The Punchline is You: ‘Joker’ and the Critical Gaze

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

A good fifty people attended the 1:55 p.m. showing for Joker at my local theatre. I wasn’t too aware of the demographic make-up until forty-five minutes into the movie, when a young white man a row ahead of me stood up and walked quickly to the end of his row. He removed his zip-up, draped it over the armrest of the last seat, and darted down the steps to the exit.

Any other time, I would have thought nothing of it, or if I did think something, it would be that he’s going to the bathroom and, oh, that’s an interesting way of marking your row in a dark theatre. This time, I tensed. I looked after him for a long time. I wondered how my sister and I would seek cover should he return and start shooting. Or if he had a knife and started stabbing. I decided it was stupid of us to always insist on sitting near the top row, in the middle, far from the exits. I realized I forgot the mace spray in another bag.

A minute or three later, the man returned. I watched him climb the steps, retrieve his jacket, find his seat, and resume watching, arranging the jacket almost like a throw over his body. It was quite cold in the theatre.

After that, I became aware of all the shapes in the darkness, and how I was only really sure about one of them, the one seated next to me, happily eating a steak taco bowl from Chipotle. I returned to the film with a question: why would an origin story about Batman’s archnemesis alter how I view a lone white man going to the bathroom?

My initial reason for getting hyped over Joker was simple: another grounded origin story of a comic book character, this time of a supervillain. After years of duds (okay, Wonder Woman was good, but only for the obvious reason), it seemed DC had figured out how to translate their success on the small screen to the big one: continue the naturalistic alchemy of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Once the final trailer came out, I had zero doubt.

And then it went on the festival circuit. Since then, the critical dial has been set on savage. Joker is everything from “an attempt to elevate nerdy revenge to the plane of myth” to “shoddily thought-out visions of glamorized nihilism” to a potential call-to-arms for delusional white men who vent their frustrations about no longer being the center of our society by going on murderous rampages.

A unifying theme among these reviews is a rather delicate discussion about appropriateness and tone. That this film exists in a time where we are always waiting for the next incidence of shocking, hate-filled violence seems to be an issue exacerbated by the film itself engineering sympathy, even empathy, for Arthur Fleck. There is a fine line between critiquing a film for glorifying violence and calling for its censure because it might inspire violence. There is an even finer line between viewing art for its sake and judging it for its morality, or lack thereof.

When addressed with the question that Joker may inspire violence, Joaquin Phoenix responded, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right and wrong.” When an actor in a film has to say that, we are engaging in a discussion over the appropriateness of art, and not its aesthetics or completeness. Are we seeking morality plays or representations of life, however far-fetched, however absurd, however awful and violent?

Art is not created in a vacuum. This almost always prefaces a negative take of the art in question, but is nonetheless true. Art is a prism through which ideas are expressed, with varying degrees of success. It is a snapshot of the zeitgeist. The most successful pieces of art are those that remain relevant far beyond the present of its creation. Joker is no such film. Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character may reach iconic status with his performance, but the film won’t, not because it has provoked such incisive responses, but because it is a remake-mash-up of two better, much more unsettling, and much more relevant films, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy.

Joker is far from a good film. Phoenix carries the movie with a stunning, raw performance that splits into two: one of a man imploding, the other as the malignancy emerging from that destruction. Without him, Joker signifies nothing. The aesthetic, 70s-era New York city grime, is but a veneer. The violence is loud and, at times, shocking, but the stakes are non-existent. The story isn’t as original as it tries to be, which is a shame, because the character of Joker has no origin to work against.

If it must be something, it is a perfect rendering of what makes Joker so terrifying — he has no identity other than the one he wants, and the one he wants is lethal instability. The other person, the one given to him by society, is the one we are most familiar with, and the one with all the issues.

Arthur Fleck is not much different from Travis Bickle and Robert Pupkin. They are not too far removed from the men who believe the world they are entitled to is being withheld by others, who yearn for a return to a time when white men were Sun Kings. They have been around since prior to 2000, since before 1983 and 1976. They’ve been around since as far back as 1492, and way before even then. The only change to have happened to these men over the course of human history is how we now react to them, and we react to them not because of a film, but because they have murdered, maimed, and violated in real-time.

If critics are distressed by how the film sympathizes with an incel, then I can’t imagine how they feel when the profile of the latest mass killer comes out and it includes reports about their issues with mental illness, introversion, how they were considered at-risk. We learn their names and their occupations, see their pictures, read their manifestos. There is round-the-clock coverage on how they planned, what actions they took, what route. In life, they deluded themselves into feelings of inferiority, but in death, they are seen. In death, we seek to understand them. It is strange, then, to expect any different from a film produced in our time.

Before seeing Joker, I read several reviews imbued with anxiety over the reaction of the general audience to its violent, potentially triggering material. I thought it was a very good example of the critical condescension of the masses, and shrugged it off. It wasn’t until a young white man stood up to go to the restroom did I realize some of that worry had wormed its way in.

In an article for The Atlantic, film critic David Sims unpacks the divisive critical reception of Joker. Near the end, he notes that as the film opens to a wider audience, the reaction may be different. “But,” he writes, “that wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up again around something else as critics, and audiences, contend with the influence these movies have on the national mood.”

A cultural conversation may very well result from Joker, but not about its influence. If anything, one should be concerned with how the critic can influence the national mood prior to the nation having a chance to exhibit one. Or, maybe there can be a conversation about the almost steadfast refusal by these critics to consider the movie in its context, as an origin story for a supervillain in a long-running, well-established comic enterprise.

The last scenes of the film feature Joker institutionalized and being interviewed by a caseworker. He’s handcuffed, the green dye washed out of his hair, and he’s chuckling to himself. The caseworker wants in on the joke. Joker looks at her with a malicious gleam in his eyes. “You wouldn’t get it,” he says. He continues to laugh, but it’s different now. There’s no choking it back, no laminated explanation to hand over. Like that, Joker understands its own context, it gets its own joke. But we’re still waiting for the punchline.

All the musings of an anxious human with an overactive imagination and a tendency to procrastinate.

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