Is Joker dangerous, unsettling or 'random button-pressing?'

Audiences are accustomed to hype and hot takes for every new comic book movie release, but the controversy surrounding Joker has reached a fever pitch. Three film critics share their views of the film and the commotion it's causing.

3 critics weigh in on controversial film amid real-world concerns surrounding its theatrical release

Joaquin Phoenix appears as Arthur Fleck/Joker in the controversial new drama Joker, hitting cinemas Friday. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Audiences are accustomed to hype and hot takes for every new comic book movie release, but the controversy surrounding Joker has reached a fever pitch.

In early September, the supervillain origin story captured the venerable Venice Film Festival's top prize. Ever since, however, director Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the script, has been increasingly on the defence as the critical discussion has shifted between praise for Joaquin Phoenix's unsettling performance to criticism for lionizing a character who is a troubled, violent killer.

In particular, a segment of reviewers has characterized the film as a "toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels," referring to the misogynistic "involuntary celibate" online subculture of heterosexual men who express resentment of, and advocate violence against, women and men they deem more sexually successful.

Real-world reactions have compounded the hubbub surrounding the film, which officially opens Friday.

Victims of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., have expressed concern. Some theatre chains have banned dressing up for Joker screenings. The U.S. military warned service members about the potential threat of mass violence at screenings, while police in Los Angeles and New York plan to increase their presence at cinemas this weekend.

Joker's studio also axed red carpet interviews at the movie's Hollywood premiere last week, noting that, "A lot has been said about Joker and we just feel it's time for people to see the film."

We asked three critics who've seen Joker to share their views of the film and the heated discussion about it.

(Comments have been edited and condensed.)

'A movie that feels a little dangerous as you're watching it'

'I'm very reluctant to censor anything or even censure anything, just because it has that element of danger to it,' says Justin Chang, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR. (CBC)

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times and NPR film critic: 

"Whether we should be celebrating a movie like Joker — that's a very fair and good question. Whether the movie should exist is the question that I'm hearing a lot, too, and, 'Is this a movie that makes the world a worse place?'

"I have complicated feelings about that because I admire the movie — not without some reservations, some of them esthetic, some of them moral ... Yet, at the same time, I'm very reluctant to censor anything or even censure anything, just because it has that element of danger to it.

"This is a movie that feels a little dangerous as you're watching it and that is a testament also to how well done it is ... Some are saying it's sort of turning Joker into a mascot for the incel movement, although whether he's a mascot or whether he is a cautionary tale, I think there is room for argument there.

"I think it's a good movie. Do I think we might be better off if it didn't exist? Possibly. 

Phoenix has earned many positive reviews for his performance. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

"Watching this movie several weeks after the recent spate of mass shootings in America ... it's hard to get away from that. And I think that's not just because it's a violent movie — because Hollywood makes violent movies every day. There is something singular about what the director, Todd Phillips, and the actor, Joaquin Phoenix, have achieved in their collaboration that feels very dangerous and very close to the skin.

"Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy — Martin Scorsese's movies — are two of the foremost influences on Joker. It's not on that level, I don't think, but you know Taxi Driver famously inspired violence. No one disputes that it's a great film. No one wishes that movie didn't exist. Joker is not in the same artistic league [but] I think it's safe to say that perhaps its ability to foment violence or its latent potential ... to tap into something dangerous is vastly greater than Taxi Driver's was, especially just by dint of how many years it's been and just how much easier it is to kill people now in the 21st century." 

Writers sent 'death threats for just voicing their concerns' 

Kathleen Newman-Bremang, senior writer for Refinery29 Canada, says she received some 'really horrible emails' after writing about the film. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Kathleen Newman-Bremang, senior writer for Refinery29 Canada:

"It's unsettling in general to uphold a murderer as a hero and I think that the the filmmakers and the director would say that that's not what their intention was ... But I think that a lot of people are going to look to [the character of Arthur Fleck, who becomes Joker] and see his social isolation and see how he's bullied and how society kind of pushes him to crime and to violence. And I think they're going to relate to that. That's really scary to me, especially now, when we have seen so many lonely white men ... incite violence against women, against society and they feel like they can justify it. I think this film is going to be something they use to justify it as well.

