Knock knock. It’s Joker, again. As if the film hadn’t generated enough press since its release in October, there are now rumours of a Joker sequel. Last week director Todd Phillips checked these somewhat by clarifying that no contracts have been drawn up, yet, but it’s clear there’s an appetite shared by Warner Bros and audiences alike. And, of course, a financial incentive: Joker is now the most profitable comic book movie ever made and the highest-grossing R-rated film.
Meanwhile, Blue Story screenings have once again been suspended in certain UK cinemas after another incident was linked to its portrayal of gang violence. It’s interesting to compare the reaction of Andrew Onwubolu (aka Rapman), the debut director of low-budget Blue Story, with that of Phillips to Joker’s reception. The former (who also linked the two controversies) has emphasised the reality of his subject matter. Fans have argued that a film grounded in reality cannot ‘glamourise’ violence, only portray an inconvenient truth. The latter has complained about ‘woke culture’ and how hard it is to be the guy who directed parts 1, 2 and 3 of The Hangover. As he told Vanity Fair: “All the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’” He has also admitted channeling that anger into Joker: “How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh, I know, let’s take the comic-book-movie universe and turn it on its head with this.”
Phillips may have drawn on his sense of persecution to create a white male aspiring comic whose repertoire is mocked, an underdog who is misunderstood then refashioned into a subversive icon, but to this he adds homicidal violence and vague, inconsistent tropes about mental disorders. Blue Story, by contrast, is explicitly based on Onwubolu’s own experience growing up in South London, and the message he has is clear: violence is not a legitimate answer, but neither is ignoring the struggles of working-class black kids and suppressing the few voices telling their stories. Films need not have clear messages, as works of art they are perfectly entitled, and often better suited, to ambiguity, but good films employ such ambiguity so their audiences will pay closer attention to nuance, not less. Joker uses both its generic and moral ambiguities not to evade cliches but reinforce them, feeding into the hackneyed narratives it pretends to challenge. In doing so it’s cashing in on the controversy surrounding its depiction of violence and mental-illness. An extra irony given its narrative nod to the greedy exploitation of vulnerable people.
Ahead of the film’s release, family members and friends of those killed in the Aurora cinema shooting (during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises) sent a letter to Warner Bros acknowledging their artistic freedom to create a ‘sympathetic origin story’ for the Joker, but urging the studio to withhold contributions to political candidates who accept money from the NRA, to lobby for gun reform, and to help fund gun-victim charities and intervention programmes. “As anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility,” they wrote. “That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.” The noncommittal response from Warner Bros asserted that “one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around difficult issues.”
Many films make money from violence, I wouldn’t single out Joker for that. Nor do I fear the film, or its sequel, will inspire acts of violence or domestic terrorism any more than real life already does. For the record, I watched it while hungover and quite enjoyed it. The problem is with the way the director attempts to have it both ways when it comes to the seriousness of his project - how life-like the film is claiming to be when it comes to these ‘difficult issues’. Clearly Phillips is turning away from comic entertainment in this film, but truly turning the ‘comic-book-movie universe’ on its head would result in a character devised not merely for entertainment purposes, but to provoke real insight - subverting the binary morality of superheroes and villains by fully employing the techniques of realism: less special effects, super powers, stock characters and flimsy pretexts more genuine psychological complexity. If Phillips had really pulled off the latter, rather than used a gritty aesthetic to suggest it, Arthur Fleck (however mesmerisingly played by Joaquin Phoenix) would likely not have been adopted as an incel hero; incels not being particular fans of nuance. Instead the self-serious film releases itself from some conventions of the genre (namely capes) only to embrace another set of cliches, and despite Phoenix’s skill, Joker’s characterisation remains of the blockbuster comic-book variety while demanding to be understood as a psychological portrait of the kind created by Scorsese.
As a result, Joker’s apparent concern for social exclusion and inequality - the lines delivered by Fleck’s therapist about cuts to mental health provision and the rage of working-class Gotham residents forced to live amongst garbage and super-rats - all these contextual pieces, are undermined. Are they even intended to form a serious political stance? It seems unlikely given Phillip’s views on wokeness. Are we meant to understand this context as justification? Fleck’s neighbour (and imagined girlfriend) Sophie is neither white nor male, and, rather than living with her mother as Arthur does, she is bringing up a child alone, in the same decrepit apartment building, yet her hardships don’t inspire homicide. Rather than exploring, say, white masculinity, as a factor in this, the film underscores the link between mental illness and murder. This is not reality.
Studies show that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence or self-harm, and psychiatrists have expressed their concerns over Joker for precisely this reason; it perpetuates the stereotype. While other recent films have explored nuanced, realistic portrayals of specific mental health conditions, Fleck’s inconsistent symptoms still belong to the world of criminally insane comic book villains. Paradoxically it also presents Fleck as selecting his victims according to a coherent logic (right after murdering a former colleague who wronged him, Fleck lets another go free because he was ‘nice’ to him). Discussing the film in The Guardian recently, two doctors wrote of their disappointment that ‘many disorders have been squashed into a plot device.’
Phillips claims the film was not made to ‘push buttons’ - unlikely given its score features Gary Glitter - and explains his motivation as being “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film”. Given that he seems to think he’s made something ‘real’, even radical, his surprise at the reaction he characterises as moralising seems disingenuous. Controversy is lucrative, but at a time when we are finally reducing stigma around mental health, a Joker sequel using cod-psychology and glib rhetoric in the service of a specious origin story for a super villain, feels like a step backwards.