In the age of the MCU and summer blockbusters, it’s become incredibly rare that someone makes a truly controversial movie. Not a movie that divides fans and critics a la every DCEU movie, but one that people think poses a genuine threat to society. A few years ago, we finally got one in the form of Joker. I remember seeing tons of articles before it was even released claiming that it was incel propaganda and would incite a wave of alt-right violence. A large number of people hated this movie before even seeing it. It became a battleground in our current culture war. You either saw it as the modern-day Triumph of the Will or a groundbreaking think-piece against PC cancel culture. In reality, it was neither. It ended up pissing off both sides. While I enjoyed the movie, this reaction is the most interesting thing about it. Joaquin Phoenix was incredible, it was amazingly stylized, but it ripped off Scorecese harder than Antz ripped off Bug’s Life. I know I’m the billionth person to point all this out, but I totally agree with it. That’s why I want to focus on the reaction.
It’s no surprise why Joker was a lightning rod as soon as the trailer dropped. The character has become a mascot for edgelords and wannabe badasses who are fed up with S O C I E T Y. This combined with the character’s connection to the tragic shooting in Aurora back in 2012 put people on high alert. While these are genuine red flags, some media outlets took this fear and ran with it. It got so bad that the theater hosting the premiere in NYC brought in guards armed with assault rifles. Obviously, nothing happened when it came out. There weren’t any shootings or massive uprisings. Despite this, much of the initial criticism remained. Some critics were upset at what they saw as a film that glorified violence and affirmed angry white dudes who feel like they are oppressed because they can’t tell racist jokes in public anymore. Joker didn’t endorse this message at all, but it didn’t exactly condemn it either. In classic Todd Phillips fashion, it’s clear that the protagonist, who commits horrifying crimes and is responsible for widespread destruction, is a bad guy, but not that bad of a guy. Joker seemingly takes the character’s classic “one bad day” ideology literally, which isn’t the best message to carry over into the real world. Even though it wasn’t the terrorist rallying cry many warned it’d be, it’s easy to see why people were still upset about this movie.
One potential reason there wasn’t a national uprising is that the alt-right audience wasn’t thrilled with Joker‘s message either. The movie they thought would be about how they were the most oppressed group in society ended with a man leading a proletariat uprising against the ultra-wealthy because of a lack of government funding for social programs. This particular group of people has a tendency to not understand what the political ideology of anarchy actually entails, demonstrated by their un-ironic love of bands like Rage Against the Machine. Strangely enough, Joker had one of the most “radical leftist” messages of any major release in recent memory.
The result of all this was a movie that managed to piss off everybody. Joker ended up becoming a modern-day Rorschach test, which maybe isn’t a surprise given Arthur Fleck’s similarities to the Watchmen character of the same name. Everyone saw what they wanted to see. People on the left saw a movie validating the insecurities and violent outbursts of the alt-right. People on the right saw a piece of communist propaganda. When really, all that was there was a pretty good anti-hero movie based on the world’s most recognizable supervillain.
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