‘The Joker,’ Film Politics, and Its Criticism: Part I

The upcoming Joker movie has been in the news lately, which is arguably the understatement of the year.

Remember when Joker’s second trailer released to a general wave of excitement? It rode that wave to mostly rave reviews at the prestigious Venice Film Festival where it took home the coveted Golden Lion Award, previously won by Guillermo Del Toro‘s The Shape of Water in 2017 and Alfonso Cuaron‘s Roma in 2018.

Joker-movie-poster-1(Not for nothing: Both of those men won the Oscar for Best Director in respective years at the annual Academy Awards.)

Continuing to hitch a ride to this wave, Joker opened at the Toronto International Film Festival to more positive praise. Upon its wide release in early October, the project is already securing some early Oscar buzz for Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance, Todd Phillips as a director, and the film itself for Best Picture.

The movie isn’t being met with universal praise however with some critics pushing back and many have linked comparisons to “incel culture.”  Much of the criticism has centered around the film’s politics, which has led to much fueled debate online.

I’ve seen many fans of the film (or DC fans in general) fire back at the political discussion claiming the critics are pushing their political agenda on the film. They argue this is a piece of entertainment meant to be used as an escape. More importantly, we shouldn’t be talking about the politics of Joker. To that point, there seems to be debate among Twitter circles if critics should even talk about politics in their reviews.

So, first we have to ask the question, “Should critics be able to talk about politics in their reviews” and second, “How does the Joker fit into all this?”

Setting the Record First

jokermakeup-headerI want to first lay out a few of my personal fandoms and biases before I go any further so there is no confusion over where my so-called “allegiance” or “agenda” lies. Hopefully this prevents any feelings being hurt.

I’m not a “Marvel fanboy”.

I enjoy Marvel’s movies. I think they are mostly serviceable, with a few that are really good (i.e., the Guardians movies, Iron Man, Winter Solider, and a handful of others).

I’m not a “DC fanboy” either.

I like Man of Steel, love The Dark Knight trilogy, and quite enjoyed Shazam! I have other fandoms that I would consider myself apart of, like Star Wars for instance.

celebration star warsMy personal fandoms do not materialize into blind allegiance or development of “us vs them” mentality.

My participation in fandom is involvement (like finally going to Star Wars Celebration in Chicago this year), a general sense of excitement, and a feeling of community. And, while I’ve seen a lot of positivity from being a part of a fandom (see my friend’s, Alana King, YouTube channel for example), I think a form of “militant fandom” has hijacked part of this discussion.

Candidly, I don’t know if this is a loud minority or a significant group of people. As I’ve said before, I think fandom can be such a rewarding experience. However, I think for some they have turned into a sport.

The “sportification” of movies is driving discourse to be competition-driven more akin to baseball and football (without the contact) than a discussion of media or art.

I’m excited for Joker, but part of being apart of the discussion of these fan-driven IPs is dropping the presupposed tribalism and abandon the tin-foil hat conspiracies of critics being “anti this or anti that”.

Okay, everyone clear?  Fantastic! Let’s move forward!

Politics and Film Criticism

EF83PP ORSON WELLES CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Courtesy: RKO Radio Pictures/Mercury Productions

I’ve been involved in numerous debates and discussions on Twitter recently about the role of a film critic and whether not you should or should not inject politics into movie reviews.

It seems many people don’t want critics to discuss the wider social ramifications of Joker nor do they want them to inject their political opinions into the piece. They might like a critic to say in a positive review, “this has biting social commentary,” but never delve deeper beneath the surface.

Film criticism involves the discussion of all things about a movie.

A piece of art and entertainment is about many things such as story, character, and theme. Filmmakers and writers have long expressed their views through their art. The political nature is so prevalent in some works that it would be almost irresponsible to ignore it. Imagine writing a review for the book Animal Farm by George Orwell and not delve into how it is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the lead into Stalinism?

The definition of criticism is as follows,

“the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production,”

Roger Ebert, my favorite film critic, once said this,

Why do we need critics? I don’t believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the…line, “You are correct sir!” A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.”

Ebert talks about bringing in a larger context and that might include the social context in which a movie is released.  When Matt Zoller Seitz reviewed Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish, he couldn’t help but draw uncomfortable parallels to the real world. He saw a larger context. Was he wrong to do that? If asked Ebert (who criticized Dirty Harry for being fascist) or looked at the definition of criticism, probably not.

Seeing this larger context is part of film criticism.

To paraphrase Ebert, movies are emotional. We are emotional beings. We are going to have emotional reactions to movies. You don’t have to spend any time online to know politics makes people emotional. If a critic reacts emotionally to a film’s underlying politics, then why should he or she not talk about it?

Objective reviewing is basically a myth. You review a movie based on what you thought, saw, and experienced. If politics is a part of a film, then a critic should write about it. Being honest is a fundamental part of film criticism. That doesn’t mean every political take is equally valid. It all comes from evidence from the text and the more “a take” will draw from the text, the more compelling a viewpoint might be.

Now, how does the Joker fit into all of this?  Be sure to read Part 2 tomorrow.

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