Did Joker deserve all the discourse?

Ah, Joker. The tale of villainy, pathos, violence, and agony that nabbed a major award at its film festival debut, launched scores of thinkpieces — and raked in more than $93 million at the North American box office in its opening weekend. Until October 4, nearly all the conversations and debates around the film were happening between the small number of critics and moviegoers who saw it in Venice, Toronto, or New York prior to its theatrical release.

But now it’s out, and the conversation can expand. The critics at Vox and its sister site Polygon have plenty of thoughts about Joker’s ambitions, its title character’s origins in comic books, and the way the film treats issues like violence and mental illness. So we hosted a discussion of all of these topics and more with four people who’ve got a lot to say: Vox culture reporter Aja Romano, film critic Alissa Wilkinson, deputy culture editor Allegra Frank, and Polygon comics editor Susana Polo.

Joker lacks sorely needed self-awareness

Alissa: I first saw Joker about a month ago at the Toronto Film Festival, and even then, I could feel a lot of the future “discourse” bearing down on me, like a freight train traveling at full speed. Since then, it’s all come to pass, in the form of comparisons between this Joker and others, questions about “incel culture” and mass shootings, and musings on whether the film reflects “society” as it is right now.

One of the predominant themes of the prerelease chatter revolved around whether the film would provide would-be mass shooters with a template to commit real-world violence.

But a lot of that chatter started before the movie was actually in theaters, and a lot of it was limited or lacked important context and nuance. Now that you’ve finally seen the film, what surprised you most about how it did — or didn’t — match up with what you’d heard?

Aja: I think the biggest surprise for me was how slight the connections seemed to be between this film and any hint of modern white supremacy or incel culture. The Joker as a character is really nothing like the disgruntled and committed white nationalist who commits the type of violence that the Joker as a film icon seems to have become associated with.

I do think that the albatross of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado — which took place at a screening of another movie set in the Batman universe, The Dark Knight Rises — predestined a lot of the narrative around Joker from the start. But I also think the film’s director, Todd Phillips, framed his film, and the character of the Joker himself, as a super-serious, dark, edgy, modern treatment of the anti-hero.

Phillips aligned the Joker with the (generally inaccurate) stereotype of the mentally ill, socially isolated loner whose disenfranchisement leads him to commit violence. (Additionally, the predominantly black neighborhood the Joker, a.k.a. Arthur Fleck, lives in becomes an inherently tragic setting. Gross.) The mood of this film was presented publicly as very Taxi Driver, whereas the original Joker, you know, became a villain because he fell into a vat of acid.

And there’s very little Batman mythology in this film, which isn’t particularly surprising given Phillips’ clear contempt for other Batman films and the comics genre in general. A June interview in which he boasted he wouldn’t use “anything” from the comics went viral, and a September interview with the Toronto Sun billed him as “not a comic book guy” who wanted to do something “new” and less “fantastical” with the genre.

These moments, plus a September feature story in which Vanity Fair revealed that Phillips pitched his film to Warner Bros. as an “anti-superhero film” with “dark realism,” made it sound like Phillips had never read a comic book, or hadn’t seen a non-Avengers comic book film lately, or else was dripping with open disdain for the genre for some other reason. It’s simple to see how the public and the media could conflate Phillips’ Joker with the current vague notion of the angry loner vigilante. But in fact, to me, the way this character is written is far, far more generic, lazy, and clichéd than a real, serious look at modern extremism would be.

Susana: As Polygon’s full-time comics editor professionally, and a life-long fan of the Batman setting personally, Joker has felt more like a steamroller bearing down on me than a freight train. From the moment it was announced, I knew that even if it was good, it wouldn’t be a movie that I’d personally enjoy very much — I’m not a fan of the “character study of a violent man character” genre, I’m emotionally close to the material, and I have strongly held opinions about the editorial value of giving the Joker a definitive origin story.

To make a long story short, nothing in Joker came close to convincing me that I am wrong about those things. If anything, I might be a little relieved. It’s hard to imagine the film awakening anything in anyone except those who’ve already invested their personal identity in supporting it. Not because of careful filmmaking on the part of Philips and Co., but because of how little they say about the timely issues — mental health, loss of social services, race, class friction — that they’re juggling.

What I’m left with instead is a real frustration at a director who feels so proud to disdain “comic book movies” when he was given $55 to $70 million to make one into his pet project.

