“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
It’s hard not to question the sheer intensity of the public frenzy surrounding the recent release of Joker, whose hype-cycle has eclipsed just about every other pop culture launch in recent memory, from Avengers: Endgame to the latest Grand Theft Auto. The siren bells first sounded back in September when it walked away with the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, causing cinema snobs worldwide to gag at the very thought of a film made by Todd Phillips, writer and director of mega franchises like the The Hangover film sitting alongside venerated masterpieces as Last Year at Marienbad. Now, well over a week after opening in theatres globally, it seems the festival jury must have been onto something; a brief glance at aggregate sites like Metacritic will reveal oodles of drooling critics and movie-goers alike singing high praises for the film’s grimy aesthetic and gritty misanthropic narrative. If Joker was just a run-of-the-mill comic book film, that’s where the story would end: forever remembered as a slightly taller poppy in a crowd of superhero blockbusters that managed to market to both goths and nerds.
Yet, it’s clear that the current state of mass hysteria arises out of something more than just its commercial success or cinematographic quality. Media outlets have been toking the flames of public outrage for weeks about the film’s potential to inspire violence, leading to an open letter being penned by the families of the 2012 Aurora theatre shooting victims. Scaremongering whispers have scuttled their way across Twitter warning of Joker’s thematic parallels with incel ideology, alongside a barrage of ‘gang weed’ and ‘gamers rise up’ memes. Theatre-goers have been escorted out of screenings as a result of fake bomb threats, and Sydney’s very own Ritz was the target of a rogue 4chan ‘some of you are alright’ post. Even Academy Award-winning leftist filmmaker Michael Moore, who never seems to forgo an opportunity to blast his hot political takes on social media, released a lengthy review calling the film a masterpiece and an indictment on the filthy rich in Trump’s America.
Are any of these reactions justified? Media firestorms should hardly come as a surprise for anyone tracking the development of the Joker character over the past decade. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008, the previously child-friendly Batman universe took a fashionable left turn into cynical social commentary and dark philosophical quandaries, at the centre of which was Heath Ledger’s highly-lauded portrayal of Joker as a psychopath with an inclination for anarchy. Upon release, the film was widely criticised for its realistic violence and relatively lax age-restriction ratings, galvanising a mania not too dissimilar to the one currently occurring. While such public backlash eventually died down, the process rendered Joker somewhat of a rebellious pop culture icon, helped in no small part by the film’s endless supply of catchy edgeisms that fans quickly exported as shareable jpegs, bold all-caps Arial and all, saturating newsfeeds with ‘Why so serious?’ for years to come. And who didn’t have a friend back in the day that religiously rocked Joker merch at every social gathering?
Over time, the Joker subculture has ballooned in both popularity and strangeness, with the largest Facebook group ‘Harley Quinn and Joker Quotes’ currently comprising of almost 200,000 members, with hundreds of other communities at a comparable size. Posts within this group, which have by now completely eschewed any attempt to actually quote its own namesakes, simply caption generic DeviantArt Jokers with hilariously edgy platitudes like “DON’T EVEN HURT ME BCZ IF IT’S MY TURN, YOU’LL GOOGLE HOW TO STOP CRYING!!”. Another immediately below even abandons the Joker iconography for a straight up Guy Fawkes mask, alongside the words “People ask you why are you still single? I replied because I have brain.” It seems, however, that the quotes which usually garner the most positive attention are filled with blatantly misogynistic, neo-liberal garbage: a picture of Harley Quinn foregrounded with “Money attracts the woman you want, struggle attracts the woman you need” received more than a thousand likes with three weeks. Unsurprisingly, the release of the recent Joker film has pushed such groups into overdrive, with the Heath Ledger and Jared Leto posts being rapidly replaced with Joaquin Phoenix likenesses, and unofficial T-shirts, hats and keychains – available for just a small transfer on PayPal – pumped out dime-a-dozen.
Irregardless of how the media tries to spin Joker as some violent ideological manifesto or a bold anti-bourgeois statement, the edginess in these modern reinterpretations of Joker cannot be seen as any more than a neatly packaged bundle of counter-culture designed to put viewers in cinema seats and sell merchandise on the way out. International distributors Warner Brothers, the second largest movie studio by market share, made almost 14 billion dollars in revenue in 2017. Todd Phillips didn’t make this film to draw attention to wealth inequality — he’s one of the richest men in one of the most exclusive industries in the world. The film’s content makes its own hollow conglomerate producthood doubly clear: anyone who sees Joker with even a slight lens of cynicism will immediately notice its insultingly oversimplified portrayal of class, mental illness, and political change that does more to scare people away from the idea of revolution than it does encourage any critical thought about the wealthy. Throughout the film, angry crowds riot and yell ‘Kill the rich!’, but what for? The film doesn’t have time to investigate the reasons of these activists, because any screen-time divested from Joker himself means a lesser chance he’ll be a franchise cash cow for the foreseeable future. The most harm Joker could do is subject the general public to a few more terribly designed T-Shirts. The best it can do is give us a great Joaquin Phoenix performance for the ages.