The Collective Hallucination Surrounding the Joker Movie

The discourse over the Joker movie is a broken beat at this point.

Discussion surrounding the Joker movie has been, much like the oeuvre, very polarized. The movie has become the perfect honeypot for avids of culture wars to plant a flag on either side and argue fiercely for their position. The mostly-liberal dissenter side argues that Todd Phillips’ authorial intent and the timing of the movie’s release midst an epidemic of mass shootings constitutes in and of itself a cardinal sin; all-the-while conservatives have watered its meaning down to a rebellious departure from the conventional trappings of cinema, where it has according to them become more a way of ostracizing them for political complacency than lauding their commitment to traditional values. What you get when those two clash is the tone of a conversation where everyone sounds half-drunk, and is either completely oblivious to the cultural context in which the movie exists, or sees an affront to their opinion as a fundamental misunderstanding of cinema–both cases are not ideal, and it’s why the discourse around the movie needs to be grounded in several key points before any definitive judgment is made.

Because white men seem to have a newfound knack for mass shootings, the Joker movie has been perceived by a significant chunk of the film criticism community as co-signing these sensibilities rather than being judiciously critical of them. While that point holds merit, one couldn’t possibly ignore the eerie resemblance between it, and the initial discourse when the Dark Knight was released–Christopher Nolan’s rendition of Batman evoked its own sense of partisanship for pure anarchy, a liberation from the shackles of subservience to class oppression, and an ever-directionless Bruce Wayne who continued to cut down the branches of crime instead of rooting out widespread poverty. Having come out at the tail end of George W Bush’s second term and in the middle of a global recession, there was no guarantee the movie’s emotional kernels wouldn’t rub a viewer the wrong way, and motivate them to take Heath Ledger’s Joker portrayal to heart.

Sure enough, it didn’t happen immediately, but a tragedy of predictable dimensions took place in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado back in 2012. From then on, abording the subtext of motion pictures became a central point of conversations surrounding movies with as sensitive of a subject matter, and with the inexistence of a moral bounce-back like Batman in this latter depiction of the Joker, the fear was that the movie would leave its impressionable audiences even less challenged, potentially paving the way for yet another mass shooting to occur. Robert De Niro seemed to share that sentiment, decrying financial contributions to pro-gun politicians by Warner Brothers and the lack of sensible gun laws in the United States as a contributor to the great collective anxiety caused by the movie’s release in a time of social turmoil.

The most puzzling thing about the Joker movie is that some seem to conceive of its criticism almost as a public service. Instead of digging deep at the roots of violence in America, a position taken by the movie’s most ardent critics is not to trust the collective American consciousness to not perverse the meaning of the movie and turn it into a recruitment film for partisans of social chaos. Such was the fate of movies like Fight Club, where the undertones making light of toxic masculinity were twisted into becoming a celebration of it.

On the other side of the aisle, defense of the movie has become as fervent and quasi-religious as predicted. As rules of culture wars dictate, if those who think alike tend to generally like a thing, it is perceived as good praxis to emulate their thinking and also like said thing. And since this was bound to be a bloody ground of warfare of the bumptious (mostly-liberal) movie critic versus the average layman, what happened to the Joker is almost the polar opposite to what the Last Jedi and Captain Marvel incurred before–the key difference here, that instead of being ostracized for not liking Rian Johnson’s subversive take on Star Wars, or Captain Marvel’s shallow take on female empowerment, liking the Joker has become the sin to reproach. Simply put, the parameters of film criticism don’t seem to have evolved much beyond “I hate or like things based on what those who think like me hate or like.”

This time though, there appears to be a slight change to the film discourse environment that might mean the Joker will be out of the cultural zeitgeist sooner than otherwise predicted–critics have gotten more intelligent about the historical misallocation of cultural capital movies of Joker’s caliber seem to naturally engender. If it was the case in yesteryears that Batman V Superman and the Last Jedi wouldn’t see an end to bickering over their minutest details, critics and devoted adorers alike have learned to take a step back from the emotionally-draining cycle of engaging in what is ultimately a conversation about a piece of entertainment.

“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,” says Vox’s culture writer Aja Romano. She then goes on to assert that the discussion surrounding Joker’s most polarizing aspects may be down to a general hunger by media to correlate the two, despite there being very little association: “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. […] 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.”

If past examples of discourse going awry have taught us anything, it’s that the Joker movie — much like other controversial entries before it — is not worth combing over for months and even years following release. No movie is deep, or otherwise convoluted enough to warrant it, and “Joker” isn’t about to break that streak.