Aja: And yet the cultural touchstones he chooses to reference instead are nearly as inexplicable as they are insulting. “Send in the Clowns?” What? He uses this song that’s not about clowns — it’s explicitly about two people who are in love, but who have had comically bad timing for years — in a scene where a random Wall Street bro not only improbably knows all the lyrics by heart but sings them to a bullied Joker as if they’re somehow … mocking? And he’s apparently trying to signal contempt for a clown in a movie that’s using a comic book character to signal its contempt for comic book movies?

I could go on. At one point I stared at the camera lingering on a marquee for Billy Wilder’s blistering film about media frenzies run amok, Ace in the Hole, thinking that Joker seemed content to flatten most of its supposedly very serious themes by using lazy shorthand like this, rather than do the work of actually showing us something thematically (or cinematically) interesting.

This movie is no Ace in the Hole. It’s not even The Purge franchise, which at least seems to invite its viewers into its own joke — that is, it makes its audience party to its glamorization of ultraviolence, even as it skewers the manipulation of violence in a society beset with class tensions. By doing that, at its best, The Purge movies are far more successful than Joker at reflecting and satirizing a paradoxical, unequal society.

Joker doesn’t seem to be self-aware enough to arrive at any real originality. It cribs its major moments from Network and A Beautiful Mind and Psycho and The Fugitive, all films that portrayed society’s alienation of a disenfranchised white man with far, far more wit and beauty and meaning. Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretive dancing aside, Joker just doesn’t earn any of its references, and it has nothing substantial to add to what it steals.

An excellent Joaquin Phoenix performance doesn’t make up for the poor taste

Allegra: I’m going to pivot off your last point, Aja, in the interest of skewing slightly more positive — despite our dour subject matter! — and toward what I’d consider the most worthwhile aspect here: Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix has long been a mesmerizing presence onscreen, willing to contort his body or be mean or ugly or damaged as needed by a role, in ways the average person would never dare to try. As Arthur Fleck, and eventually the Joker, he is all of the above. Phoenix’s Fleck is a distended, rail-thin, crumpling sheet of a man who demands the attention of Joker’s viewers that he does not get within the film itself. He cuts a disturbing figure, one who is made even more so by that constant laughing tic he blames on a brain injury and his greasy, uncut hair. He looks unwashed, untouched — Fleck is destined for destruction.

Watching him spiral is not pleasant, but it is impossible to look away from. I could not take my eyes off Phoenix as he evolved into the Joker, especially as he explored Fleck’s body language and revealed the contours of this broken body. Those interpretive dances you mentioned are a flourish that I think Phillips believes are more meaningful than they actually seem to be in the film, but they serve a magnetic purpose: Arthur Fleck is a man with some visceral animating presence within him, and he expels it through swaying his hips, moving his arms slowly through the air. It’s hypnotic, and a version of the Joker I have never seen before.

In that sense, I appreciate the film for showing me something startlingly original through Joaquin Phoenix’s physical embodiment of a truly horrible villain. So, if we want to argue that Joker does not work on a thematic level, I will not fight back; its textual problems are myriad, as the rest of you have already explained. I completely agree that Joker is a film that isn’t cognizant of its failures, and instead emphatically asserts it does not have them. I think it’s possibly damaging, definitely irresponsible, and a weak pastiche of much stronger work.

But can we agree, at least, that Phoenix is so excellent here?

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix is almost possessed by the spirit that gives birth to the Joker.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Alissa: I think he’s quite good. Some critics have dinged his performance for more or less sucking up all the air in the room (I’m not sure there’s much there to begin with) — but when I walked out of the theater saying as much and later wrote it in my review, I couldn’t help thinking that “Joaquin Phoenix turns in a good performance” is the opposite of news. Good for him! I don’t know why he lost all that weight, but probably he’ll get an Oscar nomination out of it.

In the piles of email I’ve received since the movie came out, there have been a lot of notes from people who claim the movie is “about” mental illness, and that being critical of it is a slap in the face to people who live with mental illness. That’s a bad-faith argument, and it’s undercut by Phoenix’s own statement that he purposely formed the character around his desire to not allow anyone to diagnose the Joker. We’re told Arthur Fleck is taking seven pills a day, but not what they’re for; mental illness feels to me like a hand-waving prop for a story about a violent self-actualization, and a winking theme: It’s not Fleck who’s “mad,” it’s the world that’s gone insane.

I find this quite frustrating in the context of a real world that wants to place the blame for mass violence on mental illness. How did it strike you all, and how does it line up with prior conceptions of the Joker?

