This month saw the US release of the newest installment in the DC Comics film franchise, Joker. The film has been the subject of heated debate, with some having enormously positive responses, and others having enormously negative ones. Some see it as just a well-done villain origin story. Others see it as bringing more light to mental health and social support systems. And yet others see it as humanizing and even valorizing white male violence and the mass killings that have become too common in the contemporary US landscape.
We thought we would gather up some philosophers working on ethics and the philosophy of art to give their takes on the movie. Below, you’ll see what they have to say about how Joker treats villainy and evil, race, and moral responsibility, as well as what we should learn from all of the debate and disagreement that surrounds it.
Our contributors are:
- Benjamin Hale, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder [website]
- Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics [website]
- Erich Hatala Matthes, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Advisory Faculty for Environmental Studies at Wellesley College [website]
- Nick Stang, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Toronto [website]
- Matt Strohl, Professor of Philosophy at University of Montana [website and blog]
I generally try to avoid spoilers before I watch a film, so I was eager to see this film on the day of release. I’d of course heard the hype after the Venice Film Festival (at which point I grew fantastically excited), and then seen a few negative reviews the week of the release (at which point my excitement rapidly deflated), but I tried to avoid reading reviews so as not to ruin my experience. Nevertheless, I felt the tug of excitement versus the lethargy of deflation as opening day approached. I had almost decided not to see the film thanks to these latter reviews, but reluctantly went after my 13-year-old son gifted me some tickets for my birthday.
I’m glad I did.
I came away from Joker feeling that whoever had been writing negative reviews simply hadn’t understood the film. “Hands down the best superhero film I’ve ever seen,” I texted a friend. What blew my mind after seeing it, and to a certain extent still blows my mind, was how divergent the various reviews were, so I’m looking forward to reading what others in this roundtable have written.
Here’s how I see it. The main question for the film is big: How does a villain come to acquire such power while also being a terrible person? This is a question that I’ve had for a long time about most of the villains in fiction, from Darth Vader to Goldfinger to Joker. I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied with the answer. To my eye, the director, Todd Phillips, answers this question by suggesting that villainy, unlike mere criminality, is both an individual and a social phenomenon. Insofar as he wants to hold this position, the answer in the film must be given in two ways at once.
In the first instance, we need to know something about the rise (or descent?) of the Joker as a person. What explains his evil? In this version of him, it seems that he is both inclined to delusion, biologically and psychologically (through abuse as a child), as well as neglected by the state, substantively and structurally. He is at once a broken human thrown into a cold and heartless environment, and a product of that environment. Due to abuse and a predisposition to delusion, he is continually unsure what is true and what is not true, out of control of his beliefs. The world he perceives is not stable. We ride along with him through this journey, never really sure what parts of the world we are experiencing are in his head and what are happening in real time. In this respect, he is driven deeper to madness by his delusions and by the failure of the state to support him with counseling or medication.
In the second instance, we need to know something about the conditions that cause not just the descent of Arthur, but the rise of his personage, the Joker, and the rioting of the many others who choose voluntarily to don his mask. What explains their evil? Why would they be willing to follow a madman when his actions are so obviously horrible? He is an empty suit, a cult of personality. People follow him because they don’t know what else to follow, because they want to strike out. We get this in the form of the rise of industry, and the military-police-industrial complex that clearly controls Gotham. The rats are running loose. They are out of control, not unlike Arthur. They are pushed around by the powers that be. When Arthur finally does something about those who lord their success and power over him, this motivates them to rise up against the industrial class, which holds Thomas Wayne as their icon.
Consequently, I found that it moves the Batman narrative along in a way that I hadn’t anticipated, that seemed to me to do much more for the story than anything I’ve encountered so far. If you follow the line from the movie, Joker is Batman’s brother. I think there’s good evidence from the film to suggest that this is an actual and not an imagined relation, but even if it is all in Arthur’s head, he at least believes and seems to be motivated by that idea. That explains why he might return, time after time, to attack Batman above all. None of the other reasons seem to make sense.
I won’t rehearse the whole story, but I found this tension fascinating and important. Many reviews tend to focus on one or the other of these aspects. I don’t think they can be taken independently, and I think they might even answer a few tack-on concerns from critics.
