1. What Do You Want?
So Joker got nominated for 11 Oscars. All this means is that we are now talking about whether the film is “good, actually” or “bad, actually.” Hurray for the discourse!
But if you’ve read me enough, you know I don’t really like the words good and bad. I get why they show up a lot in criticism. Every day movie-goers are often trying to justify how one should spend 20 bucks at a theater, so the essential question becomes “is it worth it?” But it’s really hard to answer that question because the notion of “good quality” can go in so many different directions. Especially with a film like Joker. It’s like, what, you want me to talk about the lighting? It’s pretty darn great. Do you want to know if Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible talented actor who breathes life into his performance? Yeah, he totally does. But there’s always going to be a relativism with these kinds of appraisals. Just as there are going to be snooty people who believe dramas are inherently “better” than comedies. But I believe it was Roger Ebert who often cited the more apt question…
“Is the movie doing what it’s trying to do?”
Is it succeeding on it’s own merits? And when you look at things in terms of execution alone, you can happily make the argument that Mad Max: Fury Road is as good as Duck Soup is as good The Godfather is as good as Daises is as, yada yada yada. A lot of people seem caught up in this particular dialogue when it comes to the critical success of Joker, with it being dark “comic book film” and all, but these questions are largely distractions from what’s really going on. Sometimes getting to the heart of a film even goes beyond appraisals of relativism. Sometimes, it is actually about getting into the complicated question of how we value the “what it’s trying to do,” for it that there that we often find the most truthful version of the thematic crux. It directly taps into the old Cormac McCarthy-ism, “you don’t know anyone until you know what they want.” So perhaps, I can ask a much better question.
“What does Joker want?”
On the surface. It presents a lot of ideas of what it wants to be about, from mental health, to class, to abuse. You could throw a dart at any scene in the movie and probably hit a meaningful subject. But when it comes to the way those ideas stack up into a meaningful depiction?
Well, that’s where we get into the problems of framing.
2. “… From A Certain Point of View”
When we talk about unreliable narrative and viewer distrust, we often think about it in literal terms. Something like Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, where he has characters presenting competing narratives in hopes of finding the truth. By watching this unfold, the audience can observe a great truth about humanity: that people can hide, warp, and belie narratives, often to their own selfish or placating purposes. I feel like many people understand this, but I understand both the power and terror of this habit implicitly, for I’ve both borne and bared it. We don’t usually like to call it lying, but that’s what it is. And the simple reality is that humans really have to learn to see themselves soberly, for that is where we become our healthiest selves. But often, in our lifelong journeys, we learn this the hard way.
In essence, the same is true of movies themselves. Not just when it comes to the veracity of their subject matters, but the veracity of their circumstances. Because it’s so easy for people to watch a movie and just think about what the characters do within the constraints of the story itself. It becomes easy to defend their actions with a “well what else would you expect them to do?” as if this was all some documentary we were watching. But no, someone made the decision to create this situation. Then they made the decision to put the character in that place to make that decision. We call this “narrative framing” and often, that’s far more important to understanding the artistic intent.
For the most jaw-dropping examples of this dynamic, I think of the work Neil Breen. Within certain circles, he’s known as an infamous independent filmmaker who makes bizarre outsider art. In Fateful Findings, a film in which he is the writer/director/producer/star, this middle aged weirdo plays a super hacker who also has ethereal superpowers and sure makes a lot of pretty women kiss him a lot. It instantly reads as creepy wish fulfillment, but if that weren’t scary enough, he is constantly having his character turn down the advances of his friend’s underage stepdaughter. He literally screams with righteous indignation, “I am not attracted to underage girls!” as the film shoots her seduction otherwise. The framing of this is basically one big “uhhhhh, what the fuck, Neil? You keep saying you don’t like underage girls but literally eeeeeeeeeeverything about this is making me think otherwise.” The problem isn’t what the character is saying, the problem is the larger narrative framing makes it seem like the opposite of its intention.
That example may be jaw-dropping, but cinema is full of all sorts of hypocritical bits of lip service and unsettling desires. Something like Death Wish may position itself as a standard revenge fare, but by having the main character become little more than a vehicle for enacting violence upon minorities, it belies the intentions of the film. The problem is how easy it becomes to “not see” this component. We have to constantly remember that movies are powerful experiences. That they can make us feel for the character, and contort a series of circumstances that make their actions may seem completely justifiable. But to find the problems, often we do not have to look within the character.
Often we have to look at the artist that is framing them.
3. Enter The Framer
As Joker’s buzz reached a certain level, I overheard a curious remark, “wow I didn’t know Todd Phillips had this in him!”
[Insert gif of confused girl looking off to side]
It’s weird to say “I did know,” but that’s only because I’ve been thinking really hard about Todd Phillips for a long time now. Because he’s the outsider who came into Hollywood with a GG Allin documentarian and ended up making broad comedies. That kind of tells you a lot, but the rest of his career confirms it. If the ethos of a comedic worldview is defined by its targets, then on the surface, films like Old School and The Hangover are full of the standard stuff you would find in a Happy Madison production. The core difference is slight, but perceptible. The jokes in Phillip’s films are a bit more terse, blunt, and uncaring. The women in them are more straightforward in their characterization of being nagging, inept bores. Same goes for the strippers with non-existent agency, who only live for the placation of men. Beyond this, I’m not sure his work cares about much of anything. Life. Death. Consequence. Inconsequence. It all glides right by as mundane cares deserving of a cackle before moving on. Where the Sandler-verse at least pays lip service to family notions, there’s something infinitely more misanthropic in Phillips’ work. The Ringer even had to outright ask, “are the friends in Todd Phillips movies actual friends?“ And I can’t help, but muse that perhaps no filmmaker has seemed like he truly hated people across the spectrum.
The problem is that Phillips is also a “better filmmaker” than a lot of people who put out broad comedy. As a photographer, I think he’s actually got a good eye. He makes comedies that know how to keep the high-key lightness, where you can actually feel the glare of sunlight, or see a pock mark, or the sweat dripping off your brow, and often employs them to good effect. Hell, he can even make a moment of action cut together. But it has a specific effect on broad comedy you might not expect. Where a Larry The Cable Guy movie would try to land a crude joke with a lot of over-emphasis (think like a doing noise or something), Phillips uses a light touch to glide right over a groaner and make it work “better.” And at the same time, he can also glide over a joke so dark it doesn’t stick out.
Like you remember how Zach Galifiankis’s character in The Hangover is literally a pedophile?
