Yes, I’m late.
I realize that JOKER released weeks ago, blazing across our public consciousness like a shooting star, our unfocused brains already on to the next hot controversy. I’ve tried to be honest about my tendency to recency bias (every Spider-Man movie we review is the new best thing I’ve ever seen) and as JOKER has asked to be reviewed with a very critical eye, I’ve tried my hardest to save some of my deeper thoughts on this movie until they were fully developed. At long last, I’m ready to really dish on this film and some of its more complicated elements.
What isn’t a secret is that I think that the movie is not great. In its best moments it is a pale imitation of better films, and while Joaquin Phoenix is a rare talent on full display I just can’t get into the self-important nature of the film.
The controversy surrounding it was confusing and alarming as the media seemed to create a panic where there hadn’t been one, and then Todd Phillips breathed legitimacy into the issue with his bizarre comments about not being able to make comedies in modern PC culture (God help the next person who tells me Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made in 2019).
As I watched Arthur bemoan that society had left him behind, I couldn’t help but wonder how the young men I’ve dedicated my professional life to serving would interpret this film. Would they be offended at Todd Phillips’ blanket statements about people like them? Would they find an anti-hero they could rally behind like the clowns burning Gotham to the ground?
In the end the controversy did hit home with me once I got my butt into the seat. See, while comic books and movies brought us together today, I pay the bills by managing a youth shelter for young men in their adolescence. It’s a job that I love, one I’ve taken significant pay cuts to get back to after some poor career choices, and something I take even more pride in than my annual Chrono Trigger play-through.
I can’t answer these questions; what I can say is that one glaring oversight in the film’s writing struck me as truly toxic in the way our most hand-wringing assessments feared. Arthur is quick to point the finger at others, to ask why no one is helping him, to bemoan that he’s been asked to behave like nothing’s wrong. At no point in the film however does Arthur face any consequences for his actions; the movie fails at every turn to hold him accountable for what he has done, to ascribe any sort of responsibility to this character.
Stalk a woman, break into her apartment? Just a mental illness.
Kill a couple of men on the train? It was empowering to kill bullies!
Let’s assume the best here. Let’s assume the good faith of Todd Phillips and all involved in this film’s production. I’m willing to believe that this movie was intended as an indictment of society and its callous habit of abandoning the marginalized. I’m even willing to believe that no one in the writer’s room viewed Arthur as a hero.
By robbing Arthur of his consequences they’ve robbed him of agency, robbed him of a character arc, and created a caricature rather than a character. Worse yet, they’ve created a hollow work of film that glorifies the very thing that it says it’s trying to condemn; hurt people hurt people, and Arthur is ultimately perpetuating a cycle of violence. Ask anyone who works with at-risk or marginalized populations; taking responsibility for our actions is the first and most vital step to claiming power over our own fates.
I can’t promise that any of the young men I serve would look up at the screen and see Arthur as a role model. What I can assure you is that every day these guys get up in a world that has been out to get them from day one, and they take responsibility for their part in making things worse and reconcile that with who they want to be in the future. Arthur is a coward, and a hollow attempt by painfully out of touch writers to speak to a population they’ve clearly never met.
JOKER could have been a powerful story of self-destruction, a cautionary tale for 2019 like the better movies it paints itself as. Instead it’s a cheap joke told at the expense of the bravest people I know, and like the man says, I just don’t get it.
Want more JOKER?
Catch our episode on the polarizing title w/ guest Ashley from The Cutaways Pod.