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Why Mainstream Critics Turned Against Joker Dishonest criticisms of politics disguise an industry deep objection to honest film-making

Kit Knightly

The Oscars are happening as we speak, and I’m a little embarassed to say I want Joker to win. Not because it’s an all-time great movie, it’s not. It is slightly derivative in some ways, has a couple of plot points that didn’t quite ring true to me, and its arthouse aspirations together with its comic book origins lead it to almost fall between two stools.

It is, however, still a very good movie. Maybe even brilliant. Certainly one of the best movies in the (incredibly shlock-heavy) comic book genre, and definitely one of the best movies of the year. It has a spark of honesty at its core.

So why do people hate it?

Obviously not everybody hates it, it’s nominated for 11 Oscars after all. And made over a billion dollars at the box office. And has an 88% “audience rating” on Rotten Tomatoes (not that that really means anything).

But a certain sub-section of the world not only doesn’t like Joker, but actively hates it.

Take a look at the other Rotten Tomatoes score, the critics’ score: 68%.

That’s absurdly low. That’s lower than Frozen 2. Lower than the barely coherent Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and even – amazingly – lower than the insultingly terrible Ghostbusters reboot from 2016.

How does that happen?

I have an idea, but before I go on I will say that, while there aren’t major spoilers in this article, you will undoubtedly find it more interesting if you’ve seen the film, and will definitely enjoy the film more if someone like me hasn’t spent 3000 words deconstructing it for you. Just as friendly advice, if you haven’t seen the film, go and watch it and then come back.

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The Film

Joker – for those of you who don’t know – is an origin story for Batman’s arch-nemesis. At first hearing, that sounds shallow and stupid, but the film is anything but; focusing on tragedy, social commentary and black comedy rather than traditional comic book action.

Essentially, they used a comic book setting to try and make a very serious piece of cinema. As director Todd Phillips put it in one interview:

We’re gonna sneak a real movie in under the guise of [a comic book movie]”

Adding in another:

We’re gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want.”

That spirit of auteur-cinema-in-comic-book-clothes shines through in the film, owing a lot more to the likes of Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and Dog Day Afternoon than it does to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a man who struggles with several psychological conditions, including an involuntary maniacal laugh in times of intense stress. He works as a clown and dreams of being a comedian. He lives at home with his elderly mother. He doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t have any romantic interests. He doesn’t have any prospects.

He is alone, truly alone not movie alone. Because that’s the thing about most Hollywood movies, they are never real. Not completely. To make a generalisation, it’s an American thing. Unhappiness makes Americans uncomfortable. And their mainstream culture compulsively shies away from honesty in many areas of the standard human experience.

Loneliness is right at the top of that list.

“Lonely” people in Hollywood movies are teenagers whining to their nerdy friends about wanting a girlfriend. They are divorcees and widows being convinced to “get back out there” by a coterie of interchangeable wine-sipping BFFs who always seem to be played by the same two actresses. They are “losers” who have “no one”, except their college roommate, their inevitable love interest and their conspicuously wealthy parents whose only flaw is ever either being “distant” (fathers) or “interfering” (mothers).

Arthur Fleck isn’t movie lonely. He is reality lonely. The world, as a whole, is totally apathetic to his existence.

And what a world it is.

Gotham City is a broken place. Grimy, dishevelled and poor. Uncollected trash piles high on the sidewalks. The working-class neighbourhood where Arthur lives is dingy and crumbling. It might be set in an unspecified late-seventies/early-eighties window, but the city is easily recognisable as modern. The dilapidated echo of a once-great civilisation in inevitable decline.

The depression is palpable, the world feels broken and exposed and raw. The people are tense, wary and alert. Strangers are callous and cruel. Pressure, waiting for a release.

Is it me, or is it getting crazier out there?

Arthur asks his work-a-day, state-supplied social worker. She doesn’t answer, she isn’t listening. She’s buried in a caseload she can’t handle and budget that doesn’t exist.

Later in the film, the department’s funding is cut completely, robbing Arthur of both his only point of human contact and the medication on which he relies.

That’s just the first domino to fall. He loses his job. His attempts at stand-up are a disaster which ends with him being ridiculed on national television by his idol. He loses everything. Up to, and including, his frail grip on reality.

I won’t bother detailing all the plot points. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably seen it.

The explosions of violence which punctuate Arthur’s decline slowly transform him. He goes from being desperate to vengeful to simply an agent of chaos. His maniacal laugh goes from being forced out of him in times of stress, to one of genuine amusement.

I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realise it’s a comedy.