Aja: I had mixed reactions to this aspect of the film. On the one hand, it felt like one of the very few ways in which this Joker shares DNA with all other Jokers: Throughout the character’s history, he’s been famously inconsistent about the details of his origin story. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, as Heath Ledger’s version probably best encapsulates on film. So it makes sense, on some level, that Phillips would decide to expand and subvert that unreliable narration, and try to root it not in the character’s deliberate deceptiveness, but in his inability to discern what’s real, and what’s true, about his past and present.

But I adamantly feel that Joker’s approach to mental illness is vague and exploitative. A good deal of the plot centers on Arthur Fleck’s growing inability to identify what’s real and what isn’t, but we’re also supposed to view his origin story as a mystery, which may or may not be linked to an actual orchestrated coverup by the most powerful man in Gotham.

Most of the time, it seems like Fleck (and possibly his mom) are suffering from legitimate paranoid delusions, but Joker also suggests that perhaps this paranoia is fully justified. We’re given to think that Fleck’s nervous, discomfiting laugh is a neurological condition, until we’re suddenly told that it might be another sign of his mental instability. Then we’re left wondering whether his mental illness is hereditary, or whether it’s connected to a history of childhood abuse. It’s an ambivalent, unwieldy treatment of the subject, mined for drama instead of being presented clearly.

I do think Phoenix gives a riveting performance as someone trapped in this web of uncertainty. (Joker’s costume design is also superb at visually conveying his mental state while adding literal color and fun — the movie’s only dash of fun — to the Joker persona.) But I also think this portrayal stigmatizes and stereotypes “mental illness.” Fleck’s seven different medications don’t seem to work, yet when he suddenly stops taking them all at once, this decision presents as a symptom of his advancing psychosis, rather than his advancing psychosis being framed more realistically as the result of him abruptly going off his meds. It’s an implausible and damaging depiction of living with mental illness.

Susana: That, in and of itself, is an excellent example of how Joker breaks with comic book convention in more than just giving the character an origin. Many comics feature a psychiatrist who ominously proclaims that the Joker’s mania refuses concrete diagnosis, but the idea that he’s irrational is by no means a dominant interpretation.

Point to any great Joker story, and you can see that he’s a highly intelligent planner who is perfectly willing to abandon even his obsession with Batman for his self-preservation. The idea that he knows exactly what he’s doing makes him more frightening, rather than less. Batman villains with concrete delusions — that they must flip a coin to make decisions, as with Two-Face; or that their puppet is a deadly mafia mastermind, as with the Ventriloquist — are some of the most sympathetically portrayed.

Phillips’s Joker lacks a sense of control in his crimes, whether it’s how they are perceived, or what the mob does in response to them. He’s searching for any kind of acknowledgment of his existence, regardless of content. Even at the apex of his transformation into the Joker, his plan to accept a spot on Murray Franklin’s show in order to shoot him in the head aligns with Gotham’s protest movement entirely by coincidence. It’s a stark contrast with the extremely precise showman of other incarnations.

One might argue that the very nature of long-running superhero comics is that they are constantly reinventing themselves, and Phillips’s Joker is just a cinematic example of that maxim. But the flip side of 79 years of experimentation is that when certain elements of a character resist change, it’s probably because they’re the strongest ones. Phillips’s scorn for the trappings of comic books is nowhere clearer than when he discards the core elements of Joker stories, as if he can crack a code that nearly eight decades of other writers haven’t, simply by virtue of not being a “comic book writer.”

Joker tries to be a drama, thriller, and social commentary all at once

Allegra: I like what you’re saying about the Joker’s lack of “a sense of control,” Susana, and not only do I think that bears out throughout the film to its detriment, but I’d also say that Phillips himself lacks control too. It’s troubling to watch the Joker and Joker struggle to be so many things at once, and none of them well. Is this film a tragedy about the ways society fails the mentally ill? Is it a drama targeting the classism that controls modern American society? Is it just a grimdark superhero story that ignores successful comic book movie conventions in the hopes of seeming interesting for it? To me, Joker felt like it could qualify as any and all of these things at any given moment, perhaps because Phillips failed to commit to a single vision.

And that sort of chaotic series of meanings is one of the reasons I find the movie so frustrating. I want to ask you all what you think its intention is, what the ultimate takeaway is meant to be. Because I still can’t tell what Phillips was going for.

Aja: Honestly, I think Todd Phillips just wants us to think Todd Phillips is a Very Serious Filmmaker, and that the way to achieve that reputation is to plaster a title credit in very serious 10-foot-tall letters over a sad image of a clown being beaten up by teens from a minority group.

