After months of debate and controversy, director Todd Phillips' Joker at last received wide release this weekend. That discourse has overshadowed the actual film, however, as the director, studio and star Joaquin Phoenix have had to deal with a barrage of questions about the possibility of it inspiring violence, and its message to so-called "incels."
As it turns out, the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke" could have served as a theme song to the entire situation. It proved, once again, that you shouldn't always believe everything you read online.
Joker's controversy began when some critics slammed the film's very existence on social media, with a few citing the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises as the main reason it shouldn't have been made. If you recall, media reports at the time suggested the shooter had dressed up as Heath Ledger's Joker and attacked the theater patrons. The thing is, those reports were inaccurate, but they were nevertheless treated as gospel, and the mass shooting has been attributed as some form of sick tribute to the comic book villain.
Despite the availability of multiple and legitimate sources to verify facts, the internet never allows truth to get in the way of a juicy argument. The flame was lit and it spread like wildfire, turning Joker into a discussion violence, domestic terrorism and the portrayal of the villain as an antihero.
The hullabaloo took another turn for the worse as a now-confirmed early draft of the script leaked. Whatever debate had come before was intensified as everyone gave their two cents about the content. Then, in the lead-up to Joker's release, Phillips attracted his own share of criticism for his comments about "woke culture," while Phoenix brusquely cancelled an interview after a journalist suggested the film could inspire violence.
Truth be told, the level of eye rolls reached the exhaustion point where many people wanted the film to be released simply so audiences could make up their own minds. And finally, it's here for the world to see.
While Joker is uncomfortable viewing, it's evident the storm around this film would be non-existent if it weren't called "Joker." You could even argue the film would work just as well without being tied to Batman's most famous rogue.
Undoubtedly, the amplification of the online noise made the controversy a larger issue than it really was. The doubling-down and the desire to be right ensured that outrage was manufactured out of absolutely nothing, while people panicked about a film that isn't dissimilar from any Martin Scorsese production.
From the perspective of violence, there are episodes of Game of Thrones that are more graphic than Joker. After all the fuss made about the supposed brutality of this film, you'd expect to see people aimed or put through paper shredders. It isn't nearly as graphic as you might imagine.
In terms of the characterization, there are moments when Phoenix's Arthur Fleck attracts sympathy from the audience. However, those scenes are juxtaposed with others that depict him as dangerous and unwell; he's never portrayed as an aspirational figure.
It's made abundantly clear that Arthur is someone who required immense psychological help but was ignored by the social system. As a result, the system's callous attitude ends up unleashing a killer. It's a cautionary tale.
In other words, Joker is everything that Warner Bros., Phillips and Phoenix said it would be. Perhaps it's time that movie audiences stop placing so much stock in hand-wringing and outrage before seeing films, and instead take extreme opinions with a pinch of salt. Let Joker be a lesson.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film is in theaters now.