Yeah that funny, career-making performance of his? He’s a pedophile. It’s an early throwaway joke when they’re near a school and then the film just rushes right past it. Now, all of these instincts would have some kind of point if Phillips was genuinely interested in subversion. Like if he was really some Waters-esque bourgeoisie shocker, but the truth is he doesn’t really seem all that interested in it. With Phillips, it seems like his only real intention with darkness is not to talk about it, but just to embody it. He’s not doing cognitive thematic gymnastics with any of this. He didn’t even seem to understand the basic difference of the effect of violence in this film versus the violence in John Wick (short version: they’re very different). Don’t get me wrong, there’s an interesting discussion to be had there. But he’s not interested in it. He’s just nakedly equating them in a way that indicates he’s not exactly sure what he thinks of a lot of the violence in his own film. There’s no real intent for me to finger wag at him here, it just gives way to a grimmer realization.
Todd Phillips movies are popular because society can be just as cynical as he is. Or at least, society has just as many cynical parts to them. Look no further than the unending popularity of The Walking Dead, a piece of criticism which I’ll leave to David Simon to articulate far better than I could. And when you look at the dramatic nature of his existing photography, the cynicism at the heart of his work, and his capacity to make the dark joke that glides right by? You realize there was no one more “qualified” to make this movie.
You may take this sentiment to try and call me out, to proclaim “you didn’t like this from the start!” And so I have to reply, “no.” Like all films, you give them a chance to surprise you. The fact is that film is so powerful a medium that they always *can* surprise you. And honestly? In some ways, Joker really did surprise me (I’ll get to them soon). But in other ways, the film confirmed the very simple and obvious fact that I am making here and now: Todd Phillips is the one doing the framing.
And he has something he wants to say…
4. Sympathy for the Devil
Arthur Fleck begins the movie getting beaten up by unruly teens.
His situation does not improve from there.
Arthur tells us that his life has been nothing but pain and we see this plainly. He suffers from a seeming number of difficult mental illnesses. He has to take a vast number of medications. His state-appointed therapist doesn’t listen to him. He lives with is mother and has to dote on her and try to make her happy. He does his unwieldy best to connect, but every second he is shunned and pushed away by those around him. They treat him as either a walking punchline or punchable object. He’s the one who is mugged and yet he is the one who has to pay for the broken sign. His coworkers lie and coerce him into bad decisions. At virtually every second of the film, Arthur is picked on, shunned, or hated. It becomes so much that it almost feels comical in its overwrought seriousness. Like in the very first scene, where Arthur lies on the ground, freshly beaten by street kids, his flower literally “crying” as the film’s title card hits. It’s all SO MUCH. But so is the rest of the film. And the goal of all of these choices is more than clear.
It wants you to have sympathy for Arthur.
I choose that word carefully. I write about this notion a lot but there is a difference between sympathy, which are “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.” and empathy, which is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” And I think Arthur’s plight speaks to the core difference. For the magnitude of his suffering and his inability to fix it are so massive that it plunges the viewer into a sympathetic situation - one where they are watching an impossibly sad human being in an impossibly sad reality. We can relate with some of his plight, of course. I’m not trying to argue against that (in fact, I’ll come to some of the core feelings we empathize with later). What I am saying is that it is not a stretch to say the film makes a concerted effort to play for your sympathies instead of create a nuanced situation that feels closer to one’s own life. And I am saying this decision is very much on purpose.
To illustrate why this matters for the narrative framing, let’s think of an apt comparison. When we watch Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, we are also watching the story of an anti-hero, right? He’s a gangster, a killer, and a greedy man often feeds on misery and his own incredible selfishness. But we also watch the way Tony conforms to society. He’s a husband, a father, and a friend who finds a way to have fun and engage in basic niceties. In a way, he even enjoys these pursuits. But the aim of a lot of this is to build an understanding of the link between the audience and the more down-to-earth features of his character. Heck, it’s a show where one of the very first scenes is him walking out like a schlub in his bathrobe to get the paper and there is nothing more routine in our lives than the daily mundane.
You may worry immediately, “oh no! Is it trying to make you empathize with that!!?!” No, what it’s trying to make you understand is that Tony’s sociopathy lies in his monstrous ability to compartmentalize. He can bounce between killing a former rat and guiding his daughter on a college trip at a moment’s notice. It’s trying to put a bright shining light on Tony’s own disconnect with the world and his situation. And it is DEFINITELY not trying to evoke a sense of sympathy for his behavior in doing so. Yes, I know that the Joker and Tony Soprano are very different characters with two very different kinds of goals.
But I am also saying these are two different treatments get at two very different wants from the audience. Because instead of allowing us to look on and understand Arthur, the way Phillips plays so damn hard for sympathy can’t help but feel unnerving. He’s working so hard to frame a world where Arthur is trod upon for anything and everything Which makes us wonder, why does Joker want all this sympathy for the character? What is the real motivation? What does it really want from these early scenes?
Well, it wants to justify the actions that are to come…
Before we get there, we have to acknowledge that Arthur Fleck’s portrayal is a lot more complicated than the simple fact that “people are mean to him.” In fact, the depth of Arthur’s plight deals with two amazingly complex issues.
The first is his mental illness.
While Arthur’s mental disorders are vague and numerous, the film does shed a specific light on what we know as the Pseudobulbar affect or PBA, where displayed emotions are inconsistent with the actual feelings inside. I can’t speak enough to speak to the veracity of the portrayal, but what I can say is that Joaquin Phoenix is a hell of an actor. The moments, especially early on, where Arthur gets caught up in an inappropriate reaction are brought to life with heartbreaking verve. You can see the struggle on his face, the competing urges of expression and horror at tics that simply can’t be helped. You see his pain, his fear, and his worry about the misunderstanding they cause. From this we understand that Arthur genuinely cares about connecting and being understood, and these moments put forth the most humane ethos that the film has to offer (often before being shut down by others incredibly callous impunity).
Again, I want to reiterate how much of this movie is “well made.” The effectiveness of these tactics in terms of building sympathy is incalculable. And if there’s anything that speaks to the movie’s possible sense of heart, it is these very moments. For it captures something so honest about the way society overlooks those who don’t fit in with the standard way of life. The way those with mental illness get shuffled away. The way we avoid eye contact with homeless people. The way some people would rather do anything than feel a moment of uncomfort. These moments are so achingly real. The same goes for the moments where Arthur goes to see his state assigned therapist, who sees him as nothing, a cog, a file case. He asks “you don’t listen, do you?” And she doesn’t. And as overwrought as those systematic moments are, they still feel like the meaningful foundation of what Joker is trying to explore…
Until the film moves right past them.
