In a slightly different culture, an art film about the Joker would be a premise for a comedy sketch. The beats write themselves: You start with shots of urban alienation, maybe some melancholy piano as a damaged man tries and fails to make ’em laugh. You work up that somber atmosphere for a minute or so, then push things over the line with a shot of him putting on the makeup and doing some crimes. If you really wanted to work the bathos, you could end with a couple bars of “Send in the Clowns.” Taking a dumb idea very seriously is an evergreen comic conceit; in 1999 it might have been a sketch on MadTV.
In 2019 it is an opportunity to wring our hands. Warner Bros. reinvigorated the field of Joker discourse in late August when it released the final trailer for “Joker,” a film that promised to move the villain away from the Penguin and toward Travis Bickle.
In the trailer’s opening shots, Joaquin Phoenix entertains a young boy on the bus by making faces, only to be chastised by the boy’s mother. The look she gives him captures a whole society’s suspicion and disdain. Shots of Phoenix running from street toughs in his clown outfit are intercut with his social worker breaking up with him. We see him watching a late-night host make fun of his stand-up comedy on television. Here is a man who keeps getting the wrong kind of laughs, until a montage of urban chaos set to stirring music suggests a chance at violent redemption. No one throws a car or a slow-motion punch. This Joker looks more pathetic than evil, and the preview provided social media with the one thing it will not tolerate: moral ambiguity.
The film, released this weekend, centers on Arthur Fleck, a semi-employed clown who lives with his mother. After years of failing to break into comedy, he finally gets a measure of public validation when he confronts some Wall Street types on the subway. His ensuing taste of celebrity encourages him to channel his frustration into violence and become the criminal clown we know today. It’s one of several Joker back stories that have emerged over the years, departing from previous films’ portrayals of him as a gangster who fell into a vat of chemicals (“Batman,” 1989) or as a sociopath ex nihilo (“The Dark Knight,” 2008). Unlike these capricious Jokers, Phoenix’s version has motives. He thinks he’s taking revenge on an unjust world. This makes him look like an element of society we associate with senseless violence in real life: lonely, male and emotionally stunted. Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones, tweeted that it’s “hard to read reviews of the Joker … that make no mention of the Aurora shooting. Seems pertinent. Seems dangerous.” Never mind that the Aurora shooter did not actually tell the police that he was the Joker, a false public memory that seems to stem from the fact that he committed his crime at a Batman film with his hair dyed bright orange. What critics like Jeffery seem to fear is that Arthur Fleck, in addition to being a sad sack, is also the kind of person we imagine would be very excited about the Joker movie in real life.
Much of the criticism of the film has centered on the question of what effect it will have on such people. David Ehrlich of Indiewire called it “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels,” invoking the term for involuntarily celibate young men that jumped from the saddest corners of the internet to popular parlance in 2014, when a self-described incel killed six people in Santa Barbara, Calif. David Edelstein echoed the idea that “Joker” is “an anthem for incels” in his Vulture review, warning that the film is “scary on a lot of different levels.” At Slate, Sam Adams wrote that “no matter how emphatic Phoenix’s performance, it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own.” Adams could handle this movie’s nuanced portrayal of self-loathing turned outward, but what about its effect on sexless losers?
Every new Joker embodies the element of chaos his audience fears. Thirty years ago, in the age of the superpredator, Jack Nicholson’s Joker led urban-coded henchmen with a boombox into a Gotham museum to graffiti old works of art. In the last year of the George W. Bush administration, Heath Ledger’s Joker was a terrorist who inspired Batman to construct a surveillance state. Even Cesar Romero’s campy, late-1960s Joker resembled a hippie. Our era fears political extremism and senseless public violence, which makes Arthur’s reactionary Joker an order of magnitude scarier than Jack Nicholson shooting acid out of a boutonniere.
The perennial significance of the Joker has made him an omnipresent reference online, both for sincere fans and for ironists. It’s often hard to tell the difference. In a tweet since deleted, the comedian Scott Aukerman observed that “there’s almost something chilling about the character of the Joker — someone who finds the thought of crime to be funny. …” This bone-dry joke captures the fundamental problem of Joker discourse: He’s a comic-book character no adult could take seriously, but at the same time, an ever-larger portion of our culture takes comic books seriously. This fear of other people’s bad taste, of losing movies to a supermajority of grown men in “Deadpool” shirts, seems to be the terror that “Joker” most successfully evokes.
It’s an anxiety that has led reviewers to condemn the kind of moral ambiguity that was supposed to distinguish art from crass commerce in the first place. Legitimate movies are about complicated protagonists who combine good and bad qualities; superhero movies are about two guys, one good and one evil. By combining them into a single guy, won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. By fretting over Arthur Fleck’s sympathetic qualities, progressive-minded critics are demanding the same sort of bright line between good and evil that makes comic-book movies so boring.
Ostensibly too sophisticated for superhero stories, our critics have accepted the Joker’s power to corrupt the masses in real life, on a more literal level than the most addled comic-book fan ever would. That’s a failure to maintain critical distance, but it’s being projected onto an audience that critics imagine to be more suggestible than themselves — insanely more suggestible, almost comically so. Who are these people who will go to the multiplex this weekend and finally learn that violence is an option? Do they share the Joker’s conviction that society is one public gesture away from chaos? Or is that belief limited to critics? Critics, after all, are the ones warning us that millions of undersexed morons are about to watch a movie they won’t understand. And it’s critics telling us, in a tone of concern for their fellow man, that these losers are total misanthropes.