Joker is one of the most divisive films released in recent years. Last year when it screened at festivals in Europe, like the Venice Film Festival, it was lauded with an eight-minute standing ovation. Cut to the worldwide release and many critics, especially in the States, were less than warm to the film. This antipathy towards Joker was surprising considering the critical acclaim the film received in Europe during its run of the festival circuit. You would think an art film starring Joaquin Phoenix at the top of his game, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, would be accepted with open arms by mainline critics. Alas, it was not the case.
No film is immune to criticism but when surveying the negative comments for Joker, most of the vitriol against the film is less about the artistic quality than it is about the social and political messages it conveys. Negative reviews slammed the film through an ideological lens more so than from an artistic one. Artistic criticism for the film was often superficial and tacked on.
For example, when offering an analysis of Joker/Arthur Fleck, Jordan Hoffman from The Guardian stated that, “There’s little depth to the character other than, you know, he’s nuts!” Hoffman offers more superficial criticism when he rails against the claim that Joker is a comic book film when in reality it’s not. Debate on whether it is a comic book film is besides the point when discussing its artistic merits.
Another superficial critique is that the film rips off Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Matthew Rozsa from Salon hammers this criticism home by writing “…while it succeeds in aping the superficial aspects of Scorsese’s style, Joker lacks the intelligence or gravitas of Scorsese’s best work.” Todd Phillips pays homage to those films, but he does so as a sign of respect and to highlight the thematic similarities without blindly aping or copying them. Snobby critics perhaps feel, as a lowly comic book film, Joker is taking itself too seriously, therefore it has to be put back in its place.
While the film could be criticised for bad acting, poor writing etc., the critical talking points like the examples mentioned above are paper-thin, possibly used to mask critics’ disdain for the film’s socio-political themes as well as its thinly veiled critique of the mass media. Critics lambasted the film’s seemingly pro-incel character and message. They latched onto and promoted the idea that Joker would inspire mass-shootings while at the same time promoting toxic masculinity. Others claimed the film was racist by including scenes in which Arthur Fleck is beaten up by black youths and a black lady on a bus reprimanding him for interacting with her child. They argue that it glorifies the bad guy. Not all these critiques are off-base or lack merit but saying the film is racist is perhaps taking it too far. Perhaps Todd Phillips was stimulating debate by deliberately poking at these ‘woke’ talking points, precipitating the media’s knee-jerk over-reaction.
As mentioned previously, the film’s critique of the media could possibly be one reason why many critics slammed the film. This point is credibly argued by Zoey Carter from Evie magazine. She believes that the film offers a mirror to the mass media, a rebuke for its love of sensationalism. She argues that in the film, the media with their sensational reporting creates the Joker. She writes, “the real villain of the film is the media, the media which gives a loner all the attention he ever wanted (after, of course, he kills a few people). You see, the media in Joker don’t just create the monster, they feed the monster. And that is why the media doesn’t want you to see it.”
Todd Phillips was particularly astute in his role as storyteller and socio-political commentator. His film incorporated criticism of both the left and right of the political spectrum. He delivered a sophisticated critique of Republicans in the figure of Thomas Wayne, who comes across as a cold capitalist as well as the Democrats whose influence exerts too much of the media. The same sensationalist media who fuel anarchist groups like Antifa, groups which are perhaps alluded to in the film when Fleck takes to the streets and joins the mob after his appearance on television.
Inexplicably, Joker has been nominated for 11 Oscars. A truly bizarre turn of events. Surprising because it is rare for an art film to be disliked by so many top film critics while simultaneously receiving high recognition by the Academy. Despite many critics slating the film, the viewing public has lauded it. Perhaps watching it through less of an ideological lens, making them far more accepting and appreciative of the film. Whether Joker wins big or not, Todd Phillips has succeeded in offering a gripping and iconic film which raised the bar for comic book filmmaking in the same way Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did.
Once the dust has settles and the debates have ceased, Joker will become a slice of history and a commentary of the turbulent times we currently live in.