Because the second Arthur’s medications get taken away, we don’t see the likely events that would happen. Yes, there is a way that the film captures a kind of manic energy and “freedom” that comes from going off medication, but the reality of doing so is often far more complex and unwieldy. Heck, you can’t even make the argument that going off the medication corresponds to the film’s treatment of his visions / imaginings because they start much earlier. Really, in terms of the actual depiction, all going off medication does is tap into the ugly depiction that people on medication most fear: Arthur feels stronger and more empowered. He’s suddenly less unburned by guilt and self-hate. He becomes assured, more calm, even better at talking. If this weren’t enough, it also flies in the face of the grim realities of PBA because it’s a neurological disorder, where the various causations don’t “get fixed,” especially in this manner. But this part of the realism doesn’t matter, because its not what the film is really after.
In short, if Joker cared about mental health, it would care about it. It would go on to fuel a narrative that explores the complexity of everything I’ve said here. Instead, all the struggles with mental health simply become a means to invoke sympathy and then justify his violent ends. And that would be offensive enough if it weren’t for the topic that comes next.
Because the second plight deals with abuse.
For much of the film, we see the abuse that Arthur suffers in his day to day. Whether from coworkers or strangers, the one seeming respite is his relationship with his mother. But that of course seems fraught as well. Not just in the way that he has to dote on and take care of her as best he can. It’s the quietly oppressive sense of sunshine that she hangs over every detail of his life. She tells Arthur that he was put on earth to spread joy and laughter, which makes his life the embodiment of the “put on a happy face,” mantra. Which ignores so many of the very real struggles he has in his day to day life. We see Arthur’s conflict. Early on, we believe he wants warmth and love. That he’s really trying to put himself out there. To make people laugh and bring joy… but it doesn’t reflect the inside of what he’s feeling. And so it gets cast over him as a massive form of denial. One that will strike even deeper into the heart of his experience…
Because the midsection of the film actually flirts with the idea that Joker is the secret bastard love child of Thomas Wayne, meaning that he and young Bruce are brothers. At first worry, one worries that this is going to be more of Hollywood’s classist obsession with turning everything into bloodline dramas and daddy issue squabbles. Then we believe that the film is tackling the idea that powerful men use their power and money to hide abuse, insist that women make false accusations, and gaslight the whole scenario. But it’s all just a red herring, a way to build up to reveal that Arthur’s mother was indeed lying to him. Worse, that she has been hiding the tremendous abuse from Arthur that he suffered as a child.
The effect of this decision feels odd and errant. Not just in the way that it 1) makes me feel like this is so utterly inconsistent with what we’ve seen in their relationship, 2) invites so many more questions about how this was accomplished and how she got him back, 3) how this absolutely validates the gas-lighting rhetoric men offer and show that women are really madwomen who need to be locked in the attic and 4) helps feed the narrative of how the whole thing only blames the mother for abuse. Hell, the boyfriend abuser is barely mentioned, nor any abuse that is directed at her. So all the ire, all the villainy, it’s all the mother’s fault for “letting this happen” and not caring that it did.
Look, I can accept the broad strokes idea this is plot-line is likely meant to be a depiction of how “abuse gets hidden” and putting on a happy face for the ugly things we don’t talk about. But there are so many elements about the portrayal here that feel like a vipers nest of issues in sexist rhetoric. So when it goes into the big confrontation between Arthur and his mother, I had all those questions swirling in my head, “How are they going to deal with this? How is this pain and heartbreak going to get covered? How is she going to justify herself? How is the movie going to deal with this subject matter at all?”
Instead, Arthur just comes back and suffocates her immediately.
And it really doesn’t bring up the issue again.
He’s just free of it.
By this point, you’re probably getting a sense of the film’s modus operandi. After taking great care to set-up Arthur’s struggles with the grim realities of his life, after wringing out all the sympathy it can, it just stops engaging them. Because it has no real interest in exploring the topics. It only wants to use them. Same goes for the all the times it cherry picks when Arthur’s interiority gets explored. When you consider the framing, it’s not actually interested in any of these topics. It’s only interested in how it can use them as motivation and justification for one single purpose…
To shoot you in the fucking face.
6. For Want of A Nail
Okay, let’s cut through a lot of the bullshit. For all the lip service, for all the portents, for all the framing that tries to point you in a different direction… every single image and scene in the film presents a subtext of the problem that’s really bothering Arthur…
He feels powerless
And in going through the situations described above, in stopping his medication, in murdering his mother, in shooting assholes, and in no longer being ignored, he becomes awakened to what having power feels like. The sense of freedom and control feeds him like a drug. I remember watching the subway scene, when he first lets out that angry instinct. At first, I remember first rolling by eyes at the overt bro-y-ness mixed with sadism, but you can imagine these are the kind of kids who have a certain president father. So fine, Joker I will accept the premise that these men are shitty. Which means I will accept them as targets. Arthur fires in defense, and then he goes after the last one for keeps. But given everything we had seen, I immediately fretted. Given everything we had seen from the character so far, from his own internal fear, to his wanting to do good and be loved, I wondered, “What would he think of what he’s just done? How does he feel about this?”
He feels like dancing, of course. All notions of introspection disappear immediately. Meaning all willingness of the film to hang its hat on something concrete go away just as quickly. You can’t even really draw a line of interpretation to the dance, other than the idea he’s going inward, and indulging the power fantasy. Which we know is true because the second he finishes, he goes off to kiss Zazie Beetz in a fit of manic confidence and energy! Which, when it happens is precisely the kind of thing that makes you yell “oh fuck off!” at the screen (but don’t worry, we’ll come back to her plot-line later). The film even confirms this intention when Arthur later says he doesn’t feel that bad about it. So what the sequences really makes me question is whether Arthur’s desire for good was ever real in the first place. If there ever a moment of being humble or actually yearning for connection. Was it all just another narrative lie? Which makes sense because all those moments so easily could have been codified as repression. All part of the story’s endless problems in framing.
Let’s take the film’s vigilante instinct itself. What’s somewhat remarkable is that this shooting scene absolutely evokes an infamous 1984 subway shooting. If you don’t know the one I’m talking about, a person who will remain nameless was riding a subway, said he was threatened, and then shot four African-American men named Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur. At first, he was hailed as a hero. A lone gunman who stood up to the influx of rampant crime that was plaguing New York City! But of course, it was just another toxic framing. With time, the real details of the event seeped out in the trial and it turns out the shooter was a devout racist who thought he was cleaning the streets of minorities. He even shot one them with malevolent verve and demented glee (then in true white supremacy fashion, he was acquitted of attempted murder). Even today, the event stands as the embodiment of racism in a nutshell; the Death Wish fantasy made real.