Many critics have suggested that Joker is too derivative, borrowing so heavily from films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy as to be essentially straight up plagiarism. Of the criticisms, I can see and understand this one perhaps best of all, but I have difficulty accepting it. There are clearly references to other films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Mean Streets, The Shining, and Willard, among others, so that the derivation seems to me more deferential and admiring than derivative. Phillips borrows heavily from them, but he does so with purpose, and he builds on their theses. This is I think evidenced by the latter part of the question: not just what makes for a violent criminal, but how does that violent criminal become a supervillain? More recent films, like Fight Club, American Psycho, and Requiem for a Dream in some ways treat madness very much like Joker, in that there is confusion about what is real and what is not, but they too mostly don’t take up the question of how a supervillain comes to be, how a cult of personality forms.
Partly as a consequence of this, some critics have raised concerns about mimicry and copycat violence. I mostly don’t take these concerns too seriously, as these kinds of concerns could be raised about quite a few films. Chris Yogerst has a nice response to these in the London Review of Books. The irony over the mimicry charges is that Joker himself is a mimic. He takes copious notes on how to behave in funny settings, plotting out when to laugh and how to laugh. He engages in multiple laughs throughout the film, some of which appear to be diabolical, some of which are theatrical, and some of which are involuntary. He plays the clown, mirroring and mimicking life, “putting on a happy face,” while the citizens of Gotham then eventually choose to mimic him. After shooting Murray Franklin, he turns the camera around in the studio, just as we cut to the various screens, invoking Network, we get the sense that we are the audience, we are the ones who will be the copycats.
Others have raised concerns that we might sympathize with the villain. In a way, this is a follow-on concern for the mimicry. But the thought here is that if Joker’s actions aren’t handled more carefully, then we may be enticed to sympathize, and therefore excuse, his behavior. Seems to me that we needn’t go that far. It’s one thing to make sense of what drives someone to madness, and yet another thing to imply in doing so that one should sympathize with that person. The question we need to know as viewers is what explains or motivates the Joker, not what justifies his behavior. What philosophers call explanatory or motivating reasons in this way should be kept clearly distinct from normative or justificatory reasons. When taken in this regard, understanding what might motivate Arthur – a bunch of beliefs, some true, some false, that he is being treated poorly, etc. – is considerably different than suggesting that these reasons justify his actions.
I strongly recommend this film and suggest that others see it as well.
I want to acknowledge up front that many folks in the disability studies and mental illness communities are deeply hurt and troubled by Joker, reading it as yet another story of how untreated mental illness can lead to violence, and as a movie that contributes to the stigmatization of mentally ill people as dangerous and as unfit to be part of the social world. I read the movie differently. I think it actively resists suggesting any single causal story, both through sustained ambiguity and indeterminacy in the story line, and by situating violence as legible within gun culture, class warfare, White privilege, ableism, and failed infrastructure. The iconic backdrop of 1981 New York/Gotham underscores that the violence is a product of place and social context as much as personality. That said, I also think it is not hard at all for viewers to see the movie as an affirmation of the ableist narrative of mental illness as the root of violence. This is certainly one of the many various superimposed narratives offered by the movie, and it is one with a lot of cultural authority. Thus I think the movie is potentially dangerous, and can play into ableist narratives; in this sense making it may have been irresponsible. But this is not the dimension of the film I want to discuss.
Many have noted that Joker is a story about the devastations of living without recognition or social inclusion. I think that this is right, but far too simple. To understand Arthur Fleck, we need to see not just how he craves and fails to get recognition, but what sort of recognition it is that he craves, or can even recognize himself as receiving. This requires us to look at the role of kinship, the biological imagination, and Whiteness in the film. (I was inspired to view the movie as partially about racialized Whiteness, and to focus on the significance of whiteface, by a Facebook post by Toby Rollo, although my reading of the role of Whiteness in the movie is different from his – though perhaps compatible with it.)
Fleck seeks recognition and connection but receives very little. However, aside from his mother, who may be delusional, five characters in the movie do offer him brief moments of recognition, and all five are Black. The child on the bus gives uptake to his attempts to make him laugh. His therapist at the start shows genuine interest in his notebooks and concern for his well-being. His neighbor briefly tries to bond with him in the elevator. The records clerk at Arkham talks to him about the institution and tries to help him. The psychiatrist at the end approaches him with empathy and openness. Indeed, three of these characters express to him in one way or another that they, like him, are part of an underclass whose needs don’t matter. The therapist tells him that the system doesn’t care about people like him or her. The records clerk comments on his limited power. The neighbor specifically tries to bond with him over how awful their shared building is. But none of this is the kind of recognition that Fleck wants or can even see. He tells his therapist that she has never once listened to him and just repeats the same questions, although from what we can see she is a caring (albeit beleaguered) therapist trying to get him to open up. He imposes a delusional and fetishizing fantasy relationship upon his neighbor instead of giving reciprocal uptake to her actual moment of reaching out. He grabs the file from the records clerk, and tells the psychiatrist that she “wouldn’t understand the joke.”
What Joker wants is recognition from wealthy, White men with power – Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne in particular. The recognition of such men is what he sees as his unfulfilled entitlement. Both these men are explicitly father figures to him. It is this lineage of powerful, rich White men to which he sees himself as belonging, and as unfairly cut from; other recognitions and connections don’t matter to him. What he wants is specifically to be recognized as the son of rich White men. What he has been left out of is the proper, natural lineage of White entitlement.
And this is the class warfare movement he sparks, in which all the protesters don whiteface. What they demand is not just an end to inequality, but, in effect, a rightful share in White entitlement. The protesters are “nobodies” to Wayne and his ilk, just a bunch of deplorable clowns anonymous under their masks, but at the same time they share Whiteness and the (unfulfilled) claims of recognition and power that go with it. We don’t know how many of them are actually White and it doesn’t really matter; they don whiteface to stake a claim in a lineage of entitlement. People of color are also left out from positions of power, but they are irrelevant to this biological fantasy.
But the story of failed White entitlement and White paternal recognition is not the only quasi-biological story of lineage in Joker. Fleck’s alternate mythic genealogy is matrilineal, not patrilineal. According to this second story, he belongs in Arkham. “Madness” is his rightful inheritance, and it determines his proper place, quite literally. We get several hints that Fleck is attracted to the idea that perhaps he belongs in Arkham. When he first interacts with the records clerk, he asks, “What do you have to do to get in here?” and his question sounds at least as much like a request for instructions as it does mere curiosity. The records clerk responds that some folks have nowhere else to go; in other words, this is their proper place, not because of what they did but because this is simply the only place they belong. And of course, the film draws upon the audience’s shared knowledge that Arkham is where Joker belongs. It is his place. At the end, we see him dancing in Arkham – his characteristic response to finally feeling as though things are as they should be. The lighting and music are bright and peaceful, for once. Throughout the movie, when Joker feels “mad,” the colors saturate and brighten, and background music kicks in. When he feels sane, the colors drain and the soundtrack is eerily silent.
So the movie, which is billed as Joker’s origin “story,” gives us at least two competing stories, both of which are structured by a myth of biological inheritance: his origins as an unjustly unrecognized heir of a powerful, wealthy White man, who properly belongs – like Bruce Wayne – inside Wayne Manor, cut off from an uninterested and violent city; and his origins as the fatherless son of a “madwoman,” who properly belongs cut off from that same city inside Arkham Asylum. Both narratives are naturalized by biological myths.
Nothing in the film will resolve for us whether either narrative is true. His paperwork says he was adopted. His mother has been lobotomized and Wayne will not talk, so there is no way of recovering any truth about his biological parentage. He could be the biological child of both Penny and Thomas, with adoption papers faked to save Thomas’s fortune and reputation. He could be the biological child of Thomas, foisted off upon his unstable and crushed-out houseworker after an affair with someone else. He could be the biological child of two completely different people, and the adoption papers could be legitimate. The only option we can pretty much rule out is that he is the biological child only of Penny and an unknown father, because this would make the adoption papers, real or fake, incomprehensible. So the only biological kinship story that we know to be false is the one that Fleck believed was obviously true for most of his life. Thus Joker painstakingly refrains from allowing us to infer any literal facts at all about biological kinship. Yet biology, in the movie, serves as crucial mythic material for the narrative construction of inheritance, entitlement, and proper place.
Erich Hatala Matthes
I did not love Joker. I did not enjoy watching it. But I think that these assessments actually reflect an aspect of the movie that was successful: its criticism of other movies that glamorize moral monsters, and the pleasure audiences take in those depictions.
The philosopher A. W. Eaton describes a category of character that she labels “rough heroes.” Unlike traditional anti-heroes, who are flawed but ultimately good (like Han Solo, say), rough heroes are characters with grievous moral flaws, but whom the narrative, whether movie or TV show or novel, nevertheless manages to render appealing to the audience (like Hannibal Lecter). Hannibal Lecter is a vicious sociopath who murders and eats people to satisfy his cravings, and yet he is portrayed as brilliant and charming in a way that manages to win the audience’s allegiance (the philosopher Cynthia Freeland also describes this phenomenon in her work on realist horror). The character of the Joker is often rendered in this very way. Heath Ledger’s Joker, for instance, is a vicious killer with a complete disregard for human cares and concerns, but who is ultimately delightful to watch: he is mysterious, quirky, and always has a trick up his sleeve. By contrast, there is absolutely nothing endearing about Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck. He is sympathetic at turns, but mostly pitiful, horrifying, and incompetent. Rather than being darkly satisfying, watching him on screen is a deeply uncomfortable experience.
And I take it that’s the point. When you strip away the veneer of character traits that make Heath Ledger’s Joker fun to watch despite his disturbing immorality, you’re left with Phoenix’s Fleck, and with him the worry that you maybe shouldn’t be enjoying any of these depictions. When you stop to reflect on how ubiquitous the rough hero character type has become in film and television, it’s striking to realize how simple it is, really, to get an audience to develop an allegiance to a moral monster. You render them powerful or funny, smart or witty, and the audience is willing to forgive the most heinous actions. Read in this context, then, Joker seems to be making the deliberate choice to not present Fleck as a rough hero: director Todd Phillips has taken a beloved villain and turned him into a kind of naturalized nightmare. To my mind, this is accentuated by the use of stylistic trappings that for another version of the character would be part and parcel of the rough hero presentation. The upbeat music and dance breaks might be macabrely amusing for a different portrayal of the character, but in the context of Phoenix’s Joker, they serve to increase the discomfort. The cinematography and soundtrack are inviting the audience to lean in, while the character development is screaming for them to back away.
So, as a criticism of the increasingly popular rough hero genre, I found the movie compelling. The orchestrated discomfort of watching it bled through into other movies, leaving me to doubt whether I should enjoy them as much as I do.
Of course, there is a worry that I’m misreading the film – that it is actually engaging in the very exercise I took it to be criticizing, that it does intend the audiences to be enamored with Arthur Fleck in the same way they are with other rough heroes. If so, then the movie is less of an achievement – less of an exercise of artistic skill on Phillips’ part – but that does not make it any less powerful an indictment of our rough hero obsession.
The Joker is evil. This is about as constitutive of the character as green hair, white skin, and red lips. We would accept a presentation of the character as having a different background, as not having facial abnormalities, or in an outfit other than his trademark purple suit (in this movie it’s red, a callback to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s Batman TV show). But if we are presented with a story in which the Joker is not evil, we start to wonder whether this is a story about the Joker at all, rather than about a world in which someone other than the Joker goes by that name.
(As a perhaps interesting aside: This is arguably precisely what happens in some of the more outlandish alternate Batman storylines. For example, in the Flashpoint series, Martha Wayne becomes the Joker after witnessing the death of her son Bruce. There, she plausibly plays the Joker role, but is not in fact the Joker. For the definitive work on trans-world identity in the universe of Batman, see Sam Cowling’s essay, “Could Batman have been the Joker?”)
But in Todd Phillips’ new movie, Joker, it is questionable whether the Joker, or Arthur Fleck as he is known for most of the film, is evil, or merely mentally ill. We learn early on that the Arthur (played by Joaquin Phoenix) has spent time at Arkham Asylum and regularly sees a city-appointed psychologist, who has him on seven different psycho-pharmaceuticals. But the Gotham City program that pays for all of this, including Arthur’s medications, is cut, leaving him to fend for himself. (We are given to understand that the cut to social services is more general and that many people in Gotham will be going without needed services, which will become a political flashpoint later in the movie.) Arthur’s psychotic break, and the murderous rampage it leads to (previous to this, he had killed only in self defense), occur after his medication is denied to him. In case the audience hadn’t connected the dots on their own, right before committing the climactic murder – on live television – of Murray Franklin, the late-night talk show host Arthur once idolized but has now turned against, Arthur announces: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?! Exactly what you fucking deserve.”
In case you feel your intelligence wasn’t insulted enough by that piece of dialogue, allow me to insult it a bit further by pointing out something obvious: the movie has an explanation of the Joker’s evil deeds. Arthur is mentally ill. Medication, therapy, a steady job as a rent-a-clown, and a relationship with a mother who is presented as caring keep him relatively grounded. (Although Arthur later learns from stolen court documents that his mother allowed him to be abused by a boyfriend when he was a child.) He may be stalking a female neighbor (or this may be imagined, the film is ambiguous) but the crime spree occurs only after his medication and his counseling are taken away. The movie’s explanation of Arthur’s crimes is as simple as Arthur’s: they occur because society treats some of its members poorly and does not give them the support they need. But does that make him evil, or merely the victim of his own brain chemistry and an uncaring society?
Interestingly, another movie in the Batman universe also offered an explanation of the Joker’s evil. In Christopher Nolan’s 2008 iteration, The Dark Night, Alfred (Michael Caine) has this to say about the Joker:
The Joker, Alfred warns Bruce, has no goal external to the activity of his crimes. The crime is an end in itself. It is “good sport,” as Alfred says.
It must be pointed out that Phillips’ film surely gets closer to the etiology of crime in the United States than Nolan’s. Untreated mental illness, poverty, and the lack of anything like an adequate social welfare net (as well as mass incarceration and racism, which are not mentioned in this movie) all play important parts in crime in America. To deny this, or to claim that crime is just the result of bad apples who “want to watch the world burn,” would be both foolish and deeply pernicious.
But I am more interested in which movie offers the more philosophically and (more importantly) dramatically satisfying account of the Joker’s evil. If his crimes really are just a result of his underlying neurological condition and his background, can we blame Arthur for his deeds? Surely, we can acknowledge them as seriously morally wrong (they are, after all, murders) but it is significantly less clear that they count as evil. Accounts of evil abound in the history of philosophy – from Augustine stealing pears, to Kant on radical evil, and Arendt on the banality of evil. While there is significant disagreement on the nature and cause of evil, I think it is at least highly questionable whether we can describe Arthur, once we understand the cause of his action, as evil. Once we medicalize his actions, by tracing them back to an untreated mental disorder for which he is surely not responsible, we withdraw them from the scope of his responsibility. They are no longer actions, i.e., expressions of his agency, but symptoms, i.e., manifestations of a condition.
This matters dramatically to the movie, because this is an origin story of someone who is going to grow up to trade fisticuffs with a billionaire playboy who dresses like a bat to fight crime. (In fact, the future caped crusader has two brief cameos here as a young boy.) Now I ask you, what is the more dramatically satisfying theory of the Joker’s evil: that he is a deeply unfortunate man who is off his medication and has been poorly served by Gotham City’s public services? Or that he is the very embodiment of chaos, a man who kills and maims because he finds it funny? Who is a more satisfying nemesis for the Dark Knight: a deeply ill man who is off his medication? Or a cackling one-man crime spree, who opposes Batman not for money or influence or out of conviction, but just because he finds “Bats” to be a worthy adversary, because he finds it fun to be his nemesis?
The basic problem with this movie is its incoherence. On the one hand, it craves critical accolades – for its homage to great New York cinema (King of Comedy most notably, but also Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon) and an over-praised performance by Joaquin Phoenix that could not be a more naked plea for an Oscar if it were prefaced by an actual speech to the Academy. But on the other hand, it is also a move in the Batman universe: young Bruce and Alfred are here, and his father Thomas Wayne has an important part as a fat cat unconcerned with the plight of ordinary people. Near the end of the movie, we even see the canonical birth moment of the Batman legend: Thomas and Martha gunned down before Bruce’s very eyes, after a screening of The Mask of Zorro. So we are supposed to believe that this young boy will grow up to regularly deliver fantastic beat-downs to a man who must be at least 35 years his senior? Because the Joker should be at least 60 by the time Bruce assumes the mantle of the bat. And recall that his nemesis in all of this, the “clown prince of crime”, is really just a “mentally ill loner” (in his own words), neglected by society, deprived of his medication by cuts to city services in the 1970s. Maybe the utility belt should include a hypodermic needle with thorazine? Or the number of a really good shrink? More seriously, my point is that a story can inhabit the moral universe of this movie, where crime has psychological and sociological causes. Or it can inhabit the moral universe of Batman. But it cannot live in both.
