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Joker is impressively controversial for a film that most people haven’t even seen. So far it’s generally been praised by critics at preview screenings, but it’s also been criticized on various fronts: Some thought it was overly sympathetic to the 4chan troll demographic, some thought it was an offensive portrayal of mental illness, while others just found it too derivative of classic Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver. One of the most eye-catching viral accusations is that it will somehow incite real-life violence, in an offshoot of the old “Do video games cause school shootings?” debate.
Speaking to IGN, director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix responded to this issue. First, they pointed out that people are passing judgment without seeing the movie, and secondly, they emphasized that Joker is more nuanced than a wholly sympathetic portrayal of an emotionally disturbed villain.
“I really think there have been a lot of think pieces written by people who proudly state they haven’t even seen the movie and they don’t need to,” said Phillips. “I would just argue that you might want to watch the movie, you might want to watch it with an open mind… The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world.”
Meanwhile, Phoenix put forward an argument that will be familiar to fans of The Matrix and Fight Club, both of which were widely misinterpreted for their political and violent content.
“I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong. And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that’s obvious.”
Phoenix went on to say that “you don’t know what is going to be the fuel for somebody.” A few days later, he walked out of another interview when asked a similar question about Joker inciting violence.
While Joker is one of Phoenix’s most high-profile roles to date—and may win him an Oscar—this isn’t exactly his first rodeo when it comes to dark, violent, disturbing content. His role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is arguably a precursor to Joker, and last year he starred in Lynne Ramsay’s terrifically violent thriller You Were Never Really Here. Both characters were self-destructive, violent, and shaped by trauma, but neither film faced this kind of backlash because they were indie dramas, and therefore didn’t fall into the hero/villain framework of a superhero franchise. There was no public outcry about The Master “promoting” Scientology or substance abuse because it existed in a different cultural context than Joker.
There’s definitely an argument to be made that we should all hold off on this debate until Joker is actually out. But if anything, the thing that’s provoking potentially violent behavior isn’t the film itself, but its fandom. While there’s no particular sign that people see the Joker as a role model, DC movie fandom has already started harassing critics—especially women—who give the film negative reviews.
While Phoenix is right in saying that you can’t predict what people will latch onto, you certainly could predict this response from DC fandom. This is a community that sent death threats, misogynist vitriol, and antisemitic abuse to a film critic for writing a bad review of Aquaman. Aquaman! And as any superhero fan can probably tell you, this is a common problem for people who criticize the DC franchise online. It’s a trend that will only get worse around a film like Joker, which is earning serious critical acclaim (meaning fans can argue that negative reviews are “wrong”) and exists at the center of a public conversation about toxic masculinity.
It was eminently predictable for Joker to provoke harassment from its own fanbase, and hopefully, Phillips will take this into account while promoting the movie.
- ‘Joker’ is catnip for Batman’s toxic masculinity fandom
- Fans petition Joaquin Phoenix to use ‘we live in a society’ meme in ‘Joker’ movie
- The first ‘Joker’ movie trailer is here, and it looks awesome
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Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor