But that doesn’t discount the fact that “Joker” — a film full of blood, violence and mature themes — was one of the most controversial films of 2019 that failed to fully address the mental health issues it raised or adequately defend itself against the potential violence it could have created.
Critics have been quick to praise “Joker.” Star Joaquin Phoenix has found success. He won the Critics’ Choice Award for best actor Sunday night for his role after winning the same best actor award at Golden Globes. The film had 88% audience score and a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes.
But there are two main problems with the film, both of which I highlighted in separate pieces back in October.
For one, the movie came out at the wrong time. The film dropped in the wake of a number of mass shootings, including ones in Gilroy, California, El Paso and Odessa, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Victims from the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting expressed concern over the potential violence from the film (though not the film itself). The U.S. military weighed in, expressing worry that the film could incite violence.
As I wrote at the time:
There is no easy way to tell the story of the Joker and avoid its motivating backstory — a character who has bathed in mass violence and hysteria since his inception. He isn’t one to play by the rules. He isn’t one to teach moral values. There is never a good time, nor a bad time, to release a Joker film. His darkness, his thirst for chaos, corruption and craze, are too much to handle. And the film, which will tell his origin story from a realistic and grounded point of view, could inspire violence.
Joker has never been an easy character to portray on screen. He is violent, chaotic and ridiculous. He isn’t a hero. And yet the film painted him as a hero.
Creating a film centered around a psychotic villain, as was the case with “Joker,” could mean that “you are doing something that has the potential to foster violence,” Preston Hunter, a comic book fan and creator of the ComicBookReligion.com database, told me back in October.
Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, agreed.
“Once you start getting into the head of, you know, the sociopath, the anti-social person, the revolutionary, that’s when we suddenly think that this image of violence can be inspiring to the wrong kind of people,” Phillips told me.
“Historically, it is interesting that many of the films that have caused controversy because of violence — it’s not just because of the acts of violence, but it’s because they sort of go into the mind of the violent person,” Phillips said.
Nothing stopped “Joker” from hitting theaters. The film debuted to a $90 million opening weekend. Not bad for a comic-book film, especially one that had mounting controversy around it.
But the film failed to address the mental health issues it raised in a great way. It focused on Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness without giving audiences enough time to consider what it meant. But its moments of violence were too violent. Its darkest moments were too filled with tension. The film offered too many distractions for viewers to consider what was being said.
As I wrote in my article, here’s an example:
Toward the end of the film, Fleck decides he’s going to commit suicide. He’s going to exact violence on himself (although it teases that he may attack someone else) while appearing on a late night television show with comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). On the show, Fleck rattles off his thoughts on the damage society does to someone like him — how he is ignored, stepped over, tossed to the side. He says Gotham City is worried about rich people dying, but ignores people like him. The speech is easily ignored because we’re waiting for the gunshot — we’re waiting for him to attack himself (or Murray). When the violence comes, his speech is forgotten. An important point about how society treats people is swept under the rug. We’re all waiting for the punchline, instead of hearing the joke.
What could have made Joker a good film for 2019 would have been a better focus on the mental health issues it only briefly explores. If the film had made that final speech about society and mental health a big moment without the tension of impending death, then the message might have come across stronger.
The film made me feel uneasy. The tension riled me up. And that’s fine. That’s what happens when you make a really good movie — it takes over the viewers so they forget they’re in a movie theater. But I left the theater feeling uneasy, uncomfortable and, well, dark, rather than concerned over the problem our country faces with how we deal with mentally-ill Americans.
There’s another version of that film that cuts away from the violent scenes. There’s another version where we don’t see the blood spatter or wait for the gunfire. There’s another version where we hear everything the film is trying to say. Too bad we didn’t get it the first time.
“Joker” can celebrate the success of its nominations. The cinematography, acting and score earned that praise. But the film can’t ignore the glaring issues. It came out at the wrong time. And it failed to address the mental health issues that were raised, going only halfway and not addressing them fully.