All Jokes Aside: Debunking “Joker” Controversy

By Sid Samel


Odds are that by now you’ve seen plenty of articles surrounding director Todd Philips’ latest movie “Joker.” The movie, loosely based off of the DC Comics character of the same name, is about, in the simplest terms, Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill aspiring comedian portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, who enters a downward spiral of murder and insanity, evenutally becoming the criminal known as “Joker.” Ever since it was announced, there have been fears of “Joker” inspiring shootings or other acts of violence, and, to be fair, the fears surrounding the film are not entirely unwarranted.

The Joker as a character has always gone hand in hand with controversy, but lately, that controversy has leapt off the pages of comics and into the real world. The movie’s semi-sympathetic portrayal of a violent loner has drawn flak out of fears that it could radicalize certain sects of the internet, particularly the “incel” community, which has taken the Joker to be something of a symbol of theirs. 

But the question remains: is “Joker” a “dangerous” movie? The answer is fairly straightforward: no. Provocative films have been a staple of the film industry for a long time. Movies in the same vein as “Joker,” like “Taxi Driver” or “American Psycho,” deliver compelling stories told from the perspectives of people with little to no redeeming qualities. The important thing to note is that telling a story is not the same as condoning the actions of a character, and you can sympathize with a character without wanting to do what they do.

The difficult thing about making a movie like “Joker” (said the high school junior with no directorial experience) is that it is a massive balancing act. For the movie to successfully tell its story, the audience needs to root for the protagonist on some level. Oftentimes, like in superhero movies, this is achieved by making the main character someone with admirable qualities, someone the audience supports because they do the right thing. In others, such as Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” the film draws in the audience by making the characters incredibly charismatic or unpredictable; even though what they do is wrong, you can’t help but watch out of a need to see what they’ll do next. “Joker” follows a third path, combining the first two. For the first half, the movie makes the viewer pity Arthur and his struggle, but in the second, the movie makes it explicitly clear that Arthur is not a stable person or someone whose actions should be followed and imitated. 

Of course, that does not mean that all people will see it that way; it is entirely possible for someone to walk out of the theater thinking, “Yeah, that Arthur Fleck guy had the right idea.” It’s possible, but it’s highly unlikely. People are capable of understanding the line between fiction and reality, between right and wrong. Fiction can only have so much impact on a person; a movie can move someone, but it won’t suddenly flip a switch inside a person that turns them into a violent criminal. Also, the “is ‘Joker’ a threat” discussion detracts from the many interesting, relevant questions that the film poses, questions regarding the divide between classes, the healthcare system, and mental health. At the end of the day, “Joker” tells a story, and, for better or worse, stories deserve to be told.