Joker probably isn’t going to inspire any mass shooters, but Todd Phillips’ latest movie has managed to create a protagonist that we react to in the same way. What made the Joker this way? Was it mental illness? Was it bullying? Was it lack of proper mental health funding? Was it easy access to dangerous firearms? And so the question surrounding the movie has become, oddly, not whether this is a compelling piece of art but: How can we protect our nation’s children from homicidal clowns?
Joker is a beautifully shot, wonderfully compelling movie that ends in horrific manner. That it’s initially so easy to love is exactly what makes it so capable of disturbing and nauseating us in the end; we couldn’t be queasy if we weren’t invested. Is that… bad? In a way, it merely rubs our noses in something movies like this generally soft pedal. That the protagonist we spent so much of the story sympathizing with (and getting a vicarious thrill out of) is… actually a pretty messed up guy! Who knew!
In a way, Joker is a lot like that old Saturday Night Live sketch where Steve Buscemi throws a mad hatter party, and while all the other “mad hatters” are having a deliciously silly time talking about wearing socks on their feet, Buscemi’s character pipes up about how he likes to put cigar butts out on his penis and makes racecars out of his own poop. Or, if you haven’t seen that one, the one about the convention of “evil” inventors, who have invented shrink rays and freezing guns, until The Rock shows up and horrifies them with his invention of a robot that molests children. “What? I thought we were talking about evil inventions here,” The Rock’s character says. “Mussolini used to force-feed people castor oil until they literally died of diarrhea. I mean that’s gotta be where the goalposts are, am I crazy?”
Joker is, essentially, Robochomo. It operates on a level of realness people neither wanted nor were expecting. “What, I thought you said this guy was supposed to be violent and disturbed!” you can imagine Phillips pleading.
And this seems to be more a problem of imposed expectations than a problem with the movie itself. Joker‘s biggest problem isn’t that it glorifies violence or offers a blueprint to potential incel terrorists (I don’t think it does, at least not compared to a million other films, I mean holy shit did you see Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake?). Its biggest problem is that it was made in an era where the market required that it tie in to a comic book franchise. That alone saddles it with the baggage of countless separate stories and creates an expectation that this is going to be the kind of party where we wear socks on our hands, not the kind where we put cigars out on our penises.
Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips clearly wanted to make Taxi Driver (*deep breath* Fight Club, Falling Down, King Of Comedy, Network, Death Wish, First Blood…) while the studio wanted something at least tangentially connected to Batman. They compromised. The recent, much-cited Vanity Fair piece quotes Todd Phillips telling Joaquin Phoenix to think of the film as a heist movie. “We’re gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want,” Phillips reportedly told Phoenix.
What they wanted, along with Phillips’ co-writer, Scott Silver, clearly, was to make a gritty, ’70s/early ’80s-style movie about a mistreated loner who eventually gets fed up and can’t take it anymore. That general arc is nothing new, of course, and conscious homages to Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon, etc., abound in Joker.