My aim today is meta-commentary, but I’ll begin with my own take on Joker:
I didn’t hate it. I also didn’t like it. Joaquin Phoenix is great. His performance feels to me like the dark flipside of his exceptional work in James Gray’s Two Lovers. The score is godawful and so is the choice of pop songs. The script is very bad but also frustrating because there a few good ideas. On the whole, my take is that this is an example of an excellent central performance trapped in a bad movie.
Joker is at its best when it gives Phoenix long scenes to elaborate Fleck’s mannerisms. My favorite scene is his visit to the stand-up club. He loves it: He’s giddy and overflowing with inspirations that he can’t wait to deploy in his own comedy, but he’s incapable of the sort of direct, unforced responses that come naturally to the people he’s surrounded by. He laughs, and he laughs with earnest joy, but never at the prescribed time. Here and throughout the movie, he teeters on the brink between laughter and tears. We know what this feels like: we sometimes laugh the hardest in moments of the most profound grief or desperation. Phoenix’s performance is a sort of gonzo study of this phenomenon.
But the script lets him down. We are given reductive medical and developmental explanations that (at least for me) rob the performance of interest rather than enhancing it. Fleck’s childhood trauma and everything Phillips wants to say about society and mental illness could have been conveyed organically through Phoenix’s performance; we didn’t need such clumsy exposition. In general, I found the movie to be riddled with far too much transparent audience manipulation and hand-holding.
The alt-right reading and the incel reading that were prominent in early press seem wrong. Incels aren’t just sexless stalkers, they have a very particular worldview and it’s not in this movie. Sexual frustration seems at most an aside for the character. He’s lonely. He relates to the small gesture his neighbor makes (the mock suicide) and fantasizes about connecting with her, but there’s no sense at all that he sees her as a “Stacy” who prefers “Chads.” As far as the politics of the movement the Joker inspires, there are clear markers of Occupy Wall Street and Antifa (clown = Guy Fawkes). Crowds literally chant, “Eat the rich!”
I found that the script and Phillips’ direction undermined some of the most important scenes. I am always happy to see someone get stabbed in the eye, but then one of several terrible, mean-spirited “midget” jokes ruins an otherwise perfectly good eye-stabbing scene. Here Phillips’ juvenile sensibility comes through. This bit played for the worst kind of laughs at my showing. Boo. The train chase is pretty good, but it’s lifted directly from The French Connection. And then the climactic talk show scene couldn’t have been more blunt and didactic. In what might sound like a right-wing talking point if not for the progressive health care critique that frames it, he delivers the worst bit of dialogue in the movie: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?!”
I found the announcement of the Joker’s motivations in this scene fatally incongruent with the character’s voice. His dissociation from reality and his childlike causal inferences are what make him interesting. Please don’t mistake me for a fan of The Dark Knight, but Ledger’s Joker is a far more intriguing figure to me because he is motivated by chaos for its own sake and not by clichéd grievances.
So that’s my take. You probably disagree with it. I’m sure that my colleagues have written very different takes for this roundtable. I’m looking forward to reading their thoughts. I expect that some of them liked the movie a lot more than I did and some of them liked it a lot less. I hope that looking at all these takes together will help readers organize their own thoughts and provoke further disagreement. Indeed, if you Google Joker, you will find that pretty much everyone has a unique take on this movie.
I see this as a teachable moment. It highlights two worrisome trends in film culture that I see as connected to each other and to the rise of social media.
Trend 1: The quest for consensus. As I suggested in my piece “Against Rotten Tomatoes,” the age of critical aggregation is promoting the wrong model for thinking about diversity of critical opinion. Art that is bold, groundbreaking, risk-taking, etc. does not tend to promote consensus. We should expect the most interesting artworks to be the subject of the most intense disagreement. If we can all agree that something is good, then it’s probably too safe and benign to be all that great (of course there are exceptions, but many works that have become almost universally revered met split reactions when they first debuted). Social media, internet anonymity, and focus on aggregation and consensus collided in a dark and portentous way when The Dark Knight saw its first negative reviews more than ten years ago. Critics were aggressively harassed and fans demanded that anyone dissenting from the positive consensus on the film be removed from the aggregate. Things have gotten steadily worse since then.
