Why is Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker proving so controversial?

Although applauded by many as a masterpiece, Joker is being labelled as a danger to society. We ask: why so serious?

Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker (Warner Bros)

If you’ve heard anything about Todd Phillips’ new Joker film you’ll know it’s either A) a masterpiece set to ride on a tide of Oscar glory, or B) it’s an extremely dangerous movie that could cause some serious harm to society.

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You might have even seen the same viewpoints simultaneously, with critics such as The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin saying that although it was a “very good film”, he was “worried someone’s going to get killed”. Similarly, while IndieWire labelled Joker as “the boldest reinvention of superhero cinema since The Dark Knight,” it also claimed the movie was “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels” and “good enough to be dangerous”.

So, why exactly are some saying Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Batman’s greatest foe is anything but a laughing matter? Here’s the controversy around Joker, explained…

Why are some critics labelling Joker as dangerous?

Of course, a movie telling the story of one of the greatest comic-book villains of all time needs viewers to sympathise with him slightly: a film without a lead an audience cares about would be downright terrible.

However, this is obviously a bit problematic when the story is told from the point of view of a homicidal clown in a gritty Gotham City circa 1981. It’s a tricky thing to do: on one level the audience must understand the hardships of the Joker (aka Arthur Fleck), a heavily-medicated sad clown outcast who’s beaten up on train carriages. Yet, at the same time, the film must try not glorify Fleck’s violent ‘revenge’ on these events. Joker, in other words, should be presented as a victimised human, but not one we root for.

According to some, Joker has failed this delicate balancing act. Vanity Fair, for instance, argues that while Joker portrays Fleck’s hunt for a sense of purpose and belonging “relatable,” his subsequent murder rampage is presented as something viewers are “supposed to agree” with.

Time also argues that “the movie lionises and glamorises Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behaviour”. One critic added: “Arthur is a mess, but we’re also supposed to think he’s kind of great — a misunderstood savant.”

And some see this as a particular problem with Joker mirroring recent real-life mass-murderers. As The Telegraph points out, “a movie about a mentally ill loner who triggers mass violence is likely to draw parallels with the recent shootings in America”.

Others also see Joker as bolstering ‘the tortured white man mythos’, with The Playlist arguing: “You see clearly how easily it could be (mis)interpreted and co-opted by the very 4Chan/Incel/’mentally ill loner’ element it purports to darkly satirise.”

The Independent also added worries that toxic men will see the film and think: “There’s nothing wrong with me. There is beauty in my chaos. I am the chaos. I am the beauty. The ends justify the means.”

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So does Joker deserve such a reaction or is the criticism above all a joke? You can make your own judgement when the film arrives in UK cinemas 4th October 2019.