So of course Todd Phillips took all the meaningful details of that event and perverted it in the most confusing and self-serving way possible. You could argue the film “smartly” picks it’s target by moving away from Arthur targeting minorities and instead targeting rich assholes. But this is the very dishonesty I’m talking about. It’s running from the very truth of what fuels vigilantism, and more importantly, public shootings. Hell, look at this country. Look who is angry and feels powerless. Look at every active shooter in the news. It’s always been the same story of guys with entitlement getting coupled with the intersections of white supremacy. Especially because in the film’s 1981 setting, this wasn’t the story at all. Hatred of the rich wasn’t even on the to do list. Instead, society was moving toward an active embrace of the rich and Reagan era splurging. It was codifying violent crime along racial lines and praying for the kinds of draconian tactics that “restore order.” It’s such a stark, bold-faced inversion.
To put it another way, do we really think Todd Phillips wants to kill the rich? Beside the fact that the dude’s worth 100 million dollars, let’s look at virtually everything we know about his work, his sound bytes, and his interests. It’s not a stretch to argue that by inverting these two realities, it creates the most disingenuous, convenient framing imaginable. It exists to create a more “worthwhile” modern target that only serves to motivate the power fantasy at the core of the film’s true wants.
When you go back the the film’s treatment of mental health, you can see the same exact pattern. The film cherry picks with Arthur’s psychology in a way that feels deeply problematic. Yes, Arthur is in pain. This is assured. But the way this dynamic often manifests in people is with deep, unhealthy, and ingrained form of self hatred. Because the true pain about these sorts of scars is not because your life is filled with people attacking you at every second, but because of the horrible catch 22 that such abuse incurs - where you see an attack in everything, to the point that when good things happen you can’t enjoy them because they feel dishonest. Even when love is presented you reject and push it away. The film seems to argue that what Arthur eventually has is a kind of uncaring sociopathy, but this is not present for every single time the film oh-so-conveniently gives him a reason to internalize and emote, but only at the exact points it wants you to sympathize with him. In turn, all the moments where he causes violence come from the moments he conveniently disconnects from it effecting him the same way.
Arthur’s entire awakening is essentially built around the realization that, “being nice is a lie.” All those moments of wanting people to give him empathy and love? What he should have done is just join the dog-eat-dog fight. Which is where we come to the “incel” psychology of it all. Believe me, I don’t want to invoke it, but the framing taps so closely to what’s dramatized on screen. And it’s not the pain of all these people’s experiences aren’t real. It’s that the pain becomes the excuse to lash out. It’s the commonality of feeling powerless and entitled enough to turn that all into excuse to grab power and hurt others. Hell, to turn that hurt into power itself. This is why the depiction of Arthur rings so true to many people. Especially because this is what it can feel like, but the film’s motivation is able to hide underneath the false framing of social import.
Which is why the film can’t show any real moments of kindness toward Arthur because then it would let the air out of what it wants, which is for him to hurt everyone in a justifiable way. Just as the film can’t let on to the fact that Arthur’s violence secretly comes from a place of entitlement. Which makes me realize that there are two nail-based proverbs that I can’t help but think about in regards to this dynamic. The first is that “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And that’s true. When you’re holding a deep, repressed anger? The things that trigger rage aren’t often the most productive applications. In fact, everything that doesn’t go your way becomes a potential trigger. This is at the root of Arthur’s nihilistic embrace of his own malice.
But the second proverb is from “for want of a nail,” which seems like it may characterize the same instinct, but is actually about small actions leading to large unintended consequences. Here’s the Todd Rundgren version:
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the message was lost,
For want of a message, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the war was lost,
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost,
For want of a nail, the world was lost.”
I can’t help but think of the way this shows not only the nature of unintended consequences, but the way Joker’s violent actions spin out and cause untold amounts of chaos. A world that is effectively lost because of the unmooring of on one man’s malice. Only this one is so much less accidental, but the proof positive of what happens when you begin to pull the world apart piece by piece and don’t regret it. But honestly? The thoroughness of this metaphor is where it all becomes trickier. Yes, Joker has a hammer. Yes he’s looking to hit anything. Yes, this will tear the world apart. The fact the movie is so outrageously good at characterizing all this is why defenders many will argue the simple and obvious conclusion…
“This is all on purpose!”
They will argue that everything I am saying is the point of the movie. Which is why I see the defenders of Joker bring out the steady stream of defenses about depiction not meaning endorsement (yeah, I know) and then make a quick comparison to how it’s like Taxi Driver. But it is actually in such comparisons that they directly betray their intention…
7. Driving Taxis
Martin Scorsese has a long and storied career making films about deplorable subjects. To be clear, he also makes incredible films about far more humane subjects, like single motherhood, the struggle of faith, the repressions of genteel society, and the joyous delights of cinema itself (please see Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Kundun, Silence, Age of Innocence, and Hugo if you haven’t). But the original statement is also true. Martin Scorsese has made a number of films about gangsters, killers, and immoral capitalist monsters. But the reason he has such critical success in portraying these subjects is because he characterizes the entire range of their seductive reality. While many would prefer a hand-wringing, finger-pointing moralistic approach, instead Scorsese has been bluntly honesty about the ways we ARE enamored with these subjects, especially as individuals. But he documents all of it: the ways we love them and also the ways they repulse us, become un-rootable-for, and cross clear moral lines. Which means he’s not only framing fairly, but doing thorough and brilliant observation.
In short, Martin Scorsese has never pulled a punch.
This is why the comparisons of Joker to Taxi Driver make me deeply uncomfortable. You could argue that Phillips’ film is trying to show the whole entirety of Arthur, too. That it’s clearly showing all the reasons to love him and find him repulsive, but it comes back to the framing. To put the difference bluntly, there is no moment in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle is meant to invoke your sympathy. I mean, he’s clearly a depressed, struggling young man, but there’s nothing about the opening that is meant to pile on and make his situation feel dire, nor tug at your sense of pity. More than that, De Niro’s performance puts up a clear wall with the audience, just as Scorsese’s camera keeps that same kind of distance. Between the two, it creates an ability for the audience to observe and perhaps find fascination it the subject, but that comes with the needed sense of separation from that same subject. It gives you the ability to be the artistic observer, not the sympathizer.
Meanwhile, Phillips’ camera practically fixates on Arthur. It’s interested in every single pain and slight on his face. Every little emotion and feeling is read plainly. Every shot feels like it’s Arthur’s feelings alone, as he’s looking at someone else off screen or to the edge of frame. It’s almost jarring when Bryan Tyree Henry shows up and you realize this is the first opposing character who is also given a sense of humanity (god he’s a great actor, too). And the few moments where the camera does pull away from Arthur are merely meant to also make you feel for his loneliness and isolation. So yes, the two movies may seem similar in content, but there are actually two radically different approaches here.
