Review: The Joker (2019)

By Edo Muric

21.10.2019: Is there such a thing as a dangerous film? More than a decade ago, I was predicting a grim future in which the importance of superhero films would become so big that it would start getting political and even violent dimensions. On film forums, such as IMDb, I spent nights debating with other enthusiasts and envisioning a future of Marvel and DC Comics fractions getting political power and even engaging in a sort of a sectarian warfare against each other. Soon after, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight arrived and gave me even more reason to believe so. Not only did the fanbase of that film start losing control over their conduct, sending threatening letters to the critics who didn't like the film, but their online antics on the forums such as IMDb became so notorious, that it greatly contributed to the disintegration of one of the most valuable film communities on the internet. The forum became a place where weird trolling replaced serious enthusiasm and Dark Knight fanatics started chasing away anyone not subscribed to their cult. A few years later the forum was unfortunately discontinued due to how toxic it became.

So did my larger predictions materialise? For sure, there was the infamous Aurora shooting in 2012, during the screening of the film's sequel. But there is no reason to believe that the shooter was ideologically driven, or that he had any cause at all - beyond being mentally ill. Marvel and DC did not become two nationalities fighting each other, but they did sort of join the general neoliberal model of treating the cultural and entertainment landscape as a sort of a ground to conquer with their ubiquity.

And now comes Joker, by the director of the Hangover films, right after it triumphantly conquered the Venice Film Festival this past summer, on a wave of praise, being compared to its models, such as The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. The initial enthusiasm, however, soon enough turned into one of the most potent critical backlashes any film has ever received in history. Not only did the film suddenly become "very bad", it also in the eyes of some became supposedly extremely dangerous. In the weeks leading to its official release in early October, there have been hundreds of articles warning the audience that the film is certainly ideologically impure (right-wing, fascistic, alt-right, Nazi, incel, Trumpian and what not) and, more importantly, is probably going to inspire violence, if not an armed revolution. At the moment of writing this the film has been in cinemas for a couple of weeks, breaking many audience records. Yet so far, there have been no violent attacks. Let us hope it stays that way.

Now, back in the real world, outside of the media bubble, Joker is not only a great piece of cinema, politically it is also the opposite of what the media is accusing it of being - which doesn't at all mean it isn't dangerous and that the media has no reason to panic, on the contrary. For indeed, the film is a sharp media satire, in the vein of The King of Comedy, but much more brutal and uncompromising. Satire is maybe to mild of a word even. The film instigates an outright brawl with the media-political class, the same one that has been panicking for weeks before its release and perhaps nihilistically hoping that a poor madman somewhere would do something. Not because they are evil, but because they are amoral.

And for the first time, the criticism is encompassing not only the news media, but also entertainment it's entangled with. It draws a clear line between the political elite and comedy itself, reflecting the reality of American political punditry in which late night comedy shows took over the ideological baton of the nation and have been spreading narratives dictated by the centres of the political power, against which they can turn any moment - depending on how the ratings dictate. I will leave to you to discern how all of this relates to Donald Trump, with a hint: Trump is a former reality TV star and one of his most important endorsements was being invited by Jimmy Fallon on his late night comedy show, which effectively humanised him. At the same time, the rest of the media decided that electing Trump would be a great story for the society of the spectacle, so they did everything they could to make him into a "story".

In such a nihilistic world, so plastically shown in the film, amorality encompasses the entire society. There is no place anymore for compassion. There is certainly no place for the most vulnerable people, such as the mentally ill clown at the centre of the sorry saga, who serves as the film's main victim and villain - not, however, as an anti-hero, as many have wrongly insinuated.

And the so-called revolution inevitably becomes televised, which naturally marks its end and mutation into something possibly horrifying.

The Joker is nothing more than the Aurora shooter. There is zero glamour within him. He may be the first Joker who is not only a loser, but also far from a brilliant mastermind. His mental illness is not something that gives him some kind of reckless power, but rather something that disrupts him on each step. And if any madman dares to re-enact what he does in the film, it will not be much different. The film shows, however, that the media will be eager to construct layers upon layers of meaning on top of any such tragedy, giving in a veneer of importance and inevitable glamour. So if any of it happens, it will not be due to the film by the director of Hangover, but by the hype the media has been creating around it.