Joker had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday. In the days since, the takes have been coming in hot. On Twitter, the reaction seems to fall into two camps: It’s either a near-perfect masterpiece, or it’s a dangerous manifesto for radical and lonely white men who may look to Arthur Fleck’s deranged descent into the Joker of comic-book lore as heroic instead of villainous.
The reality is that the film — and most of its thoughtful critiques — falls somewhere in between. Joker is an impressive cinematic achievement, featuring an extraordinary (albeit a tad exhibitionist) performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Fleck, and it’s a poisonous story for a fraught time. Did we really need a brutal movie about a white terrorist figure who uses gun violence to enact revenge on the society that rejects him? And did we need it now?
I think the answer to that question is no. Ultimately, Joker is a story that empathizes with a violent sociopath. Fleck is a clown-by-hire and aspiring comedian living with his mother. The most ironic and tragic cruelty of his life is that he’s got a condition that causes him to laugh maniacally at inappropriate times. He is bullied and beat up — by a group of kids on the street, his coworkers, some rich suits on the subway — and the film uses these encounters to explain his murderous origins. "Joker is the antihero the alienated and angry have been waiting for, and that’s precisely the problem," wrote Sarah Hagi in a column about the film for the Globe and Mail. "I do yawn at the idea of another story in which white men are offered a sort of understanding for their violence."
That’s exactly why I couldn’t enjoy the film, even though I concede that it’s really well done. The message that "well, of course he became a mass murderer, society gave him no choice!" is dangerous on its own. But if you consider the larger social context of turning “a supervillain into a kind of folk hero” in a world where Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, and Faisal Hussain exist, it’s even more distressing.
In response to her piece, Hagi received emails with subject lines including "a white dude’s feedback on your Globe review" and ones that accused her of "hating white people" and "racism against whites." (Hagi is a Black Muslim woman.) Writer Kayleigh Donaldson shared her thoughts via Twitter about Phoenix’s performance and was the subject of nasty comments calling her criticism “useless” and making fun of her for getting paid to give her opinion on movies. Tonja Renée Stidhum’s piece on the Black culture site The Root also received a slew of inappropriate comments.
The fact that critics — mostly women — are facing the wrath of Joker fans who are already invoking the fanboy venom we’ve become accustom to (see: Star Wars) doesn't surprise me. Unfortunately for women who write things on the internet, threats come to with the gig, particularly when the thing you are writing about is comic book movies. In Hagi's case, being called a "reverse racist" (a thing that does not exist) is nothing new for critics of color, especially women critics of color. But it’s still infuriating. One reader didn’t understand why Hagi brought up race at all in her essay. Remember, Joker's narrative focuses on a white dude’s pain. (Even though he gets a Black "love interest" in the enigmatic Zazie Beetz.) The argument that identity politics shouldn’t be discussed over a film that director Todd Phillips describes as a "character study" and is literally a two-hour exploration of one man’s identity is preposterous.
Some may argue that it’s unfair to equate a fictional character to real-life terrorists or that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of a filmmaker to make only safe art that can never be misinterpreted or glorified by violent people. Similarly, critics also have the right to analyze that movie as a part of the culture in which it was made, and we have every right to express if and why a film makes us uneasy.
But given that the Joker discourse is holding up a mirror to the worst parts of the internet, I’m expecting some blow back myself. That’s okay. I’m a Black woman with a Twitter account and opinions. I’m used to it.
Joker hits theaters October 4.