Why Do People Love Joker?
The Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie has taken the world by storm, but is there some darker reason for it's success?
Ever since the first trailer, the Joaquin Pheonix Joker movie has been the subject of much controversy. It became the media’s favorite punching bag.
There was a relative cottage mill industry constructed out from blue check mark hot takes on the movie but despite the criticism. Despite the fear that the film would radicalize basement-dwelling 4 chan-ers to incite violence in theaters. A fear that was taken so seriously that the US military conducted warnings and briefings about the potential threat of violence at Joker screenings to prepare for its release. Despite all that, Joker managed to storm theaters making over a billion dollars on a $55 million dollar budget, making it the most profitable comic book movie of all time and the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever. Gaining two wins at the golden globes and 2 wins at the Oscars including the coveted best actor award.
The film has broken out from the niche 40-something audience of comic book guys to become a global phenomenon. And as someone who’s read a lot of the criticism about it, I don’t disagree with the criticisms of what’s been said. I think a lot of the criticism brings up some very valid points. But at the same time, I think the movie taps into something deeper, something angrier, darker, and more primal which is why it’s been so successful. So join me as we take a look, not at whether or not the Joker is good, but the real reason people love it so much. Why it seems to have struck such a strong cord not just with American audiences, but with people around the world.
So Joker is a bit of an interesting paradox. In some ways, it seems exactly like a parody of the kind of dark edgy content that Warner Brothers has been trying to make since Batman Vs. Superman. And probably the major reason any of this was taken seriously, of course, is Joaquin Phoenix who brings that method acting prestige and has gotten a considerable amount of praise for his work. But while now the mainstream DC movies are starting to go in a more light-hearted direction, Joker serves as a weird kind of validation of the serious formula to the point where the Harley Quin birds of prey movie is rated R even though the tone is drastically different from Jokers.
So in case you aren’t familiar with it Joker tells a revised origin story for the famous Batman villain that takes inspiration from the Killing Joke comic by Alan Moore which sees him as a failed comedian which is filtered through the prism of vintage 1970’s Martin Scorsese grit. The movie is a riff on Taxi Driver and King of comedy aping a lot of the tone and texture from both those movies.
The basic gist of Joker is that the break down of our social safety nets and perpetual class warfare is ultimately what creates our villains as we see Arther Fleck get perpetually shit upon again and again until he reaches his I’m Mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore moment: (play clip from network of I’m mad as hell). A crux of the main criticism of Joker is that film offers what amounts to nothing more than a sort of very simplistic “we live in a society” level of critique against our modern landscape as kind of a being a sophomoric catch-all for all of our social problems. It feels like something any teenager could say. How you can blame everything on the amorphous intangible entity that is society itself and the norms of contemporary life as the root of all the world's problems.
This is obviously a pretty basic surface-level critique. It’s angsty and the kind of thing you’d see an edgy kid in high school whine about. And it’s half the reason why the Joker has been dismissed as not being a worthy piece of art in terms of talking about economic class warfare with most of the mainstream press desperately trying to dismiss it. Saying that because the disenfranchisement is focused on a straight white guy main character, it makes it’s message less valid then if someone from a more disadvantaged minority was in the role. Especially when we’ve had films like Taxi Driver and Falling Down that feature middle to lower class white men who become deranged as they grow sick and tired of what they perceive as the worthless dregs of the world and society itself ganging up on them until they lash out violently. The Korean movie and best picture winner parasite tackles many of the same themes in a more nuanced and honestly more mature manner and is honestly the better movie.
But what Joker taps into is a bitter angry nihilism. To understand it, you have to understand it’s director Todd Phillips. He’s most famous for the hangover trilogy and what those films shared was a deep sense of loathing for its characters. They’re mean films and part of the reason they were so successful and what sets them apart from other more forgettable studio comedies was just how misanthropic they were and generally mean spirited and it’s no wonder that the same sense of loathing comes across so well in Joker. It’s a mean bitter dirge of a movie filled with anger and bile, but it’s through this prism that makes Arthur Fleck painfully relatable.
