Revisiting Joker: A Deep Dive Into 2019’s Most Controversial Film And The Discourse That Has Surrounded It

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write this. Truthfully, the conversation surrounding Todd Phillips’ Joker had become exhausting about one week after it was released in theaters back in October. In actuality, the conversation that engulfed this film and turned it into such a controversial, divisive moment in American pop culture started weeks before the film was even theatrically released. As time went on though, it seemed we were done with the takes and the repetitive arguments that surrounded this film for the most part. But then on Monday morning the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced, and Joker led all films in terms of total nominations with 11. This, of course, rocked film twitter to its core, and everybody who either loved or hated this film just had to let his or her opinion be heard. That is when I decided to re-watch the film in order to revisit my own feelings on it, as well as try to figure out how this R-rated “anti-comic book” drama, as Todd Phillips calls it, became the most controversial film of 2019.

Before I get into my own thoughts about the film and the larger conversation at hand, I want to start with some background information on the movie. Joker was released on October 4th 2019. It had an estimated budget of $55,000,000 and made over $96,000,000 domestically in its opening weekend. It has now surpassed one billion dollars worldwide. It is the 7th biggest film of 2019 in terms of worldwide box office, and the 9th biggest for domestic box office. It has a score of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 59 on Metacritic. Fan responses seemed to be less split than critics though, with the film earning an 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.6 out of 10 rating on IMDb.

For those who don’t know, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix and tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who aspires to be a stand up comedian, and his dark and gritty dissent into a violent and chaotic life of crime. Aside from the overall divisive nature of the film, perhaps the most talked about aspect of Joker has been the performance of Phoenix. Phoenix gives one of the best, and most memorable, performances of the year in this film. He is the favorite to win Best Actor at the upcoming Oscars. There is no denying the powerful nature of Phoenix’s haunting portrayal of the main character. When I first saw the film in theaters, it was this performance that stuck with me the most after the movie ended. I was incredibly impressed with the many nuances in Phoenix’s performance and his ability to make the viewer struggle with the idea of sympathizing with the Arthur character at certain moments in the film. As the film progresses, we watch Arthur descend further and further into madness and commit more unforgivable acts. However, throughout the earlier stages of the film, Phoenix is able to make the audience feel for this deeply troubled man. From there, it is on the audience to decide how their feelings towards the film’s protagonist change and evolve as he plunges further down the dark path he is on.

When I first viewed this film in theaters I had somewhat mixed feelings towards it, however, they skewed mostly positive. In fact, although this film was not included in my top 10 films of the year list, it does fall somewhere within the top 20 for me. First and foremost, I found it to be a very entertaining film. I was especially riveted during the third act, but I was locked in throughout the film. In large part this was due to Phoenix’s acting, but I was also wowed by the effective tone and the world building. I think Todd Phillips did a great job creating this world. Phillips accurately depicts the miserable, run-down, depressing, and morally and financially bankrupt world of 1980s Gotham (which is essentially New York City.) He does a masterful job of presenting this world to us through Arthur’s perspective, but also of showing us how he fits in, or fails to fit in, to his surroundings. The dark and gritty tone overwhelms you in just the right way.

