Scene one, hot take one: The importance of ‘controversial art’ and a case for ‘Joker’

The titular character from "Joker" as played by Joaquin Phoenix. He is clad in a clashing red, orange and green shirt. His hair is green and he has on his signature white clown makeup with green triangles below and above the eyes and the classic painted red smile.
Graphic by Elaine Yang

“Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips (yes, the creator of all three “Hangover” films), opened last week to massive success at the box office. A character study disguised as a comic book movie, the film has dominated current film “discourse.” 

Its nonstop coverage makes it seem as if the film has been out for months. Ever since “Joker” won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September, there have been countless takes on the film and massive controversy on its “dangerous ideology.” 

From warnings of incel violence to the stationing of undercover cops in screenings to a national guard warning about potential violence during screenings, “Joker” has been fraught with accusations of stoking violence in young alienated white men. However, the issue with the mass hysteria surrounding the film’s danger is that it somehow misses the point of the film itself. 

“Joker” follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a 30-something aspiring stand-up comedian who struggles with the abuse he suffered as a child and deterioration of his mental health. As the city of Gotham disregards the working class, Fleck becomes increasingly disturbed, leading to his inception as the “Joker.” 

After the murder of three Wall Street frat-bros on the subway, the Joker cements himself as a figure of class struggle, and Fleck begins to feel like a person for the first time in his life.  

When Fleck eventually dawns his Joker costume and erupts into violence, it’s not some sort of glorification of mass violence committed by white men — it’s instead the tragic punchline of the film. The only way Fleck can find personal purpose is by abandoning any form of ideology and becoming a force of pure nihilism. 

In other words, “What do you get when you mix a mentally unwell man with a complete lack of social welfare and class consciousness?” Nihilistic tragedy.  

The audience isn’t supposed to read his violent outburst as a moment of heroic triumph. The Joker may be the protagonist of the film, but he isn’t the hero. What makes this fundamental misunderstanding so appalling is that the film completely beats viewers over the head with the explicit class warfare themes of the movie. 

There’s literally a moment in the film where Joker does the “we live in a society” meme to the point where it becomes so obvious that it detracts from the film itself. 

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As a film, “Joker” is a bit of a mixed bag. Phoenix’s performance is truly phenomenal — just another example why he is the greatest working actor. The film is actually really funny at moments. All its jokes land, especially a darkly comic example of a sight gag involving a little person. 

Visually, Phillips’ camera is surprisingly artful in its capturing of Fleck’s breaking psyche. However, the film wears its influences (“Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”) a little too close to its sleeve, features some corny dialogue and has a few jarring comic book moments that take you out of the character study and remind you that you’re watching a movie in the DC film universe.

Despite the film’s lack of subtlety, its message is still one that speaks to our current moment. In an age where the American working class has continued to be increasingly disillusioned by a country that — as said in the film — “does not give a shit about people like them,” a film entirely about the dangers of leaving economic inequality and mental health reform unaddressed is crucial for our moment. 

“Joker”’s flaws hold it back from being a great film. However, it is a memorable film, and its ideology has thrust it into a national spotlight and cemented it as the center of film discourse for the moment. 

In a year where forgettable films such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King” have dominated the public consciousness, memorable is enough to make “Joker” worth your time.

“Joker” 4/5 Stars 

Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is one of TSL’s film columnists. He’s a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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