Today, after weeks of thinkpieces, furious tweets, and scathing indictments, the film Joker will finally be released.
An abstracted prologue addition to the DC superhero universe, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the man who will become known as Joker. He becomes the iconic villain not by falling into a vat of acid, as is the usual Joker lore, but through a life of unending misery. He has an array of tics and afflictions, lives with his mother in a drab apartment, is no good at his job, has no money- is, in short, what we tend to term as a "loser". Eventually the bullying and constant oppression build into a kind of crescendo and Arthur stops collapsing beneath his pain and starts to refract it, rebelling against his surroundings in a lively performance of nihilism and destruction.
I have no idea if Joker is any good, though I confess I'm dying to see it and have tickets booked. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an eight-minute standing ovation, which seems almost certainly to be overdoing it; I did wonder if the audience were simply excited to see what is ostensibly a superhero movie made in an arthouse style with which they are more familiar. It’s had a rake of rave reviews, and a fair few notable bad ones too.
Director Todd Philips has lately made some tiresome comments about "far left" and "woke culture" which make me fear it may be dreadful. Mainly I’m excited to see it because of the magnificent, moving, graceful Phoenix, who I love in everything. The important thing to note is that nobody, except the critics who saw previews, know what it’s like, making the feverish discourse around it totally absurd.
Commentators have insisted that the production of the film - again, a film they haven’t seen- was inherently immoral, because they believe it will inspire radicalised angry white men to take up arms. They are particularly worried about "incels" involuntary celibates, a subset of angry white men whose rage at the women they perceive to reject them and act superior leads to violence. The most famous example is the mass killer Eliot Rodger, who left behind a misogynist manifesto when he murdered six people and injured fourteen others in 2014 in Santa Barbara. Rodger has since been cited as an inspiration by other incel murderers. As a feminist and a woman I am naturally horrified and sickened by the presence of such men in the world, by the idea that not encouraging sexual advances could lead someone to such violence. I in no way diminish the crimes or impulses behind them. I think what does diminish their gravity is seriously proposing that seeing a film could cause otherwise normal men to be radicalised; to suggest that seeing Joker could make a boy want to murder women, rather than the actual maelstrom of complex causes.
Watch: Joaquin Phoenix talks Joker on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Phoenix was chastised for walking out of an interview when a Telegraph journalist pressed him on the matter, asking how he felt about the potential for audience members to be inspired toward violence. The media presented this as Phoenix committing a Hollywood diva strop, but what exactly should he be doing? Are we seriously demanding that Joaquin Phoenix pre-emptively apologise for the murders which a character he plays might hypothetically inspire? The fact is that if a man is angry enough to want to hurt women, or to want to buy guns and commit mass murder, then it matters very little what popular culture he might attach some meaning to. Don’t we know all this already? Haven’t we seen how ridiculous it was to blame Natural Born Killers or Marilyn Manson for the Columbine killings? Though murderers may assume the iconography and aesthetic trappings of some movie or artist they favour, it is unutterably naive to think that without the existence of that movie or artist they would be happy and peaceful people.
Joker has also been criticised for showing Arthur’s miserable life leading up to his crime spree, for portraying his pathos and pain too lovingly, but it does us no good either to pretend that people who commit evil do not also suffer pain. That the reaction of incels to loneliness and hurt is so monstrously inordinate and dreadful doesn’t mean we should stop ourselves from considering what loneliness means. We can’t stop ourselves from allowing art of all things to examine difficult and complicated feelings.
Joker is in cinemas now.