Few movies in recent history have met as much condemnation as Joker. Even before it was released, the film was slammed by critics and activist groups alike who charged it with being too violent, espousing fears that it could inspire powder-kegged men to commit their own offscreen atrocities.
On its face, this doesn’t seem an unreasonable concern considering that we do live in an age when so-called “incels”—young, angsty men who blame the world for their inability to get laid—and similar ilk pose a very real threat. We’ve seen it happen before, perhaps most relevantly when James Holmes murdered twelve and injured seventy at an Aurora, Colorado, premier of The Dark Knight Rises.
For decades now, violent films, video games, and music have been accused of inciting mayhem…
But here’s the thing—this concern isn’t new, and research doesn’t support it. For decades now, violent films, video games, and music have been accused of inciting mayhem, but study after study has shown that this correlation isn’t accurate.
Besides, Joker never targeted the incels as its ideal audience. In fact, it joins a long lineage of widely acclaimed films that expressed the popular rage of the times in which they were created.
The Forbearers of Joker
It’s no secret that Joker draws a great deal of influence from classic movies. It pays direct homage to the Martin Scorsese films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, cribs plot inspiration and themes from Network, and nods can be seen in the direction of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Death Wish, A Clockwork Orange, and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
These are all movies that represented the tumult of their era. The majority were filmed in the 1970s, a decade that was characterized by recession, the rise of terrorism, rampant political strife, and assassination. Novelist Thomas Wolf deemed it “the ‘Me’ Decade” due to a general shift toward toxic individualism and narcissism. The one outlier—Modern Times—came out in 1932, when the populace was coping with the Great Depression, dehumanization as a result of industrialization, and the looming second World War.
Movies like these recognized and expressed the fear, insecurity, and rage that had swept the globe in epidemic proportions.
The New Rage
It isn’t difficult to see how these past social conditions relate to our present situation. Following the relative stability of the 1990s, things have become something of a shit-show.
Growing political polarization, recession and economic insecurity, 9/11, mass shootings, racial tension, increasing narcissism and social isolation—we’re living in frightening, uncertain, atomized times. As a result, everyone is very, very angry.
…Joker gives us a titular character who is isolated, economically broken, mentally ill, and professionally frustrated.
And once again we’re seeing this translated onto film. In 2011, Drive portrayed a lonely protagonist filled with repressed rage doing anything necessary to survive and protect his few loved ones from a brutal and unforgiving world. Earlier this year, Us told the story of an enraged, literal underclass that violently rose up to overthrow the society that had neglected it.
Now, Joker gives us a titular character who is isolated, economically broken, mentally ill, and professionally frustrated. He lives in a world where access to mental healthcare is nonexistent, where inequality is rampant, and where the leadership seems disinterested.
The Joker isn’t an incel—he’s one of us, like Howard Beale in Network or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or more recently like Red and her underground family in Us or the Driver in Drive. Yet another societal casualty fallen through the ever-growing cracks. And he’s pissed off about it, just like we are.
Critics and naysayers don’t seem to get that, but audiences do.
In its negative review the Wall Street Journal bemoaned, “If you’re feeling insufficiently anxious in your life, ‘Joker’ could be just the ticket.” (No surprise that the WSJ wasn’t into a movie in which enraged crowds chant, “Kill the rich!”) But here’s the thing—our global anxiety is already cranked up to eleven, and Joker is sympathetic to that.
Instead of handwringing over films that portray populist rage, we should probably address the actual root causes of it.
That’s why the critics only gave Joker a Rotten Tomato score of 69% while the audience gave it an 89%. It’s why it surpassed Deadpool to become the top grossing R-rated film of all time, earning a crazy $737.5 million and counting globally. It’s why Joker masks have been popping up at protests in Hong Kong, Chile, and Beirut.
Joker doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It expresses very real rage that is felt around the world, and it is part of a long and respected tradition of films that have projected the anger of their age onto the screen.
Instead of handwringing over films that portray populist rage, we should probably address the actual root causes of it. Neutering transgressive art won’t accomplish that.