My mixed feelings for the film came when I delved deeper into the story and found that, for me, this film just did not have a lot to say, or at least not as much to say as maybe it thought it did. For the most part the plot worked for me, however, the movie felt like it was really only scratching the surface when it came to some of its themes, messages, and what the story was really about. In interviews, Todd Phillips has said this is a film about lack of empathy, loss of love, mental illness, childhood trauma, and how all these things can affect an individual. While these themes are all certainly evident in the movie, and some are handled better than others, I found some of the themes in the film to not totally be explored further than just at the surface level. Notably, the movie attempts to focus on class division and the tension between the rich and poor in the city. This is one of the storylines that felt weakest to me. It felt as if the filmmakers did not have a complete idea of what they wanted to say on this topic, so it fell a little flat for me. Furthermore, it is still hard for me to fully unpack the message, if there is one, at the end of this film. Perhaps it is purposefully ambiguous and the film is intentionally trying to create a world where things are not so black and white. Even after my second viewing, this remains one of the trickiest elements of the movie for me because I don’t totally know how I feel about it. Moreover, I had mixed feelings about some of the plot details in this film. Obviously, The Joker is a character from The Batman universe, but there are tie-ins to the Wayne family in Joker that felt sort of out of place, and jarring, for me personally. The connections to the Wayne family tie into Arthur’s past and ultimately lead to us learning some important revelations about the character, however, I felt these moments sort-of took me out of the story. Lastly, I had some mixed feelings about whether or not this film was just inspired by films of the 70s like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which Phillips has admitted many times, or actually a rip-off of those films. Now admittedly, rip-off is probably too strong of a word, and I think there is a fine line between paying homage to something and copying something. I do ultimately think this film is more of an homage to those films rather than a copy. But, an argument can be made that this film lacks some originality when looked at through a certain lens. Ultimately, this did not affect my enjoyment of the movie greatly, but I do think it’s an interesting conversation to have and has led to some mixed feelings as I’ve thought more about the film. When I re-watched the film for this blog, I found many of these problems still existed for me. Ultimately, they were not a huge deal for me though. As I said earlier I still very much enjoyed this film. For the most part it did its job in eliciting the emotions it wanted to from me, and kept me engaged throughout.

That essentially wraps up my feelings towards Joker as a film. I found it to be a good film centered around an incredible performance. It was by no means a perfect film and definitely had its fair share of problems but overall I thought Todd Phillips made a good movie. So how did a movie that I just described as “just a good film” end up as the most controversial film of the entire year? Well I’d like to explore that question.

As I said, the controversies surrounding Joker started before the film was released in theaters. Before my initial viewing of the film, I ignored the claims that this movie was bad for society and was going to inspire acts of violence. Partly because I wanted to actually see the movie for myself and form my own opinion (something that more people should do but I’ll touch more on that later) and partly because I just reject the idea that we should hold art directly responsible for things like that. I believe it is wrong and unfair to make those claims. Whether we are talking about films, television, books, or video games I think it is unfair to the artist, and the art itself, to suggest the idea they need to claim direct responsibility for influencing acts of violence in society. After viewing the film, I certainly understood where these discussions originated from though. Obviously, I can comprehend why a film released in 2019 about a disenfranchised, depressed, and lonely white male who feels rejected by society and goes on to commit heinous and violent acts of crime (with a gun) can cause some uncomfortable and complicated feelings for viewers, especially in America. There is also the fact that, to some members of the society that the film takes place in, Arthur is seen as something of a hero or perhaps an icon for a particular movement. In one of the final scenes, his actions do in fact inspire others to cause chaos and violence in the streets. I believe it was these aspects of the film that led to it being considered so controversial before it was even released to the public. Another thing I’ve found interesting since the release of this film, are the amount of takes that surrounded this film for being too violent or glorifying violence. When I re-watched it, I realized there is actually not that much violence at all, relative to many other films that come out in a given year. It’s just interesting to me that we will hear the takes about how there’s a celebration of violence in a film like Joker but would never hear those same takes for a movie like John Wick 3 for example. So, ultimately am I able to understand where much of the controversies surrounding this film originated? Yes. Do I think those reactions were warranted though? No.

Before I delve deeper into the controversies surrounding Joker I want to address the fact that there are many people who had legitimate reasons for not enjoying this film and that’s okay. This blog is not meant to be read as a defense of the film. I have stated my issues with it. It’s also not meant to be read as me saying that people shouldn’t dislike this film. I believe everyone is allowed to form their own opinion, and if this film does not work for someone, then I completely respect that and would be more than willing to listen to their reasons as long as they’re fair and honest. I am just attempting to greater understand the controversy around Joker, where it came from, and what my feelings are in response to it. Now, with that out of the way I want to explore something else that bothered me in the initial dialogue about this film. Joker did not just receive negative reviews from some critics, certain people made claims that this movie should not have been made in the first place. They argued that this story should not be told, people should not see this, and this movie is bad for society and therefore shouldn’t exist. I cannot express how deeply I disagree with these notions. And when I say that I’m not even talking about Joker specifically. I have a problem with people creating these “rules” for what kind of stories people are allowed to tell and what kinds of art artists are allowed to create. I would argue that the people who made these claims showed a limited understanding of the fact that there can more be than one kind of art, and we can tell stories that are not only either a condemnation of bad characters or a celebration of good characters. For me personally, there is a lot of space in between those two things and, in fact, that is where a lot of the most intriguing films come from, and where many of the most interesting filmmakers like to operate. I guess what I’m trying to say, in simpler terms, is that I am an advocate for letting artists try things, and letting them tell the stories they want to tell. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they succeed, but I think it hurts us as viewers and them as creators, if we constrict them in the creative process and put up these guidelines for what kinds of stories they are allowed to tell.

