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What ‘Joker’ can teach us about the Oscars and successful films

‘Joker’ is expected to do well at the Academy Awards this weekend. But the film represents a bigger problem

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“Joker” had quite a run when it hit theaters, which has only been backed up by its continued success at various award ceremonies. But the success for the controversial and violent film may represent a large issue with the Oscars.

Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, said the nominees for best picture represent a problem considering that there is so much criticism over diversity among Academy Award nominees.

“The fact that most of the best picture nominations are explorations of white masculinity is particularly problematic in the immediate aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. With the notable and excellent exceptions of Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ and Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women,’ the best picture nominations are all focused on the travails of white men in various situations ranging from the horrors of war to the eccentricities of Hollywood,” he said in a statement emailed to the Deseret News.

Phillips said the “poster child” for these kind of films is “Joker.”

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“While the predictions of violence from lone white men did not, thankfully, come to pass, the film’s many nominations have helped fuel protests of this year’s Oscar picks,” he said.

“Joker” had quite a controversial run when it hit theaters back in October. Several concerns were raised about the film’s violence and how it might inspire attacks across the country. People were worried about it. But there was little evidence of such attacks ever happening. The U.S. military did reportedly understand there were some potential plans out there for violence, but nothing came to pass.

“It’s not the reasonable people that are seeing it that we need to be worried about,” Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council, told me at the time. “It’s the people that are seeing it and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve been mistreated too.’ ‘Yes, society has been jumping on me my whole life. And, you know, maybe I should follow this example.’ That’s the thing I think that we need to be concerned about.”

The film debuted smoothly, for the most part. There were still some concerns about the film’s violence. But, as I wrote at the time, “Joker” didn’t exactly tackle mental health issues the right way. The violent moments in the films overshadowed the mental health issues it raised.

For example, the final violent moment of the film had something to say about mental illness. But the tension raised by the violence — or the forthcoming violence — masked over the scene, causing the message to get lost.

As I wrote at the time, “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.”

There were real problems in the film that were worth exploring, not just the downfall of a mentally ill white man. Such issues as the pseudobulbar affect, or emotional incontinence — the condition where someone laughs uncontrollably as an emotional response — were brought up but not fully explored within the movie.

The film turned Joker, a comic book villain, into a hero, which makes it hard to always empathize with him.

But the problems with “Joker” might be a good thing, Phillips said, because it is a dramatic film that causes people to confront their beliefs.

“But, in another way, ‘Joker’ is an important film precisely because it is problematic,” he said. “In a field where most films are celebrations of white masculinity, ‘Joker’ is the one film that dives into the toxic elements of white masculinity. Instead of a celebration of the little guy overcoming the odds — whether in Hollywood or on the racetrack — ‘Joker’ asks audiences to stare into the abyss of our cultural conception of masculinity and the damage it causes.

“This is not an argument for ‘Joker’ to win the best picture nomination but to suggest that the value of this film lies in its provocative ugliness. The fact that (director Todd) Phillips’ film has repelled so many viewers is a testament that what it dramatizes is something worth seeing,” he said.

Seeing “Joker,” though, means watching a film riddled with violence and shrouded in dark and mature themes that create feelings of uneasiness and concern. It raises worries about violence, with many experts saying the film could ignite violence among our culture. It raises questions but does so in such a dark place that it might be hard to see those questions in the light.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It is the wrong time for “Joker,” even if there is something to take away from it. Maybe viewers do learn lessons from it. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for audiences across the country. If there are lessons to take away, as Phillips suggests, does that make it the first of many? Will more films like “Joker” hit theaters? Will the movie theater experience become darker, more violent and creepy?

It’s unclear what the fate of the film will be at the Academy Awards. The film missed the mark on mental health and relied too much on its violence. It isn’t the award winner of our time. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

“Joker” is like its main character Arthur Fleck — disturbed, violent, uneasy and troubling. The only question left is whether or not the Academy Awards will paint the film with success like a creepy clown mask.