I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines… Anyway, so I went to see ‘Joker’…

When somebody tells you that Rick & Morty is their favourite show, or that Ayn Rand is their favourite writer, or that they want to be a horror writer like H.P. Lovecraft, your red flag detector should go heywire.  Don’t get me wrong, I quite like Rick & Morty, but every 16-35 year old guy who loves the show tends to idolise Rick.  In a sense, we’re not watching the same show.

Joker will soon fit into the same category.  The 16-35 year old guy who loves the film won’t have watched the same film as the rest of us.  They’ll have watched a film about an anti-hero who has ‘one bad day’ and becomes a figure for the violent expression of the real, authentic, and justifiable rage that 16-35 year old boys have because girls don’t pay them enough attention and all their man-baby desires aren’t immediately satiated.

My conflict with the film is that I’ve seen most of the best elements in other films.  I spent a lot of this film wishing that I was watching Taxi Driver instead.

The performances themselves are outstanding.  Zazie Beetz is (disappointingly) given very little in the script, and yet nails the scenes she’s in. Brian Tyree Henry appears for four minutes and gives an incredible performance.  And Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker is genuinely a classic.

For what it’s worth, I think the movie tackles a difficult and complex topic and does it well.  Contemporary political narratives force epistemic double meaning: the personal, intimate, individual relationship to our actions are overlayed with broader narratives of aggregate politics.  I’ve complained of this often in our discussions of ‘terrorist’ events shortly after the event occurs.  The individual, personal reasons a person might have for committing an atrocity are quickly scorched away as our political culture races to an esoteric debate about the nature of political violence.  Man Haron Monis had very personal reasons for completely losing his mind: he’d just lost a High Court case about freedom of speech and he was on bail for being a party to the murder of his wife.  But people don’t really look at his individual reasons for taking the Lindt cafe hostage: his own experience of his own actions were immaterial in the face of the media narrative about him and whether or not he should have been on bail.

It would be wrong to think of this just in terms of political violence.  Look at the rhetoric about ComCare v Banerji: the individual facts of the case are immaterial to the broader narrative about freedom of speech.  If you read the media commentary, you’d never guess the details of the case.

Joker tackles this well.  His own, private reasons for violence — starting with self-defence, then rage — are drowned out by a media pushing a narrative of ‘the poor hate the rich’.  Joker claims that he is not a political man, and the audience has seen that this is true.  But his act of self-violence is to succumb entirely to the image that the media has created for him: the symbolic leader of an anarchic expression of Dionysiac violence.

At the same time, Joker presents the conflicted relationship that society has with violence itself.  When Joker doesn’t protect himself from a violent attack, he is criticised: it is unmanly for him not to have resorted to violence to defend himself and what’s his.  He needs a gun.  But the same social narrative that is encouraging violence is also chastising him for being violent.  If he doesn’t protect himself, he is less of a man; when he carries a gun, he is a violent thug.

But these elements were already explored in some detail by Taxi Driver.  You need a gun, but you’re not allowed to use it.  You need to stand up for yourself, but you’re not allowed to be a threat.  You need to get involved with politics, but you’re not allowed to be political.

In Taxi Driver, Travis resolves to kill the political candidate, Palantine.  When he fails to achieve his goal, he shoots up a brothel instead.  Had Travis succeeded in his original plan, he would have been portrayed as a villain; as he shot up the brothel instead, he is portrayed as a hero.

Joker combines Palantine and the brothel owners into the same characters: three wealthy men on a train.  The men are bullies, harassing a young woman and then turning their violence towards a man with a disability.  Two are killed in self-defence, and the third is killed in pure anger. The private, personal reason is, to some degree, justifiable: he killed them because they were attacking him.  But without that context, they are upstanding young men, valued employees of Thomas Wayne, and their violent deaths are clearly part of the resentment that the poor have towards the rich.  In Joker, it is as if Travis has killed both Palantine and the brothel owners in the same act of violence, and he is simultaneously hero and villain.

Of course, Joker is neither.  Joker is genuinely clever in the way it uses the comic book elements it is adapting in order to transcend a reductive hero/villain analysis.  He is also — and this is important — not an anti-hero.  There is no authentic Joker: only a man whose actions are given meaning through their competing, overlapping contexts.

The major failing of the movie is that it very clearly targets an edge-lord audience of young men, and then presents a message that they are never, ever going to understand.  It is too easy to read Joker as an anti-hero through motivated reasoning.  His acts of violence are too easily justified by cherrypicking the right context, and the audience is not forced to suspend their interpretations within these irreconcilable contexts.

Because it’s a comic book movie.

Don’t get me wrong.  I genuinely think that comic book movies can be clever, insightful, and artistic.  But these are movies for a broad audience.  You’re pitching the content to the slowest kid in the class.  Joker tries to be clever with an audience that is always going to struggle with the content.  Distributing a movie that has very complex things to say about political violence needs to be done carefully and sensitively.  The comic book context, especially with characters like the Joker, is not really an appropriate avenue for the message.

There might come a day when the creators of Rick & Morty want to say something interesting and complex about the nature of anti-semitism.  Within the Rick & Morty vehicle, that is obviously going to end up being expressed through some kind of ironic anti-semitism.  But the audience of Rick & Morty is extremely likely to read any anti-semitic remarks as just being edgy.  Joker has the same problem: it is too easy for the likely audience to see the film as just being ‘edgy’ rather than see its attempt to grapple with something bigger.

So if you want to see this movie, watch Taxi Driver instead.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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