Now, I know I’ve spent a great deal of this blog focusing on the people who were critical of the film. I also want to say that, since its release, I have been equally exasperated by admirers of Joker. I suppose that finally brings me to the place where most of my problems with the discourse around this movie exist: Twitter. As someone who follows many “film twitter” accounts and stays in the loop of that community, I have seen more takes both praising and condemning this movie than I ever needed to. Unfortunately, for all of us, the Oscar nominations ignited this fire once again this week. Now, I assure you I understand the irony of speaking negatively on people tweeting about Joker too much in the middle of a few thousand-word blog post all about… Joker. But the forms in which people present their opinions is actually a big part of all of this, for me. Although at this point I am exhausted by all discussion of this film, I do think it was a film worthy of a conversation. However, not the conversation it received largely in the media, and especially not the conversation it receives on Twitter. You see, Twitter is not known as a place where rationality and level-headedness win out. Furthermore, no one is going to pay attention to a tweet that reads, “Just saw Joker, I thought overall it was pretty good, it had ups and downs for me, but I thought it was an enjoyable experience.” No, instead we’re going to be bombarded with black and white takes, that either read “this movie sucked and you’re a bad person if you like it,” or “this movie was a masterpiece and you’re an idiot if you don’t like it.” This became especially annoying for Joker because somehow it became that you weren’t just giving your opinion on a film, you were saying something about who you are as a person if you came out in support or condemnation of this film. And of course, like many things in 2019, it somehow became political to either champion or criticize this film. This was especially frustrating when it became apparent to me that people were speaking on this film without forming their own opinions, or worse yet, without even seeing the film. I am a firm believer that you should never speak publicly on matters in which you are uninformed, but that certainly didn’t stop some the ignorant Joker takes from rolling in. People would write proudly that they had not seen the film, were not going to see the film, and then give their opinion on the film. This is perhaps more of a problem with Twitter at large than it is with Joker specifically, but it is still such a frustrating, yet interesting, phenomenon to see take place.

I want to quickly touch on what I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog. Joker received the most Oscar nominations of any film this year from the Academy. The film’s 11 nominations are undeniably an incredible amount, and like I said in my nominations reaction blog, solidify it as a serious Best Picture contender. I can’t say that I’m rooting for it though. It is not one of my 10 favorite films of the year as I have already pointed out. Also, I’ve made it known in several blogs at this point that I believe Greta Gerwig should have been nominated for Best Director, and in my opinion she should have taken the spot given to Todd Phillips. Now, as we all know these award shows ultimately aren’t that important and are really just an excuse for rich and famous people to dress up and give gold statues to one another. However, after everything I have said in this blog I just wanted to say I can certainly understand the frustrations of people who took to Twitter after Joker received all these nominations. I’m going to discuss more predictions and write more about the Oscars as the ceremony gets closer, so I don’t want to say too much else right now. (In all honesty I probably just included this paragraph to give Greta another shoutout, which will likely be a running theme in all my blogs leading up to the Oscars.)

In closing, I suppose I am happy I was able to get down my thoughts on this film and much of the conversations that have surrounded it. Event though I stated I understand where most of these controversies originated, it is still interesting to me that a movie that is certainly made with a lot of thought, but ultimately one that is probably not that deep, has led to all this. I am also hopeful that this is one of the few remaining times I will have to partake in some of these conversations because I think we can all agree they’ve grown tiresome. And honestly I am not eager for what conversations are going to be had in the next month, about this film, leading up to the Oscars. Instead of arguing about Joker, let’s celebrate art. Let’s let artists tell the stories they want to tell. Let’s have different opinions and share them in respectful ways. Let’s have proper conversations about things worthy of them. Let’s be allowed to dislike the movies we dislike. But, let’s love and support the movies we love.

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