Note the way that Travis Bickle’s decisions also drive the action. He’s the one who goes looking for the gun. He’s the one who admits he craves violence for violence’s sake, not as revenge. He’s the one who goes looking for his own narrative in the world. And after he fails at becoming a political assassin, his ending “save” of Iris is where he terrifyingly frames himself a hero going to rescue the young maiden. The public’s celebration of which ends up feeling like a bitter irony against his intention. But most important is the film’s ending. Where even if he seems calm and “cured” by this praise - his deep, unsettling urges and resentments still exist as a nagging itch in his rear view mirror.
Meanwhile, Arthur drives so little of the action in Joker. He’s practically forced into it. The gun is handed to him. He’s assaulted to a ludicrous degree before he defends himself. Even the climactic talk show scene is so nakedly provoking. It’s as if the narrative bends over backwards to give him a justification for EVERY action he takes. Because in the end, it doesn’t actually want Arthur to feel like a victimizer. All it wants Arthur to do is slide right into his deserved place.
There is also a monumental difference in how the two films treat the side characters around their leads. As much as Taxi Driver is also full of depraved people, rarely does their depravity feel so targeted at Travis. They’re mostly living their lives and he is the one trying to insert himself. And the film actually has a huge amount of empathy for Cybil Shepard’s character. I can’t help but think about the haunting moment in the porn theater, where she realizes exactly who this guy is and his startling disconnect with what’s happening. We are suddenly TERRIFIED of this main character and his capacities (we’ll get to the key difference with Zazie Beat’s character soon). But Taxi Driver is just full of these kind of moments where we adjust our perspective and can suddenly see the way that others see Travis. But even with the most key moments of Joker, rarely do we see how others see Arthur. Heck, even when he suffocates his mother, a supposed climactic moment of the film’s biggest relationship coming to a head, we only see his face as he experiencing the joy of an angry catharsis.
Which all just proves, yes, problematic framing can often be literal. And when we talk about depiction and endorsement, these small differences matter so much. Because it leaves me to question the entire point of not only Arthur’s understanding of himself (which is clearly confused), but the film’s understanding of him as well. There’s even a point where Arthur muses to his psychologist that “he doesn’t feel like he exists.” But given every second of the film, it feels like a dangerous reframing of the situation at hand. Because all the film does is fixate on Arthur’s own emotions and perspective. So it feels like it’s being dishonest about the way we are really looking at this character. It’s not that he doesn’t exist…
It’s that no one else really matters.
8. Get Out Of Jail Free
There’s a through-line in the film that makes this all so much harder to talk about.
It is, of course, the plot line that deals with Arthur’s imagined relationship with Zazie Beetz. Part of what makes the plot either more confusing or less confusing is that Joker makes an early decision to also show Arthur fantasizing about being called out in the audience of Murray Franklin’s talk show. This is scene is a clear fantasy that ends with Arthur almost being regarded as surrogate son to the man. And the way the mise en scene cuts around it makes it absolutely clear that this is a fantasy occurring in his head. Yes, this scene proves Arthur is capable of such imaginings, but then the film effectively “cheats” on this establishing cinematic language by taking it’s time to reveal that all his later romantic interactions with Zazie are imagined.
But at first we do not know this. We watch Arthur’s immediate stalking of her and it feels like the most terrifying scene in the film. But then, the narrative quickly shift gears and she enters his life as the most ideal, understanding companion. She doesn’t mind being stalked! She doesn’t mind being kissed out of nowhere! And more importantly for Arthur, she just gets him so he is able to be more witty, personable, and fun! It this reflective of his desire for companionship? For sure! But it is also important because it shows how she is someone who encourages and backs up his instinct for murder and violence? Also for sure. Again, for Arthur, it’s actually all about the sense of power.
As eye-brow raising as their relationship seems, the problem is that given what we’ve seen from the director, I have no real reason to question any of this. As my friend Andrew put so well, “the Zazie Beetz twist worked for me because I just thought she was a poorly written female character from a Todd Phillips movie.” That may sound harsh or flippant, but watch those movies and realize it’s not. Which is sort of why the film’s tact was able to surprise me and make me think that at we were on to something more mature. That when he goes into her apartment and we realize the twist, there should be some part of us that reacts, “good! the film is showing awareness!” and follow the narrative from there.
The problem is that, like everything in the movie, once this plot serves its sympathetic purposes it’s abandoned. We literally never see her again. So I honestly don’t know what the movie really thinks about any of this. I don’t even know the degree to which Arthur knows this is delusion or not, nor how he really feels about that realization it’s a delusion. It’s all part of the film’s complete lack of real introspection, the desire not to actually tap into the issues it uses as props. So what is the real purpose of this particular plot?
The first is to ignore our real-life understanding of the situation. I don’t want to make this too grim, but we all know the reality of domestic abuse. We all know what happens when a man’s fantastical fixations get challenged and how that abusive, possessive, and delusional man then snaps. It means that the Zazie Beetz’s of the world are the first to face that violence. How many times do we have to think about the Margaret Atwood quote, “men are afraid women will laugh at them. women are afraid men will kill them.” This is truth. But like the inversion of the 1984 subway shooting, the film is so clearly denying the stark reality of its own depiction. It doesn’t want you to think about all that. It doesn’t even want you to think about Arthur’s dreaming of her and how it irrevocably backs up the notion that, “yes, this subservience is a valid fantasy for a broken man.” So when it comes to this plot, again I ask what does Joker want?
It wants Arthur’s delusion to purposefully obfuscate ALL of the film’s true intentions. Hell, it’s the same reason all the cinematic cues of when the fantasy dreams are happening are also obfuscating. It’s reasons that abandons so many things is because the film wants the reality of all its actions and choices to be convoluted. That way, any scene, any part that gives you real trouble, can just be “imagined,” because any part of the narrative can just be a part of Arthur’s delusion.
On one level, I don’t care if this is true. That’s because it IS all imaginary because it’s a fucking movie. And every choice it makes of what to depict is part of larger thematic issues and I can delve into them in semiotic fairness (hence this entire essay). But on another level, I care about the calvinball-ish attitude of this depiction because it allows another reader to cherry pick what is and is not reality for their own indulgent purposes. It’s like when artists insist whatever problematic thing they were doing was “just satire,” as if that was some cure all defense. And so it becomes the proverbial ‘get out of jail free” card when it comes to the responsibility of depiction and endorsement. There’s nothing to poke holes at if nothing is actually meant, while everything it secretly wants is thrust forward with reckless abandon.
This all goes to a troubling place. Anyone familiar with the tactics of Gamergate (or now, politics at large) knows the power of “purposeful obfuscation,” where the malicious point of dialogue is to take someone else’s good intentions, someone who is trying to argue a rational and moral point, and constantly turn the tables on them so they get lost in the weeds. To constantly be the contrarian. To make sure that down is up and up is down, and always keep the power in the dialogue between you. Sometimes the other person is not even aware that they’re doing it, but the effect is nonetheless just as potent. Like the film itself, it is weaponized framing. It’s “actually, it’s about ethics in video game journalism,” even though it’s really about satisfying the urge to terrorizing women and curb progressive causes. But no one will ever say it. They’ll just obfuscate as much as they can.
