Festival premieres, “Film Twitter,” trailers and critics’ previews all combine in a heady stew of expectations for any major studio movie. With writer/director Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker, in wide release this weekend, those expectations have been at a hard boil for what seems like months on end. This is partly down to a collision between two eternally contentious realms of cinema: signs point to a polarizing art-house take on comic-book mythology, and after it won the Golden Lion award at Venice, the Oscar buzz for Joker has been constant, placing it squarely at an intersection of highbrow and mainstream modes. But the preemptive takes also wrestle with the Joker himself, our portrayal of anti-heroes and a uniquely American atmosphere of dread.
Having not seen the movie, I’m unable to argue any particular reading of it. I tend to suspect that fans already invested in the Joker as an archetype will get exactly what they paid for — a serious and gritty rumination on the beginnings of their favorite villain. The controversy, if we can call it that, arises from the assumptions we make about those fans, and their imagined response to a piece of entertainment that “elevates” the subject from mass-market pulp to brooding thinkpiece. Our current feelings toward the clown prince of crime trace back to 2008’s The Dark Knight, in which Batman faces off against Heath Ledger’s singular version of the character, a beloved performance that drew more acclaim by way of the actor’s untimely death and a posthumous Academy Award.
Another grim (but muddled) legacy of that movie is the horrific shooting perpetrated at a midnight premiere of the next film, The Dark Knight Rises, in an Aurora, Colorado theater in 2012: Early reports suggested that the killer had referred to himself as “the Joker” upon his arrest, and despite repeated debunking of this falsehood in the Denver Post and elsewhere, it has persisted. (The victims’ families have written to express concern over the gun violence in Joker, and the Aurora theater has no plans to screen it.) In the wake of a 2014 Las Vegas shooting rampage, we learned that the anti-government couple responsible for the slayings did often dress up as the Joker and his companion, Harley Quinn.
The manifest fear is that a cultish appreciation of the anarchic, antisocial Joker, finally given a protagonist’s turn by Joaquin Phoenix in a stylish and weighty production, will lead isolated and vulnerable young men to sympathize with or emulate his behavior… whatever that is. This makes a certain amount of sense when you recall how Ledger’s discomfiting take inspired any number of dudes to cosplay as him in daily routine, most of them in a harmless (but annoying and unoriginal) attempt at outré performance art.
On the other hand, living in this country means you’re liable to get murdered anywhere, at any time, for reasons that have nothing to do with Hollywood; the Vegas couple drew their ideology from white supremacists and the so-called patriot movement, not summer blockbusters. Nevertheless, we find ourselves in a bizarre political battle fueled largely by what we guess the content of Joker to be. Alarm at the supposed threat of “incel extremists” storming theaters strikes me as unhelpful at best, and yet it has triggered a defensiveness, no less absurd, in men who are aghast at this rush to judgment.
This eagerness to protect a movie sight unseen has a whiff of reactionary anger to it. I’m reminded of the men who refuse to admit a credible sexual harassment complaint without a mountain of preposterous evidence, though again, I have no reason to believe Joker is a greater stain on society than, say, Brett Kavanaugh. Just the same, it’s clear the Joker Defenders have a good deal of skin in the game. It’s not enough to watch and enjoy something themselves, haters be damned — they need this to succeed. More than 13,000 people have scored Joker a perfect 10 out of 10 on IMDb, giving it a 9.5 average overall, which puts it comfortably above the top-rated movie on the site, The Shawshank Redemption.
How many of them have seen it? When critic Danielle Solzman, who actually has, published a negative review, men brigaded her on Twitter, complaining that she had formed a bias ahead of time. Unlike them, I suppose? It escalated into transphobic abuse and digital alteration of a Rotten Tomatoes pull quote, the pro-Joker lads replacing the real text with copy from one of Solzman’s tweets, not the column.
Because everything and everyone is now presumed to push some unacceptable agenda, we needn’t wait to choose sides in a promised future schism. Below the surface of Joker discourse are simmering meta-resentments only tangentially related to the work: Marvel’s dominance over DC, the gradual shift to stories that don’t center on white men, paranoia about social justice warrior backlash, etc. The debate is likely to evaporate as soon as the movie is out there, since it runs on the vacuum of anticipation rather than substance. There’s no chance Joker outstrips the positive or negative hype. At root, we’re yelling the same thing we always yell when a halfway edgy conceit floats into view: “I’m not offended, but you are.” This camp says the movie’s probably for unfuckable losers, the other says that rejection means it’s provocatively brilliant.
At no point will it occur to either that they’re allowed to experience art at a considerable distance from what anyone else makes of it. Meanwhile, the people tasked with engaging professionally, and locating a shred of nuance, will anger both groups. They’ve made the mistake of intruding upon the theoretical, confirming or denying the elements we’ve been busy projecting. You can caution folks to “wait and see the movie” all you like, you just can’t force them to see it your way.