"The other layer of this, which is why it's so dangerous, is because Joaquin Phoenix does an incredible job. He did a really good job of making this movie and making this character someone you want to care about.

"[Arthur is] an unreliable narrator [and] some people might say, 'Well, you can't really trust the story that he's telling.' But the story that he's telling is that he is getting bullied and that he is getting beaten. We see him get beaten and bullied and people be really mean to him. And when you watch someone being attacked in that way — if you're a human being who has empathy — you're going to feel bad for him and you're going to want to be on his side. And that is what the film does: it completely leads up to the violence with justifications on every turn.

Phoenix's Arthur Fleck character gets beaten and bullied in the film before transforming into the ultraviolent Joker. (Warner Bros.)

"[After watching it], I walked into Yonge-Dundas Square, which is a very populated place, and I was scared. The only solace I had in that moment was that, 'Oh, everyone else hasn't seen this movie yet' ... I wrote a piece about it, and I got some really horrible e-mails. I know writers who received death threats for just voicing their concerns about this movie. You're already seeing this group of trolls online who relate to this movie [and] who are threatening a woman because of it. We're already seeing that: it's happening online right now.

"A filmmaker has every right to make whatever movie they want ... But it's also my responsibility as a critic and as a fan to put that work — to put your art — into context of where we are right now.

"[Director and co-writer] Todd Phillips has talked a lot about how he wanted this to be rooted in reality ... We know it's not a documentary. We know that this is a movie with actors. But once you place it that far into reality and go through extra pains to make sure it feels real and authentic and that it could have happened ... because of the political route they sort of go down with [Arthur] being this hero of the 99 per cent, you can't go down that route and not expect me to talk about politics and talk about society." 

'A piece of entertainment that's trying to agitate people'

Writer and film critic John Semley says when critics and moviegoers start saying a particular film shouldn't exist, it can become a slippery slope. (CBC)

John Semley, Toronto-based freelance writer and film critic:

"I do not think Joker is dangerous. I do not think that this, or any film on its own, can have a direct causal relationship to real-world violence.

"If we want to talk about incel violence — or the groups that are sort of being named, who this film is supposedly pitched to — there's so much more going on that leads them to those subcultures. There's so much that leads to their sort of violent behaviour and their toxic thoughts that the idea of blaming it on any one film just seems like a cheap 'out.'

"I feel like the filmmaker is playing into the controversy to create this idea that this is a very dangerous film when, I think, in reality it's a sort of confused and muddled and occasionally competently made film that does not deserve any of this attention ... He's trying to have it both ways at once. I think that he does sort of glorify the character and he does sort of glorify these acts of violence while simultaneously saying, at least in the press, 'No, no. This is not what I'm doing.' 

Joker director Todd Phillips, left, is joined by Phoenix in accepting the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, on Sept. 7, 2019. (Joel C Ryan/Invision/Associated Press)

"Even if this is a glorification or some sort of incitement, it's still a piece of art — if you want to call it that — or at the very least, entertainment. When we start censoring these things or saying, 'These should not exist, these are dangerous,' we get on a very slippery slope. 

"The film draws its influence very obviously from Martin Scorsese: from the character that Robert De Niro plays in Taxi Driver [and] from the character that De Niro plays in The King of Comedy. It's nowhere near on the same level as those two movies. I think it's closer to something like Michael Winner's Death Wish with Charles Bronson, where it's about a sort of frail liberal conscience that becomes corrupted and turns to violence.

An image from Taxi Driver is shown at a 2015 Martin Scorsese retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

"The head spaces that [these filmmakers] invite you to get in, they're worth exploring. But it's how they're explored: is there a level of sophistication and nuance as there is in a film like Taxi Driver? Or is this just kind of random button-pressing, like it is in Joker? But I maintain, again, even if it is bad, it still has a right to exist.

"This controversy around it, I worry, will only make people take it more seriously. I wish that we could just kind of look at this film for what it is, or what I think it is, which is just like a muddled piece of entertainment that's trying to agitate people and incite them. Not incite them to violence, but incite them to have these sort of hysterical reactions to it.

"There are certainly things that I find offensive, that I find disgusting, that I find reprehensible, but I would never want to sort of enforce those as some standard that everyone has to follow."

With files from Eli Glasner and Alice Hopton


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