This is now the second time I’ve come back to the film’s depiction and it’s connection to the online “man-o-sphere,” and intersection of incel culture. I can imagine someone might want to play devil’s advocate and defend against these assertions, but here’s the whole thing: they know it. They know this film validates their perspective. They know this film validates what they hate. They know this film upholds their perspective. They care about it so much because, “the Joker is right.” And because the film is so good at giving them defensive ammo to say it’s about mental health, or abuse, or this, or that, it invokes the worst instincts to displace the dialogue of everything I’m mentioning now.
Like weaponized framing, this is weaponized reflexivity. They can assert anything: Isn’t joker’s solipsism the point? Isn’t his ignorance of all his solutions the point? Doesn’t the way it backs up incel culture just prove it’s an accurate depiction? Well, hate to say it, but the only thing that stops me from truly 100% being able to counter those statements is the film’s purposeful convolution of its reality. Because Joker’s genuine themes, like the chaos being worshipped within it, can ultimately be written off as delusions within delusions. It’s all part of the nadir of the film’s nihilistic glee. Which is exactly the space where the “bad fans” win. And also where I can’t help but think of a simple question…
Do they ever think about why this character exists in the first place?
9. Why So Serious?
Batman and The Joker.
We’ve been telling stories about these two characters for 80 years. Think about the magnitude of that timeline. Think about why the two would resonate so much? In all that time, there’s been varying shades to their depictions and duality, but what they’ve always been lasting symbols of order and chaos. Batman, the hero trying his best to mend a broken world in myriad ways. And Joker, the embodiment of disorder and mayhem, is a destructive end unto itself. The two have raged on in an un-ending war. And by dramatizing their struggles, these stories have spoken to our society’s struggles with both fear, hope, and collective sanity. But if we’re being honest, there’s always been complications with their depictions, too.
For instance, it’s hard to deny that many depictions of Batman exist at the ultimate rich guy fantasy. Bruce Wayne has this perfect, ethical company that is the paragon of a city. And at night, he goes out and beats up criminals (which often tend to be poor minorities or the mentally ill). While it all falls under the notion of justice, there’s a kind of dark, conservative impulse being fed there. Of all the popular superheroes, there’s something about him that strikes that most problematic of the vigilante instincts. But some people who truly love Batman get sensitive about such negative characterizations. To which I’d argue that the best batman stories tend to acknowledge the difficult complications of the character (Heck, even this film would seem to line up with some of them). And when it comes to the Joker, he’s at his most terrifying when he’s at his most truthful, when he lays out those valid criticisms of Batman to bare. But we all know the rub. The problem is that the Joker’s insight always has a stopping point. Because in the end, he’s just about chaos. Which, try as he might, means its just more about the Joker and his ability to delight in others misfortune.
One of the most popular and powerful depictions of this relationship is in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Like Phoenix, Heath Ledger’s performance is electric, incendiary, and fascinating. But when it comes to the larger framing, the film doesn’t actually care about Joker’s origins. In fact, it doesn’t care about Joker or his emotions at all. There’s no sympathy for the devil. Instead, it knows that keeping his motives and real feelings a secret is exactly what makes him so damn terrifying. Nolan even described the notion of trying to keep him “absolute.” As if he was a looming figure of perfect, crystalline, terror. A being who sees into society’s soul and will use their worst instincts to make them tear each other apart. But note, even if Nolan’s Joker and his worldview are “accurate” in many ways, this is the only root of his villainy, not his anti-heroism to be admired. On one hand, this stark difference is everything when it comes to the responsibility of the two depictions. But it also invites another question…
Why did “bad fans” still identify with Ledgers version? .
As in, why did people still dress up like him and how did be become an icon for a subsection of online culture? Specially those with deeply anti-PC rhetoric? The answer is obvious: because there is great power of jokes. When you’re just in it for the lulz, nothing can hurt you. When you find everything about someone else a joke, you have the ability to tear them down into nothing. Hell, I’d argue that 20 of the 25 meanest things ever said to me were said as “jokes.” Scoff all you want, so many people implicitly understand that this. People often default to comedy as a defense mechanism. And as much as they alleviate tension, we also know that Jokes can wield power and control over others. That they can make others feel so small. And nothing makes the case more than the through-line to Arthur’s empowerment.
He practically lays it all down in the talk show scene: when you care about order, or society, or politics? Your hypocrisy shows and you’re a just a fucking joke. Yes, Ledger’s Joker believes this too. But where The Dark Knight crucially differs is it never once wants you to think Joker’s mantra is a valid path, even by accident. The climactic boat scene may be a little clunky in its execution, but it’s when the film wants you to wholesale buy into the believe of order over chaos.
But in Joker? That ethos isn’t just unchallenged, it’s the entire thrust. Where Heath Ledger’s henchmen were bought or forced into the program out of fear, Arthur’s henchmen push him forward because they’re empowered. Heck, they’re the ones who lift him up. The end of the film lays this out so clearly. There’s nothing “ironic” about any of its presentation. I have no room for denying this. The sincerity of the entire film is too strong to get into denial at this point. Even then I’ve heard people argue that, “maybe it’s just playing devil’s advocate?” Which is a whole mess that I can’t even untangle, except to say it’s just another obfuscation. And never forget: when you play devil’s advocate…
You’re just advocating the devil.
10. Look What You Made Me Do
Every single one of these points comes crashing together to a haunting realization with life itself: bad framing can be terrifying. Anyone familiar with abuse knows that abusive actions can get so tied to their causation. Nothing is ever the fault of the one lashing out. There are parents or significant other who will take any slight provocation as an excuse to snap and then scream “look what you made me do!” Aside from an equally confusing Taylor Swift song that uses the phrase, those six words evoke so many fears to those who have heard them time and time again. And the scars of these tactics can remain with the victim for years on end: the need to walk on eggshells. The need to constantly feel like you have to wear armor to defend yourself. The belief at any moment you could become a victim of another snap.
There’s a terrifying moment in Joker, where Arthur has discovered his new power and violence and stabs his fellow cab driver in the neck. The driver doesn’t even want to turn him in. He just tells him he just wants the two of them to get stories straight and then WHAM- STAB. It’s witnessed by Gary, a little person played by Leigh Gill (delivering another good performance in the film that’s full of them), but Arthur then says he’ll let Gary go, that “you were the only one who was nice to me.” The moment makes you feel a lot of things. To the film’s credit, it’s one of the few times we really hang on another’s character’s reaction to Arthur’s malice. And Gill’s performance is incredible, as we see him shaken and overwrought, while trying to stay composed in the horror of the moment. It’s honestly an incredible depiction of how to make it out of a violent situation when you feel powerless and at another’s mercy. It’s also one of the few times where you feel like maybe, just maybe this film has a sense of a larger ethos.