Trend 2: The tendency to reduce art to its surface content. We’ve all seen this happen over and over and over again. There’s a whole industry of online entertainment magazines built around it. Just recently, a satirical riff on The Most Dangerous Game was cancelled (as in, the completed movie is not being released) because right wing snowflakes thought that it was recommending that liberals go out and start shooting deplorables. Early talk about Joker centered on alarmism based on a painfully literal reading of the film. It turns out that we should have been less worried about copycat shooters and more worried about Instagrammers invading the Bronx.
Reductive, superficial responses from early audiences can spread and take over the narrative and even prompt campaigns of social shaming before hardly anyone has even gotten a chance to see the movie in question. Consider, for example, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Discourse around that movie was dominated by the agenda set by early hot takes: Does it whitewash the Civil War by leaving out the slave character? (Of course, if Coppola had included the slave character, I doubt she would have fared any better.) I didn’t like the movie very much, but one of its most interesting elements is its depiction of the inability of the characters to take care of themselves, which reveals in a subtle way their dependence on now-absent slaves. The way early critical discourse overlooked Coppola’s deft handling of this theme reveals one of the major aesthetic dangers of Trend 2: a de facto preference for heavy-handedness over subtlety. Subtlety about morally dicey issues has become hazardous; if you don’t come out on the right side loudly, clearly, and unambiguously, you risk being steamrolled.
Returning to Joker: Disagreement about the movie is so pronounced and ubiquitous that I would hope that the lesson we draw from it is it’s okay if we disagree. I wrote a negative review above. In presenting it here, I certainly don’t mean to insult people who like the film. I mean to explain my own judgment and how I arrived at it. I mean to share some observations rooted in my particular background and way of approaching movies and to invite others to consider my point of view and perhaps take something from it or at least sharpen their own take by way of contrast. I mean to elicit friendly disagreement from people who think I may have missed something or that I might like the movie better if I considered another way of looking at it. I have enjoyed reading both very positive reviews of the movie and very negative reviews. I’m tickled that Lucrecia Martel’s Venice Jury awarded it the Golden Lion and Jonathan frickin’ Rosenbaum liked it (he’s the English-language critic who has arguably done the most to promote the French New Wave and European art cinema in the USA). In an era when safe, homogenous Disney products are utterly dominating multiplexes, I’m happy to see something more subversive in the limelight. Maybe its success will encourage studios to take more risks.
I want to ask everyone to consider thinking about disagreement in matters of taste as an opportunity rather than as something that must be solved. Such disagreement is an opportunity to glimpse a sensibility different from one’s own. I’ve noticed some very troubling examples of spontaneous hostility over this movie between people who really should know better. It goes like this: Someone offers a take on the movie, someone else strongly disagrees, but then rather than seeing this as a valuable chance to expand their own perspectives, the two interlocutors just start insulting each other and jousting in the pettiest and most egotistical possible way. It doesn’t have to be like this, folks. We can feel strongly about our own views and also take seriously others who disagree, and we don’t have to end up converging for the discussion to have been valuable. A world where we all agree about questions of taste would be a very dull world indeed.
This is also a teachable moment with respect to surface representations and hot takes. Many people have been surprised by the movie because they let the hot takes shape their expectations. If we can see that Joker is more complicated than early discussion made it out to be, perhaps we can see the same thing for something like Green Book (everyone’s favorite punching bag). Green Book is certainly a fair target for criticism, but the hot takes that have dominated discourse around the film are highly dubious. It’s widely taken to be a white savior movie. But isn’t it rather a movie about a wealthy Black man who deliberately brings a thuggish white guy on an unnecessary and thankless trip to play highbrow piano music in the Jim Crow South in order to provoke confrontations with racism and demand respect and recognition? Tony Lip isn’t Shirley’s savior, he’s the weapon that Shirley brings for protection. Shirley has the real agency. Anyways, I’m not here to defend Green Book, I’m here to make a plea for charity, complexity, and suspension of judgment. Any movie that promotes as much discussion as Joker is worth seeing and taking seriously, and dismissive, condescending takes like the New York Times’ A.O. Scott’s reveal more about the critic’s narrowmindedness than they do about the movie. I know a lot of people can see this clearly in the case of Joker. What I wish is for us to take this lesson and apply it more broadly, so that the next time a Green Book comes around we can have a productive conversation about it that takes seriously a multiplicity of viewpoints.