By Danny Anderson
Who is the protagonist of Todd Phillips’ Joker? Much of the controversy surrounding the film hinges on this question.
Many of its detractors accuse the film of casting the maniacal arch villain as hero in a Batman-less world. Their criticism is often grounded in a fear the film will inspire desperate members of the neo-right and “incels” to take up arms against a society that ignores them. Much of this discourse casts this version of the Joker as an embodiment of white fragility and are angry at the prospect of a film that might sympathize with alienated, violent, white men.
This political critique has an equivalent among Christian reviewers, many of whom question the wisdom of making Satan into the hero of the story, as Milton unwittingly did so long ago in Paradise Lost.
Having finally seen the movie three days into its release, I walked away wondering if all the hot takes were talking about a film that didn’t really exist. It’s fairly clear to me that Joker has no literal protagonist. It has an implied protagonist, society itself, which gets ceremoniously beaten to a pulp, making this film a nightmarish tragedy.
This fact should not have been surprising given the film’s very clear and intentional engagement with Taxi Driver and especially King of Comedy, two Martin Scorsese films that covered much of this same ground in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the very setting of Joker. Those films provide the template for the anti-hero that Joker takes forth into a new era of political and economic unrest. In fact, this film can be seen as an extended experiment in intertextuality, applying the artistic forms of one era to the political problems of another.
(And if one is legitimately worried about fans idolizing this Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s creepy, unnerving, live-wire performance surely will not inspire copycats like Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in The Dark Knight).
The reception of Joker among many centrist liberal commentators should be very familiar to people who “grew up Evangelical” as I did. My memory is full of controversies about movies and music that, if brought into our bodies, would stain our very souls and risk our salvation. A notable example is the Evangelical backlash against (coincidentally enough) Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I distinctly remember people from my church spreading word about which video stores (yes, I’m that old) carried the film and should therefore be boycotted.
A similar hysteria surrounded certain forms of music which, if listened to under the right conditions, were means of transferring control of one’s soul to Satan. What these approaches to “dangerous” products of culture often neglected to do was to consider the apostate art forms in and of themselves. The works themselves were merely occasions to recite mechanical, pre-fabricated responses in defense of ideological purity. The liberal controversy surrounding Joker resembles this discourse in many ways.
A Film Lost in the Hot-Take Cycle
No doubt Todd Phillips stoked much of the backlash against his film by his comments criticizing political correctness and the supposed limitations it places on comedy. His larger point probably has some merit worth considering, but many of his comments were little more than trolling efforts to own the libs. This is unfortunate, because his film, in and of itself, has some fascinating nuance with how it deals with such topics.
Critics have predictably lumped Phillips into the category of “wretched comedians who blame political correctness for their wretchedness,” and taking the director’s comments in isolation, this seems like a fair response. He often sounds like the comedic hacks who lament not being “allowed” to make thoughtless, easy jokes at the expense of weaker others.
But this is not what the film is doing. Comedians of that crass type are without exception represented as truly horrid in this film. From the top of the profession, Robert DeNiro’s Murray Franklin, down through the seedy club scene full of hackneyed comedians, to the rock bottom, the clown service that Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck works for, comedians are painted as needlessly cruel and intellectually dead hacks who mechanically depend on cruelty as easy material. In no case do we actually laugh with the comedians and their Neanderthal humor; their style is what marks them as part of the sickening world that oppresses Arthur. Even when characters break out offensive “midget” jokes about a little person in the film, it does not actually have the effect of shaming that little person, but the bully who tells the joke. In this case, critics have imposed Phillips own silly attempts at provocation onto the ideology of his film, where they run into conflict with what the film is actually doing.
This misreading of the film is but one example of how current debates over “identity politics” since 2016 have manifested in the controversies over Joker. One particular critique of the film is that it works to humanize the Joker, transforming him from a figure of abject evil to one of a complicated personhood. In this way, many critics have lumped the film into Donald Trump’s defense of Nazis in Charlottesville, in which he claimed there were “many fine people” among the group. That widely-ridiculed turn of phrase has become shorthand for an insidious moral equivocation that rationalizes the Alt-Right’s hatred and bigotry. And certainly the film’s trailers suggested that Arthur Fleck is an example of a well-meaning everyman who is driven to his crimes by society. But again, this does not bear out in an actual viewing of the film. At no point, even long before he actually becomes “Joker,” does Fleck appear to be a Very Fine Person. He is unhinged from the beginning and any complication the film seeks to bring to his character rests in how society and his mental illness come together to create Joker. This is a far cry from the simplistic claims being made about the movie’s supposed engagement with the politics of white fragility.
Conclusion: The Liberal and the Christian Imaginations
Ultimately, the centrist liberal response to the film bears an uncanny resemblance to Evangelical responses to offensive art. These two seemingly divergent worldviews collide in this very film in fact. Franklin Graham, Trumpian Evangelical apologist and inheritor of Billy Graham’s religious empire, tweeted his distaste for the film alongside the offended pundits at The Daily Beast. What these two normally divergent cultural worldviews share seems to be a demand for Platonic ideals in art. When it comes to Joker, certain liberal critics rail against its (supposed, not actual) violation of accepted political wisdom. But just as the Christian Right missed the theological possibilities of Last Temptation of Christ in a relentless attack on the film’s very existence, the liberal left is in danger of missing a potentially productive nuance in Joker’s politics.
Lionel Trilling warned against the reliance upon ideologically comfortable, didactic storytelling in the 1950’s in The Liberal Imagination. For him, the liberal gravitation toward fiction that merely affirmed accepted political dogma without challenge had a corrosive effect on the liberal imagination, which was for him necessary if liberalism was to perfect its ideas through time. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind made a similar kind of argument for Evangelical Christianity. For him, the sorry state of Evangelical intellectualism was due in part to a similar resistance to engaging with ideas that challenge accepted orthodoxy.
To be sure, there are valid critiques of Joker to be made. The depth of its many references to 70’s-era classics of urban decay can legitimately be called into question as the film often seems to simply gesture towards these ancestors and thereby claim instant, but not entirely earned, kinship with them. In addition, its portrayal of economic populism is at times unnecessarily exaggerated and seems rather ham fisted at times. But these are criticisms that emerge from engaging with the film as it exists. Too many of the critiques of Phillip’s provocative new film are little more rehashed, James Dobson-style cultural critiques made from aloof, ideological positions of power.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.