But like everything in this film, the through-line gets abandoned because it’s not useful to the film’s real goal of empathizing and justifying his malice. And more telling, in that scene actually shows us the modus operandi of what’s really going on in Arthur’s head. That he’s been counting misdeeds. That he has his good list and bad list. That really, it’s nothing but the same school shooter logic that we’ve seen time and time again with the abusive refrain that guides it, “look what you made me do.” It even makes you think about those words, “you were the only one who was ever nice to me,” and how, from what we’ve seen the narrative, that’s not actually true either. But it doesn’t matter. The justifications help, but his malice is actually indiscriminate. He’s still a hammer looking for a nail.
Cancel my medication? Look what you made me do.
Show me the small kindness in an elevator? Look what you made me do.
Bring me on TV to make fun of me? Look what you made me do.
Cheer on my murder of rich men? Look at what you made me do.
Point out my mother’s neglect? Look at what you made me do.
Ignore my abuse? Look what you made me do.
Have a dysfunctional society? Look at what you made me do.
Why, with all this, it seems you MADE me become the Joker, society!”
Arthur does not believe he is the pilot of his own actions, even though he feeds off the power that such actions bring him. Which makes it all abuser’s logic, plain and simple. You can tell me that it’s the very point, but the depiction of everything about this film betrays itself to that purpose. You can say it’s just ironic, but its constant pleas for sympathy for Arthur have been ANYTHING but ironic. Joker, just like the character, is also a hammer looking for a nail.
In fact, pleas for sympathy are a critical part of abusive framing. It is precisely what makes you seem like you are the one who is on the receiving end of undo treatment, not the other way around. And every moment that follows needs to be a celebration of your choice to lash out. I mean, it’s a weird hypothetical but can you imagine how society would ACTUALLY react if someone went on TV and shot Johnny Carson in the face? (for a closer comparison to the film, maybe Merv Griffin is more apt). But the point still stands. The idea that it invokes support is bewildering. But hey, it’s a film dripping with manipulation on what it wants to be real and what it doesn’t want. lt only seems to care about the trauma of gas-lighting when it effects Arthur, before the film turns around does the same. His entire worldview, which is to say the way the film around him is constructed, is an active part of denial.
How does the saying go? “If you go to the store and run into an asshole, you just ran into an asshole. But if you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” The same is true for the world you create in your film. And for Joker, that fundamental denial of what’s true about himself exists in every possible crevice.
Arthur goes on television, admitting to the shooting the men on the subway and then insists “I’m not political.” It’s the same tired refrain we see time and time again in certain lulz corners of the internet, which only demonstrates the failure to realize what is and is not political. Because it’s the same people who say they “don’t want politics in video games” and then keep playing jingoistic, xenophobic pro-military shooters. Really, they just don’t want female and LGBTQ driven content. Which means they’re just ignorant of their own brand of conservatism. Arthur says he’s not political and then gets up there talks about cuts to mental health facilities and the oppression of people and it’s like, “uh, hey, you know there’s people in politics who give more of a shit about those things than the other side, right?”
But it doesn’t matter. Like Arthur even acknowledges, he doesn’t want to empower a class of people. Because Phillip’s narrative doesn’t actually care about other people or a class of the disenfranchised. He’ll invoke the language of oppression, but really the buck stops at Arthur. His emotion begins and ends with his own righteous indignation. The truth is that the person framing this just another rich guy who sees a world full of assholes.
What does he want? What’s the end goal?
Like the Joker himself, there is no end goal. Just the myopic cycle. Arthur’s hate, his movement, his entire being is just part of a singular ouroboros. Like the old saying goes, “whatever you worship will never be enough.” And here it results in an endless cycle where you take your feelings of powerlessness and feed into the endless, constant things to feel powerful at all time always. And it’s the kind of Trumpian worldview where you will still feel oppressed even as you step on someone’s neck.
Which makes Joker is the ultimate a fantasy for such a person.
It’s the dream scenario where you can take the real pain of your life, whether it be the horrors of depression or abuse and, instead of dealing with their nuances and learning to heal them, it tells you to use that toxicity to rise up into a place of power, aggression, and causing more pain. But at least you will have control! Terrifying control! And this is the height of entitlement because it entitles you to others’ suffering. Which means that in truth, Arthur’s hardship is just another prop in the artifice of the film’s framing. A means to Phillips’ psychological end. But the truth is that those in power always use chaos as a means to be worshipped. Because they are the cause of, and solution to, all your problems.
As Arthur is carried away by police, he looks out the cop car window. Happy that the fabric of society is falling apart and commenting on its beauty. It’s no accident the framer of this story confuses class rebellion with the same mindless destruction of people who riot after sporting events. Because there’s no space for actual revolution here. Just as we know who become the real victims of when these kinds of riots actually are political in nature. Just as we know that the kinds of victims in these scenarios rarely are rich assholes. It’s a false portrait designed to give our hero the standing ovation the makers believe he deserves. It’s not his fault, though. Society made him like this, after all. Arthur is just the vessel. And as this now worshipped man sits in therapy, he can only laugh and muster that most juvenile of thoughts…
“You wouldn’t get it”
No, we get it. That’s the whole problem. We see right through it. And if the film was aware of any this larger dynamic, if it was aware of any of the criticisms that come in this piece, if this current depiction was THE POINT, it would have shown us. Like the work of Martin Scorsese, it would have framed its subject in totality. It would have allowed us to observe and understand. It would have codified its irony. It would not have begged for sympathy before stepping on necks. In short, it would have identified problems instead of embodying them. But because it doesn’t? Because it so deftly hides the problematic nature of its own central thrust?
Well, that’s where the saddest part of all of this comes in…
Epilogue: “To Thunderous Applause”
There’s this reference that sticks out near the end of Joker, where they pass by a movie theater and we see the 1981 film Zorro, The Gay Blade and I immediately laughed out loud. If you know the history of Batman, you know that the film that the Waynes took little Bruce to see on that fateful night was indeed The Mark of Zorro (1920, or 1940, or 1971, pick your edition depending on the story). Seeing this particular sequel get mentioned on the marquee elicited a bunch of nervous feelings. Because if you don’t know the film’s reputation in the LGBT community, there’s a bit of a conflicted sense in how to regard it.
