The Joker Controversy

Take the success of 23 Marvel superhero movies, the grittiness of the “Dark Knight” trilogy and a look at the current news headlines. Mix it all together and what you end up with is DC’s attempt to lure audiences into cinemas with the dark side of superheroes. And what better protagonist than the craziest supervillain of them all?

Do you want to know how he got his scars?

Meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). New York City—ahem, I mean, Gotham—is a cesspool of poverty, unemployment and crime. Arthur works as a clown-for-hire, but he secretly dreams of becoming a comedian. Yet, as of now, he barely makes enough dough to take care of his dying mother (Frances Conroy), let alone to feed himself. To top it off, he also has an uncontrollable laughing disorder; neither his medication nor his therapy sessions seem to help. In short, life is difficult. But when his co-worker gives him a small hand-gun,  Arthur finds a new source of empowerment and the chance to change his life for good.

Director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” trilogy) has certainly hit a nerve with “Joker.” At its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the jury awarded “Joker” with the prestigious Golden Lion, the highest prize awarded to films. Now we’re nearing December, aka the Oscar season. Given its box office success, it’s a safe bet that “Joker” will be nominated for at least a handful of Academy Awards.

On the one hand, “Joker” is a gorgeous movie. The cinematography, the production design and the sound design make Gotham come alive to the point that you can almost smell the trash in the streets. And, Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime. He added a level of humanity and complexity to an almost mythological character that is easily downplayed as plain crazy.

Yet on the other hand, “Joker” has been met with heavy criticism. Particularly because its explicit portrayal of violence borders on glorification. The stark nihilism questions the worth of human life, or whether a few murders are perhaps the only way to change things for the better. In light of the current political climate, many cinemas have resorted to checking the bags of patrons before letting them into the theatre.

Mollie Hersh (COM ’21) said, “Part of the reason why I’m hesitant to see ‘Joker’ is that for me, movies have always been my escape route. ‘Joker’ just got way too real for me. My hometown theater received a credible threat. ‘Joker’ has an existing fanbase, a lot of which can include those with violent tendencies or a more radical perspective who align themselves with the Joker or see themselves in the character. It’s important from a creator’s standpoint to understand the consequences when you tackle serious subject matter.”

“‘Joker’ is just too dark for me,” said Connor Allen (CAS ’21). “I expected it to be a drama, but it turned out to be a total horror show. It’s not scary, it’s just gruesome. I understand that Todd Phillips is trying to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, but some scenes just cross the line. You definitely need to brace yourself before watching this movie, and that’s exactly what they want people to say about it.”

Is “Joker” the villain Gotham deserves? Is it the film that we need?  Ultimately, the only person who can judge that is yourself, but be warned that “Joker” does not take the easy route.

“Joker” is currently playing at AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway and Kendall Square Cinemas. I recommend seeing it at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in exclusive 70mm!


Finally, whether or not you see “Joker,” I definitely recommend that you check out these three movies that have been in the headlines for similar reasons.

  1. American Psycho (2000, directed by Mary Harron)

Set in New York city in the madness that was the ’80s, this dark comedy follows the daily life of Patrick Bateman, a yuppie who’s into “murders and executions.” With a stellar performance by Christian Bale (yes, Batman!) “American Psycho” is equally part disturbing as it is clever and entertaining.

  1. Crimson Gold (2003, directed by Jafar Panahi)

An Iranian film about what drove Hossein, a young pizza deliverer, to rob a jewelry store, “Crimson Gold” is a contemplative look at the poorest people in Tehran, and showcases the wide gap between the rich and the poor. Moreover, the Iranian government deemed it “too dark” to be shown in cinemas. Hmm…

  1. Taxi Driver (1976, directed by Martin Scorsese)

Finally, the movie that “Joker” so desperately wanted to be. “Taxi Driver” follows the life of Travis Bickle, as he attempts to rid the Gotham-esque New York City of evil from both extremes of the societal gap. It also stars Robert De Niro, who not-so-coincidently plays Arthur Fleck’s idol in “Joker.” Is Travis a self-righteous sociopath, or a tragic hero? That is for you to decide.

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