He says, in one key scene. Understanding his role, finally. Society is a sick joke, and his life the disturbing punchline.

His crimes stir up the simmering tension of the city to finally boil over, making him the de-facto leader of an impromptu protest movement. A development Arthur, naturally, finds hilarious.

As the city is torn down around him, Arthur becomes the true reflection of the world that made him. Totally emotionally detached, unpredictably violent and patently absurd.

In that sense, Joker is a variation of the Frankenstein trope, the modern Prometheus. Modern society is cast as the doctor, who, through acts of supreme hubris, ends up creating a monster that destroys him.

As I said already, it’s a very good film. Subtle, interesting and thoughtful. Hollywood doesn’t do that much anymore.

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The Critics

…and yet the critics didn’t like it.

Or at least the majority didn’t. And not just didn’t like, but actively detested it. Even before the movie came out there was criticism that Joker would “embolden incels” and “legitimise violence”. Police were put on alert just in case there were mass shootings. (The mother of one of the 2012 Aurura shooting victims wrote an open letter to WB about it).

Now, in the age of contrived media, you might suspect that this was nothing but a subtle viral marketing campaign, and maybe it was. But the bad press didn’t abate after the release. If anything it intensified.

Richard Brody of The Wall Street Journal said it didn’t talk about race enough, and that it paled in comparison to the “bold assertive political vision” of Black Panther.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called it shallow, derivative and juvenile. Salon said it would embolden the alt-right. US Weekly called it cold, cynical and preachy.

Vanity Fair said it was dangerous. The Collider said it was boring. Vulture managed to claim it was both.

Vox contrived to run a 4000-word article, a conversation between four of their authors, which concluded that Joker wasn’t threatening or deep, it was just boring and we should all stop talking about it.

If you read all these reviews (and the literal dozens of others) you will be left in no doubt you should hate this movie, but you won’t be exactly sure why.

Perhaps tellingly, this compulsive rejection of the movie seems to be isolated only to US publications.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, after which it received an 8-minute standing ovation and won the Golden Lion – the grand prize of the festival.

The next day, TIME published a review that not only didn’t mention these facts, but spit acid at every aspect of the film (including Phoenix’s performance).

So why did American critics hate it so much?

Maybe this would be a good place to really examine the state of “film criticism” in America. In short, it’s dreadful. Worse than dreadful. A mockery of itself. And, like everything else, film criticism has become a portal for a specific political agenda.

This agenda is about shutting down debate and vilifying the “other”. Journalists throw around labels, telling us who is acceptable and who is not. Everything is about expressing adherence to the state-prescribed set of “morally upright” opinions, whilst portraying those who dissent as mentally inferior, morbidly selfish and irredeemably evil. This is true of journalism, “comedy” talk shows, computer games…and film critics.

Nothing can be apolitical anymore, but at the same time, the permissible “politics” are shallow as soup-spoons.

This era of surface-level “politicization” is, in turn, seized on by corporations in order to boost profits. Movies are no longer required to be good, they now have only to be worthy. And the great thing about worthiness is it’s so much easier (and cheaper) than quality. Writing a good script is hard, writing a bad script that hits the right social messages is easy.

Virtue signalling has segued neatly into virtue marketing. We don’t choose to see movies now, we have a duty to see them, because of sexism or racism or Donald Trump.

This has turned film criticism into a dead art form, the profession of woke yes-men and hackish populists, massively biased toward the big studios (and especially Disney), and behaviorally conditioned to like what they’re supposed to like.

Make a film with a female lead and they will praise its feminist message no matter its atrocious script. Make a cliche-ridden colonialist film set in “space Africa”, they will say you have a “bold political vision”, and unironically call it one of the greatest films of all time.

The modern film “critic” lives in a world of easy binaries. Left and right. Republican and Democrat. Black and White. Good and Evil. Tick boxes, either/ors and sign on the dotted line. Simple questions with one-word answers.

When presented with a film that escapes easy classification they become troubled. They deplore it, but they lack the depth of self-knowledge, or basic critical thinking skills, to ever understand why.

…and that brings us back to Joker, and the uneven application of pre-approved “criticisms” that never really made any sense.

Some reporters claimed the film was “too white” (one even suggesting the main character was racist, based on absolutely nothing). But that’s totally spurious. If anything the film is entirely post-racial. Race really never enters the conversation.

If you really want to get into the “racial politics” of it, well: The main character, a violent psychotic, is white. As are his “antagonists”. Whereas three women of colour appear: A psychiatrist, a social worker, and a working single mother. They are never shown to be anything but decent people.