There are two things that have made the world fall in love with the Joker, the first is the clown world meme that evolved from the depths of 4 Chan earlier this year. The clown world is an evolution of Pepe the frog meme where he’s adorned with a clown wig. Of course that transformed from just Pepe wearing a wig to be anything with the red nose and rainbow wig could fit the clown world motif. The idea of clown world is that the world we’re currently living in is so ridiculous that there’s no way to comprehend the deluge of absurdity that we’re faced with on a consistent basis and when faced with such absurdity all you can do is laugh. Everything is a great cosmic joke
The clown world motif feels best personified by the Joaquin Pheonix Joker. The character seems to embrace the absurdity of it all, just like how the Guy Faux mask from V from Vendetta far outlived the and comic and the movie to become a symbol of protest and revolution in the internet age, the Joker make-up is becoming a new worldwide symbol that has transcended cultural boundaries. It’s funny how left-leaning media thought that the film wouldn’t be able to translate beyond an audience of alienated white guys, but the overall message of anger, protest, and absurdity can be seen in protests in Beirut, Lebanon, Paris, and Hong Kong. It is clown world writ large, a symbol of anger born from the two-dimensional world of film and made manifest in the flesh and blood of the men and women who can identify with the seething malice of the film. That the only way to break the system is tear it down all while laughing maniacally.
It’s that idea of lashing out in anger at the seemingly unending series of injustices and grievances everyone encounters in their daily life that has made Joker such a powerful movie that’s had such a reach despite it not being very fun and kind of miserable to watch. But I think the other thing that has led it to become such a phenomenon is how Arthur Fleck Joker serves as a sort of anti-hero. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about let me tell you a little story. So I posted myself on Linkedin’s mentorship program to see if anyone would reach out to me and give me some advice on how I could potentially better myself in my pursuit of a more stable high paying career.
And someone reached back to me and we arranged a time to talk over the phone. We talked and I gave him an overview of my career and my frustrations to what he could suggest on what I should be doing differently. And he asks me if I do any reading and I say yes and list some books I’ve been reading, but he tells me that’s not kind of reading he’s talking about. The reading I should be doing is more along the lines of self-help books. Things that could help me embrace a more positive mindset and then he asks if I’ve ever read the secret. I keep smiling and pretending to be pleasant going through the motions, but all the while in my head I snap a little bit.
That’s your great piece of advice to read the secret? That’s going to solve all my problems and frustrations in life!!! The entire book that’s based around asking for something, believing in it really hard and then getting it from thin air? The same philosophy that has been criticized for creating political complacency! Something that is backed up by no credible scientific studies what-so-ever? That’s going to change everything for me? Screw you with your self-help bullshit. Thank you for taking my 10 years of experience and completely dismissing it and attributing my lack of success to me not wanting it hard enough. Thank you so much for that. I’m sure if all of those hong kong protesters would just get out of the street and think really really hard about being left alone by China it’d totally work out great for them. It’s no wonder they’re out on the streets of Hong Kong with Joker make-up, that’s the kind of worthless advice that just makes you wanna run out into the streets and burn everything down.
That’s how Joker has become the movie of the moment because it taps deeply into our collective anger and dissatisfaction it taps into a deep dark fantasy. We all blame our troubles on those around us and in some cases feel like there’s someone or something holding us back. Whether it’s our family, our co-workers, or even our idols, it always feels like there’s an external source that’s keeping us from achieving what we really want to do. And that’s what makes Arthur Fleck such a powerful anti-hero because he gets to take out his own form of bloody vengeance on each and every one of them and live out the vicious fantasy many people share, but can never openly admit they have in public. He smothers his mom, kills his co-worker, and even the big man on tv who represents everything he aspired towards he winds up gunning down on live television after he realizes he was using him as an object of ridicule and scorn. And as he becomes a symbol of retribution inspiring riots on the streets the wellspring of his anger goes so far that it even kills the douchebag billionaire Thomas Wayne who callously disregarded Arthurs’s pain and misery. How many people driving amazon delivery trucks or working at inhuman amazon warehouses wishes that their actions could rise up to the point where it directly hurt Jeff Bazos?
And while the ultimate message of the film might seem nothing more than a simplistic “we live on a society” the reason why it sticks, the reason why people love it, and the reason it’s become a protest symbol is because this version of the Joker isn’t about anarchy or chaos, he’s a symbol class vengeance. An avatar who finds solace in lashing out at all of the things he tried to placate for so long until he got fed up and just stopped caring.
Whether or not the film is good goes beyond the point, the ultimate appeal and success is how well Joker manages to tap into the incredible amount of resentment and the bitter anger that has been building up in this socio-political climate. And that’s why people love the Joker, and as much as people try to dismiss it and discard that’s why the film has managed to endure and find such a huge audience that it’s grown into something bigger than itself like how nobody remembers the V for Vendetta movie, but they will never forget the Guy Faux mask. And as good as Parasite might be, I don’t think anyone is going to be dressing up like the Kim family to attend protests. That’s how this film has become a symbol of roiling anger and will probably far outlast its contemporaries and critics.