Joker Should Never Have Been a Period Film

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Photograph courtesy of The New York Times

Since the first trailer came out last spring, it was obvious that Joker was indebted to the films of the 1970s, particularly Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. One of the ways director Todd Phillips does this is by setting the film in 1981 Gotham City, which is plagued by garbage strikes, super rats, and rampant cruelty. This makes Joker one of the few comic-book movies to be set in the past, which allows for some excellent production design, costuming, and inside jokes — in the original comic Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed after seeing 1940’s The Mark of Zorro, here the murder occurs after seeing the 1981 camp classic, Zorro, The Gay Blade.

Whatever the virtues of this decision, however, it is also emblematic of Joker’s biggest weakness: while it pretends to be a character study of one person’s evolution into a domestic terrorist, it does nothing to analyze how people actually get there.

Joker re-imagines Batman’s most nefarious foe as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill loner who lives with his mother and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. No matter what he does, he is always portrayed as the victim: of bullies who beat him up, of a mother who allowed him to be abused as a child, of people who laugh at his failed attempts to do comedy, of a welfare system that cuts him off due to lack of funds, and society at large.

“Everybody’s awful these days,” he tells talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) at the film’s climax. “Everyone just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men…ever think what it’s like to be a guy like me?”

This is where the film shows its hand: if people had been nice to Arthur Fleck, if he hadn’t been a bullied victim of society’s ills, maybe he wouldn’t have become the Joker. Perhaps in the context of 1981, this argument might hold water — but in 2019 America, it’s a disingenuous and potentially dangerous cliche.

The myth of bullying-as-motivation-for-killing has been examined before, notably after Columbine. Students at the time said shooters Eric Harris and Dylen Klebold had been teased, shoved into lockers, and accused of being gay, assigning an easily comprehendible rationale to a national tragedy. However, numerous researchers have proved that Harris and Klebold were not social outcasts, nor were they victims of bullying. They were actually pretty popular, taking part in after-school sports and having a wide circle of friends. What’s more, none of the students they killed were found to have been the so-called bullies, and many of the incidents they described may not have taken place.

The truth is that Harris and Klebold’s motivation had more to do with their disturbing worldview, exemplified by these excerpts from Harris’s diary and website:

“Foreigners!!! Get out of my country.”

“NATURAL SELECTION. Kill all retards, people with brain fuck-ups…Geeawd!”

“Blacks ARE different…we should ship yer black asses back to Afrifuckingca were [sic] you came from.”

“I love the Nazis…I fucking can’t get enough of the swastika…I love their beliefs and who they were, what they did, and what they wanted.”

Like many subsequent shooters, Harris and Klebold used the internet to spread these white nationalist talking points, and therein lies the rub: the greatest means of mass communication ever created has also made it easier for people to learn about, and express, philosophies that would have been marginalized in the past. Websites like 4chan and 8chan have become cesspools of racism and misogyny, and YouTube’s algorithm has poisoned the minds of young men and women by recommending videos from white nationalists like Stefan Molyneux, Paul Joseph Watson, and Laura Southern.

If Joker had been set in the present, it would have been a more compelling study of how ideologies drive people to violence. Today Arthur Fleck would probably be an 8chan troll who voted for Trump. He might even be an Incel like Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter. He would probably have a YouTube account too, like the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who was obsessed with online videos. And he would leave behind a digital paper trail of message board posts, and possibly even a manifesto documenting his warped reasoning behind his actions.

Instead, Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver took the easy way out. By setting the film in a pre-internet world, where people like Fleck would have had to look a lot harder to discover far right ideologies, they absolve themselves of having to answer the hard questions that come with their story and undercut the serious points they think they’re making. Joker’s period setting may look nice, but it’s ultimately a dodge for it to avoid the reality of 2019, when there have been more than 250 mass shootings this year alone.

Of course, most moviegoers probably don’t care about this. In its first weekend, it broke the record for highest October opening with more than $90 million in its first weekend and $55 million last weekend, nearly making back its modest budget three times over. Many filmmakers have sung its praises, including Michael Moore, who called it the movie of the year, writing:

“This movie is not about Trump. It’s about the America that gave us Trump — the America which feels no need to help the outcast, the destitute…Joker makes it clear we don’t really want to get to the bottom of this, or try to understand why innocent people turn into Jokers after they can no longer keep it together. No one wants to ask why two smart boy skipped their 4th-hour AP French Philosophy class at Columbine High to slaughter 12 students and a teacher.”

It makes sense that Moore would praise Joker for its critique of “society.” After all, do you know what is never mentioned in his Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine? The white nationalism of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Freelance writer and journalist. Bylines: Vulture, The Daily Banter, Rogerebert.com. Former Jeopardy! contestant.

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