Graphic by MEREK ALAM
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” said Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his opening lines of Joker. The relatability doesn’t end there, the residents of 1980’s Gotham must also grapple with class inequality, slashed social services, a millionaire running for public office and collectively having a crush on Zazie Beetz. In record time, this turmoil from a fictional society spilled over into our (unfortunately) very real society.
The current controversy revolves around the idea that the very plot of Joker––a lonely white guy who devolves into committing murder after experiencing rejection and perceived societal injustice––was too close to the biographies of actual mass shooters. Therefore, a sympathetic portrayal of this kind of person would inspire more potential mass shootings. Phoenix defended the movie, saying that, “I think it’s really good…when movies make us uncomfortable or challenge us or make us think differently.” Others, to put it mildly, disagreed.
Families of the Aurora theater shootings victims protested Warner Brothers. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued warnings about the possibility of violence. The NYPD deployed undercover officers and many other law enforcement officials stepped up their patrols around theaters during the premiere. I myself had my ID checked two times before I even got to my designated Joker theater.
I got settled in my seat just in time for that routine Chevy ad where “real people” on the screen fake enthusiasm for a mediocre car and seemingly like each other. Meanwhile, all the actual real people in the theater begin to get vaguely terrified of their temporary neighbors. In between counting the minutes of the presumed bathroom break the guy next to us took, we all might be inclined to wonder: why is our society like this?
After every shooting one side immediately gets embarrassingly stonewalled trying to legislate guns out of the hands of everyone who’s not a cop and the other side calls on the nation to turn every single public-school teacher into John Wick. If there’s any societal analysis of the shooters at all, it’s when we briefly look at their profile to confirm that it is the fault of the other side so we can wash our hands of it. None of this addresses a more fundamental issue.
Mass killers are still unforgivably bad people who have made evil decisions that they alone are responsible for. Yet, by the very nature of their thoughts and actions, they were still failed every step of the way by the society around them. All across the country you have millions of people stewing in their own hate and isolation without any kind of help or outreach. Partially limiting their access to a particular type of weapon or training Mr. Wilson to go beast mode at the sound of microwave popcorn is to be intervening at the last possible second of the last possible hour and only addressing the tip of the iceberg.
These mass shooters do not have to be inevitable in the first place, every one of them that seemingly appears out of the blue is actually the fault of each and every one of us for not doing something sooner. We shouldn’t be so terrified about media that tries to understand these issues better or makes one of the horrifying evils in our society seem more “human.”
I wish I could say that Joker is the film that provides all the answers we are yearning for, but the film itself is just “okay” in the strongest possible sense of the word. Interesting ideas like a visually overworked social worker, social alienation and the demonization of mental illness get bogged down by a weirdly unnecessary girlfriend plot, a quest to find the protagonist’s dad and The Joker himself going off against PC culture like an aging comedian on Netflix. We all probably would have forgotten the movie a week after it came out and watched Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy instead were it not for the film’s attachment to the Batman mythos.
To its credit, Joker and the controversy surrounding it does an excellent job revealing how deeply afraid our society is of mass shootings, to the point of believing that straying from a list of pre-approved partisan talking points means accidentally summoning a mass shooting Beetlejuice-style. If we begin addressing our deeper issues, that is not a society we have to live in.