The film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22iiWlNpvg is a parody where Zorro (George Hamilton, playing both roles) gets injured and his gay brother Ramon comes in to pose as the masked hero and save the day. The character is, of course, a flaming stereotype that dates the film to a lurid degree. But at the same time, he’s not just a punchline. Ramon is often competent, witty, unflappable and sometimes even a little bit dashing. And in a climate that was starved for any kind of positive depiction, these moments offered crucial morsels that felt enough to go on in some ways. But of course, it had a limit.
I can imagine that Phillips, when picking this as the fateful film, probably had a similar laugh. The idea that THIS would be the film that spurs little Bruce into heroism is, well, there’s something delightfully off kilter about it because it sort of takes the air out of Batman’s seriousness. But I don’t think that was entirely the goal, it’s more just a funny occurrence that perfectly fit the timeline. What’s far more interesting is the choice of this film is also oddly appropriate. Because what makes a film like Zorro, The Gay Blade safe for larger public consumption? How could people uncomfortable with its subject matter still look on it and laugh? Especially in 1981? Simple, it’s a movie about homosexuality that’s still operating within a conservative agenda. For all the moments of homosexual indulgence, it’s all in service of upholding the status quo for it’s traditional audience.
The same is true of Joker.
I don’t mean that in the sense it’s about sexuality. I mean it is taking it’s own particular and problematic wants (all detailed above) and makes them palpable for a certain kind of popular consumption. You’ve probably noticed that there’s been a lot popular dialogue about how it’s “not your typical comic book movie!” or vice versa, “not your typical Oscar movie!” Which does nothing but elicit an exhausted sight from me because I feel like I have to constantly defend the genre from the same tired old cliches and mention that The Dark Knight, Spider-Verse, etc. also garnered a lot of attention. But I also get why some people really do feel that way. Say what you will, Joker is the first studio film that really hasn’t had to to fall into the trap of certain big-budget superhero-y things. It actually is about dark subjects. It’s actually rated R. And there’s been certain limitations that have been preventing studios from doing that with beloved properties, but here and now, we actually have it.
What’s more is that it’s all delivered in an elegant package. Phoenix delivers a powerhouse performance that brings you into his emotions. For whatever I can say about the larger framing, as an actor, he plays the truth he is being asked to find. As I said, Phillips has a great eye and a uncanny skill for gliding over the complications of his depiction with near frictionless skill. Like most awarded camera work, the film feels in control and assured, it feels commanding, it feels elegant and composed. And in telling its story, Joker takes all the aforementioned problematic darkness that I went on for thousands of words about and softens its edges in the exact right way to hide it’s danger. Which means it has become the runaway Oscar movie it is precisely BECAUSE it’s a movie so bland and inoffensive to the toxic status quo as it currently exists. Which is the same reason Phillips’ cynical humor is so damn popular, too. It presents its malice so elegantly that many will never, not once, stop to really think about it.
To be clear, do I really think the filmmakers want you to openly root for the Joker? Of course not. But from virtually everything Phillips has said, I don’t think he wants to think about it that hard, either. Just as I think that Joker so nakedly aligns with his anti-PC, far-left criticisms that I’m not sure he even realizes how much there is an overlap. In short, I don’t think Phillips fully realizes what he’s actually rooting for here at all. The exploration is just bringing him there. And I talk about this all the time in culture, but we have to think so much about the things we unwittingly align ourselves with and how we play into them.
To put it bluntly, if I ever wrote an essay that made the violent sects of the incel community go “yes, we feel seen!” then I would respond with a giant YIKES. Because the thing that would be most “true” that I could write about that community is the thing they are not confronting and admitting. Because I would want to go in and argue that toxic masculinity is not a system to master and control, but a system to let go of and heal from. I would say that lashing out is not the path of salvation from your pain. That hate and resentment will only become prisons. And at the end of your path down the dark and ouroborotical coil, there will be no thundering applause. Just more of what you have been running from.
What I also want to make very clear is that this whole argument is not just about white men. I mean, it’s also not NOT about white men, because there’s a reason Joker plays to the exact logic of a certain side of incel culture, Trumpism, and abusive framers. But it’s certainly not limited to that. It’s about the way this myopic, selfish system of thinking and seeing the world can seep into broader society in so many ways. Anybody can be seduced by the allure of mis-framing. And the better a film like this is at framing its concerns to be inclusive, the more we put ourselves in positions to absorb the toxic lesson at the center. All this stuff is in the air around us. We all live and breathe it every second of every day. And in turn, we don’t realize how many people casually align themselves with this toxicity without even thinking about it.
How does Joker do this so damn well?
Because it understands that movies are innately powerful. That they’re empathy machines. That they make us feel for people and their plights. We all know this implicitly because it’s why we like movies. It’s also why they can unnerve us and affect us for days on end. Heck, it’s even why propaganda works. And it’s why we can take on something so completely messed up then sit back and, because we’ve been so conditioned by society to take those feelings then sit back and think above all else, “wOw ThE aRtIsTy.” Which makes me realize that the real regret is that this exact version Joker could have been an opportunity.
This isn’t one of the cases where I want the movie to be a different movie or tackle other topics. Instead, I can’t help but want it to actually engage the topics it’s already tackling at the beginning. It plays the sympathy SO REAL in the beginning and so close to the realities of its character, that I’m waiting for the film make sad that this person has started making the wrong choices. I’m waiting for those climactic moments where we to watch in anguish as this character moves toward tragedy. Where Arthur knowingly or unknowingly has the opportunity to make a choice to turn back toward the proverbial light, but instead make the knowing and painful decision to embrace the power of toxicity. But no such moment presents itself. Instead, the narrative obfuscates and hides those options. It eggs Arthur on. It forces him into the place it really, truly wants him to be.
I asked at the start, what does Joker really want?
Peel back through all the opaque layers of justification and you find it’s just a movie that wants to shoot a lot people, to suffocate its parents, to avoid true consequences, and then be held up and championed as a savior for doing so. But it not only wants all that, it finds the way to justify all of it, while simultaneously putting in a bunch of lip service that denies that that is the motive behind it. It wants to lash out and scream to the world, “look what you made me do.” Which means that everything it wants, along with everything it pretends it doesn’t want, is problematic framing in a nutshell. This thinking is clearly insidious. But it’s also entirely common. And because of that, the movie, like Arthur himself, gets held up to thunderous applause.
Meaning the film’s biggest, ugliest accomplishment is that it openly predicts that society will praise and embrace both this figure and the movie around him. Because Joker gratifies the secretive, worst instincts of every human being and holds them up as just, it therefore gets held up as the pinnacle of art. For this, we could all sit on the sidelines and muse about how awful this is, but there is nothing about this situation that invokes my shock or ire. Instead, the only thing that makes me feel sad is that Joker lowers me to the same depths of cynicism. All I can do is shrug and acknowledge the obvious.
“Of course a bunch of people like it.”