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

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

Editor’s Note: Before you read what is going to be a fascinating read, this is the second part of a two-part article series. This is a continuation so get caught up. Then, enjoy!

The Joker’s Place in Politics

joker happy face
Source: BRON Studios/Creative Wealth Media Finance/DC Comics

Unfortunately, I can’t write on the political or social commentary of Joker because I haven’t seen the film, which is true for the vast majority of us. So before we go any further might I suggest something before we start arguing and fighting film critics on their views about the movie?

Maybe we should actually wait to chime in the public debate and actually see the movie first?

Many critics have seen it. Others are guessing about it. Mobilizing to defend a movie is fruitless and part of this militant fandom movement damages discourse.

is joker dangerousIf you are part of those masses, do you realize that all you are doing is providing free labor for a massive billion corporation?

Contrary to popular belief, even though critics — and the media — can have an effect if people see it or not, studios have more power. They dump millions of dollars into national or global marketing campaigns to convince you to go see a movie (unless, of course, we’re talking about a smaller movie from a smaller studio). 

By attacking film critics for doing their job and trying to discredit them, all you’re doing is giving more power to corporations to sell you something. But I digress here, why could a critic talk about Joker specifically in a political framework?

It’s All About Context

joker john wickWell, let’s answer this question by talking about John Wick (stay with me here).

I’ve seen many sources online make the comparison between Joker and John Wick. Why aren’t critics criticizing Wick’s glamorized violence? Many of the same individuals who did avoided lambasting John Wick has loudly critiqued the Jokers‘ (alleged) gruesome on-screen violence?

Context is important in this discussion.

Movies and stories are different from one another and try to accomplish different things to varying degrees of success. A movie like Joker is different than John Wick. Wick ostensibly takes place in an underground action fantasy world far removed from what we would consider to be “normal society.”

Although I would argue it is perfectly acceptable to discuss the movies in the framework of the gun culture in America, the comparison to social and political issues are not as immediate.

Joker is different than the greater discussion has been. Director Todd Phillips has said numerous times how his movie is a look at the man who would become ‘Joker’ as if he existed in the real world.

Real world is the key phrase there. Once you start getting placing your movie in the “real world” then your mind starts drawing from a real-world culture more easily.

But aha you say! In another interview, Todd Phillips said this

It is certainly not a political film. I mean, for some people. It just really depends, I think, on the lens at which you view it through.

So, the director directly said this film is not political! So, therefore, critics shouldn’t be talking about politics, right? Well, no.

Authorial_IntentThe idea that we only examine a work of art through authorial intention is a dishonest one. Sure, you can view art through authorial intent, but as someone who attempts to work creatively, you’re not always the best judge of your own work. Furthermore, you might be blind to certain elements within your own piece.

This is also where the Death of the Author” theory can also come into play. In the simplest of definition, which is one that divorces authorial intent and only exams a text’s relationship to the reader (but there is much complexity to the theory so I encourage you all to read/watch more about it).

In film school, we would screen our films and read our screenplays to the class. We would get critiqued by all class members along with the professor. You quickly find that just because you intended something, it doesn’t always come across the page or screen.  Another possibility is they see something in the story that you never considered before and that might not be a criticism.

Art isn’t a sport, no matter how many box office numbers you want to throw out to prove that you supposedly right.

That’s both the ugliness and the beauty of art. There aren’t always clear answers so you will get a variety of responses, including political ones. I didn’t go to school to be a math teacher for a reason (sorry mom).

Also, Joker is directly drawing from movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese is even an executive producer and Robert De Niro (who starred in both) is a supporting actor. Taxi Driver and King of Comedy is loaded with social commentary. It is baked into the very DNA of those movies.

When your movie starts riffing off that, it is almost as good as an invitation to exam the politics of the film. Critics did the same thing with last year’s First Reformed (writer and directed by the writer of Taxi Driver Paul Schrader).

Where That Leaves Us

escapismMovies are often talked about as a form of escapism. As you can see, even the man of the hour Todd Phillips has said that.

I know through many difficult times of mine, movies have been able to lend a helping hand allowing me to escape for a couple of hours (or in the case of Lord of the Rings, four). Not all movies are meant to be pure escapism. Even movies that are created to be escapism may have underlying themes and messages that relate to our society.

With that mindset, some movies might not seem so political, but in retrospect, politics might creep out of them as we contextualize the era in which it was released (see the documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue to see this contextualization in the horror genre).

If you only want to view movies as entertainment and escapism, have at it. You don’t have to agree with a critic’s political point of view. If politics in movies don’t bother you, then a review containing political discussion isn’t much use to you. If you see the movie and don’t agree with a review (as a Pirates of a Caribbean trilogy fan, I am often in opposition to popular critical consensus) then you can explain why and be part of a healthy discussion.

joker phoenixAnd if I haven’t made this clear let me sum up everything right here and now, I have not seen Joker so I don’t know if I agree or disagree with some critic’s takes on the movie in terms of its politics.

This article was written to rail against the idea that critics shouldn’t inject their political perspective into the movie, as well as offer alternative theories as to why they think about Arthur Fleck in certain ways (instead of the proceeding conspiracy fanboy narrative that I’ve seen on twitter).

Let’s not forget that most of the reviews have been positive and calling some critics that critique’s the film’s politics as “fake woke” is a bad-faith attack and you’re defending a movie you haven’t seen yet because of brand loyalty.

Once we all see Joker then we can return to this discussion then we can take a more honest look at Joker’s themes. I know I am excited for the movie and a movie that can provoke discussion is always welcomed in my eyes.

See you at the movies.


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I'm a film fan that hailed from the spooky rural area of Vermont before getting my film degree in Chicago. I love reading, watching film, and writing in nearly all capacities. Currently working towards my MFA in Creative Writing. I enjoy discussion so let's have some!
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