The racial issue is a total non-starter.

Other reporters tell us we shouldn’t like it because the main character is a violent criminal and we’re invited to take his side. An accusation that could be levelled at Scarface, The Godfather, American Psycho, Dexter, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Lolita, Goodfellas. Pretty much every Tarantino or Scorcese film. Oh, and of course Batman.

The idea an audience can witness a protagonist’s actions without agreeing with them or supporting them is as old the medium itself.

If anything Joker is less “apologetic” about its violence than the above examples. Joker‘s violence is the last desperate act of an ill mind denied its medicine, whereas the vast majority of those previous examples – mostly considered great works – are psychopaths who kill to their selfish ends.

So the idea Joker encourages or endorses violence falls flat, as well.

If anything, based on this spurious virtue-signally, politico-centric method of “movie criticism”, this is a movie that checks all the right boxes.

After all, the billionaire is an entitled white man, preaching the glory of capitalism on television. The loner is a recovering mental patient, a victim of violent childhood abuse, with no access to healthcare. Violent criminals are portrayed as victims of society. The abusive trouble-makers are blond stockbrokers in suits and ties.

Those are all traditionally quite liberal positions. Enlightened, empathetic and open-minded. On the surface, this is a film that the Liberal media should love, right?

And yet they don’t. Why? Because Joker dares to break out of the narrow confines of acceptable debate.

Where movies are supposed to talk about the politics of gender, race or sexuality…this movie talks about the politics of class.

Where movies are supposed to discuss violence in terms of good and evil, this movie talks about the deeper causes of violence; poverty, neglect and social degradation.

Where films now focus on individual interpersonal conflicts, Joker talks about the systemic bullying of vulnerable people to breaking point.

Where movies teach us to despise the unacceptable other, this movie asks us to understand a man whose actions we deplore.

Where movies try to placate us, this movie riles us up.

In short, what don’t they like about it? Honesty.

Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!
Arthur Fleck, Joker

Joker does something that has been beyond the bounds of acceptable Hollywood film-making for 20 years (if not more) – it holds a mirror up to the real problems of society. It challenges the American meme that absolutely everyone is just a day away from realising their wildest dreams. It admits that some people truly are alone, with no prospect of help or happiness. Ever.

The poor of this film are not Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, they are just poor. And will be for the rest of their lives. This film dares to tell a secret truth – that for a lot of people, life is a struggle. Not a “there aren’t enough black Oscar nominees” struggle, or a “this man whistled at me on my way home struggle”, or a “some guy on twitter got my pronouns wrong” struggle. An actual struggle. To survive.

The violence of this film is not the vicarious, sanitized catharsis of a hero, nor the malign recourse of the soulless monster, a series of disconnected incidents linked by nothing but the inhumanity of the perpetrators. No, here, violence is a slow build to a sudden shock. Not a disease but a symptom. A boil bursting out societal puss. Understandable maybe, but not justifiable. Exactly the sort of subtle position which today’s media are inoculated against.

The politics of this film are neither left or nor right. Puppets in coloured ties don’t debate non-issues here, the world isn’t blue or red. It is flat grey. Austerity measures kill off social programs which help those with mental illnesses get medication, therapy and employment.

Thomas Wayne, a billionaire politician, goes on TV to berate, belittle and insult the victims of poverty as “not trying hard enough”, they never say which party he represents. They recognise it does not matter.

An out of touch media class – personified by Robert De Niro’s late-night chatshow host – punches down, mocking the victims of society’s decline and protected, by his media bubble, from ever having to see the way the world truly is.

In that sense, it’s a truly realistic comic book film. Joker‘s world could nearly be our own. All it takes is a little push.

Look at the months of protests in France. Look at the soaring poverty and food-bank use here in the UK. Look at the homeless tent cities sprouting like fields of crops around Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It IS getting crazier out there. But that’s a message the media are no longer capable of comprehending.

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Like I said earlier, Joker is not an all-time great movie. But it is a great movie for our time. It tells a lot of hard truths, and explores ideas that are being bullied out of vogue by the increasingly authoritarian “liberal” class.

The Oscars are probably fixed, and definitely shallow and stupid, but the very fact Joker is nominated suggests a possible split between the actual industry, and the journalists paid to thought-police it. Maybe that’s an encouraging sign. Maybe a lot of the artists are more aware of the state of their industry, and country, than their studio bosses would ever let us see.

As a cynic I know I should know better….but I still really want Joker to win tonight, just as a strike for real values over fake ones.

Plus, the media response would be hilarious.