The issue I keep coming back to is that not only is Joker trying to be everything at once, it’s trying to shoehorn a lifetime of unlikely melodrama into a short timespan, fueling its anti-hero’s mental collapse. It’s tempting to argue that Phillips has framed this ridiculous story with all this gravitas because he wants to push it further into the realm of absurd satire.

But I believe he truly thinks this facile, far-fetched plot — Arthur Fleck loses his therapist and his job; he randomly finds out that his (possible) father is a billionaire and that his mother might have lied about his whole childhood; he morphs from a weakling into a vigilante in a single act of self-defense turned murder that improbably propels a giant class uprising; and he becomes a viral ironic joke who gets invited onto his favorite TV show, with all of this happening in a matter of weeks — is actually all very deep and full of pathos.

I think it’d be easier to see how disingenuous this story is if it weren’t presented to us with so much fanfare, often with literal blaring trumpets. It’s easy, and lazy, to portray a man’s mental collapse through these mean plot twists and frame it as some sort of social tragedy. It’s much harder to try to frame that kind of collapse through the kind of mundane everyday evil that wears away at the soul, the way masterpieces like Taxi Driver or First Reformed manage to do.

But I really think Phillips thinks he nailed it. I think he feels that his portrayal of the Joker is profound, and that the angry rebellious citizens of Gotham whom this Joker inspires are ironically reflective of the modern-day progressive, anti-capitalist “woke Twitter” mobs he’s been complaining about IRL. (“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he said in September. “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter.”) The problem with this framing is that if you dare to critique this movie’s presentation of itself, you could be labeled as another angry woke mobster. And that insulation makes the movie, and Phillips himself, seem that much less self-aware.

Alissa: I agree that Joker is trying to be everything at once, and that’s not even really noting that it is essentially a self-conscious mash-up of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, reskinned as a comic book movie and lacking Scorsese’s self-awareness.

Those two earlier movies have a way of reading the audience, of making you constantly second-guess what you’re seeing and analyze that reaction. Joker just wants us to feel bad.

One last question for you all, a short one: What, if anything, do you think Joker does bring to the table? Has its massive success and enormous amount of press coverage shifted conversations about the movie or about Hollywood in any ways you see as positive?

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver.
Joker pulls heavily from Scorsese’s antisocial outsider classics like Taxi Driver (above), but without the same introspection.
Columbia Pictures

Susana: That’s a question I’m not sure I have an answer for. Only one week out from the film’s wide release, it’s too early to tell how the subcultural narrative on Joker will shake out. I would be surprised if it creates the kind of lasting impact of, say, The Dark Knight, but I’m dreading it becoming a cult favorite that forms a strident online community, à la Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

If there’s something bright on the horizon behind Joker for me, purely as a fan, it’s that Warner Bros.’ future lineup seems full of movies that revel in their comic book origins. I’m exhausted by filmmakers who think that the medium of live-action alone elevates a comic book story, especially in an environment when adaptations like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse use every tool in the medium’s kit to expand and celebrate graphic storytelling.

Allegra: I already pled my case for Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance was a plus for me, but not necessarily a net positive for the film. I have really enjoyed the conversations about the definitions and responsibilities of art that it’s given rise to, and how it can and should relate to present society. But perhaps Joker, with its shallow portrayal of mental illness and radicalization, is not the film we need right now.

Aja: Unfortunately, I feel like Joker’s massive box office success means that Warner Bros. and DC are unlikely to turn away from their general commitment to “grimdark” adaptations, which is what gave us the Snyder-verse to begin with. (The lineup Susana mentions contains some pretty obvious exceptions, like Birds of Prey and the Aquaman sequel, but most of those upcoming films seem primed to continue DC’s dark and gritty aesthetic.)

Far from a positive conversation, I think Joker has caused a lot of media hysteria that’s spread a misleading idea of what inceldom is, and conflated incel culture with alt-right extremist culture more generally. I don’t see much pushback to that narrative, alas. Socioculturally, I guess I could see Joker slotting somewhere behind V for Vendetta as a milquetoast source of inspiration for would-be social anarchists, but I also think its messaging is too unclear to really be effective at inspiring anyone.

You’d have to work to make its themes do the ideological leg work of the Guy Fawkes mask or the Matrix red pill. And honestly, that’s probably a blessing. We don’t need any more films about violent maladjusted antiheroes that try to predict the social response they’ll generate. We’ve surely met our quota for a few decades.

I guess ultimately I just really hope that Joker finally gets people to realize that the classic Sondheim song “Send in the Clowns” is not actually about clowns.