker at the time of his arrest. That was only seven years ago, and since then the political climate and numbers of mass shootings have only worsened, so it's understandable why there might be some concerns over Joker.
Joker Backlash Is A Bit Out Of Hand
Joker was always going to be a controversial movie in some way. He's too big and popular a character, not to mention too disturbed, for there not to be people unhappy with how things turned out for one reason or another, whether it was Phillips' direction, Phoenix's performance, changes to the character, or something else entirely. DC movies have long been divisive, so it was fair to assume Joker might be too. But it's the reasons for the backlash to Joker that don't seem completely warranted.
Firstly, it's harsh to judge any movie based solely on a draft script. As mentioned earlier, there are so many factors that go into a movie, on top of there being no guarantees it was the version of the script they shot, that it's impossible to say a movie will be bad simply by reading what's on the page. Joker is, according to most reactions, a good-to-great film, and it should be judged by people who have actually seen it; there's little point critiquing a work of art without knowing what it's like.
The second point is a little more delicate. On the one hand, it isn't completely unfair to point out that a movie might have a serious negative impact on a person who is already vulnerable. Joker contains themes and images of violence, revenge, loneliness, anger, masculinity, and much more, all of which could be taken in the wrong way. But is that a reason to criticize, condemn, or "cancel" the movie itself? This risks taking things into murky territory with regards to censorship and who a film is "acceptable" for, calling to mind the BBFC banning The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was deemed "all right for you middle-class cineastes...but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?" It's also similar to the frequent backlashes to violent video games, despite research showing no link between video games and violence or aggression.
In this sense, Joker does feel like Taxi Driver or Fight Club, where yes, there are people who will take the wrong message from it. But is that the fault of the creator? David Fincher made Fight Club as a satire of toxic masculinity that does not paint it in a favorable light, so is it a failing of his as a filmmaker that there are people who hold it up as a celebration of it instead? How much should Joker sacrifice its own story in order to hammer its point home? Going into the movie, the title along should be clear that this is about a character who is a bad guy, since the Joker is one of the most famous villains in pop-culture history, and one there's very little mistaking for a hero, anti-hero, or anything else to be potentially looked up to. It's sadly true that there will be people who'll take the wrong message from it, but then those people would also take the wrong message from reading comics, or some other work of art. Movies are open to different interpretations, and while filmmakers should be responsible with what they're making, that doesn't preclude the fact that there could always be someone who can take it the wrong way. What matters most to the director is making a great movie, and there are far greater issues to address when it comes to acts of terrorism or just the culture of toxic masculinity than Joker.
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