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The Commercialization of Controversy in Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.


On screen, a smiling man in clown make-up kicks up puddles into mist, the droplets sparkling in the sunlight with Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” playing in the background. The idea of forceful rebellion is raised by the pairing of rock and roll and the smiling man, Joker. The incoherent screaming of the song provides a visceral sense of enjoyment through its lack of lyrical content, mirroring the exciting, gaudy violence previously portrayed in the film. It’s an emotionally stirring song, even if those emotions are primitive and cheaply earned.

Yet what’s most provoking about this song is its inclusion in the film at all—it’s written and performed by a convicted child molester. This is a fact couldn’t have possibly been overlooked, meaning the studio could only have permitted it to incite controversy. As Anthony Lane of The New Yorker writes, “Do you believe that the decision to revive it, for Joker, is anything but a studied choice, nicely crafted to offend? Please.” Joker is, after all, the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and the inflammatory, publicity-gaining conversations surrounding the film have played a significant role in its success.

The inclusion of “Rock & Roll Part 2” is emblematic of the primary issue at the heart of Joker: the film is controversial just for the sake of being controversial. The presence of Glitter’s song is no different for any of the other incendiary issues the film touches upon, whether it be ease of access to guns, class war, or mental illness, all of which are left similarly unexamined. The film uses these topics to rouse an emotional response from the viewer without considering that this shallow, dopamine-targeting tactic leaves important issues disappointingly unexplored or open to serious repercussions. If the film is unwilling to engage these topics seriously, then their inclusion is dangerous—it reduces the debate surrounding them to nothing more than box office fodder.

Take a small but noteworthy detail: Arthur, Joaquin Phoenix’s character who eventually becomes the Joker, has antagonistic relationships with four women of color, ranging from his psychiatrists, neighbor, or a stranger on the bus. This casting is a purposeful choice; Arthur, despite feeling rejected, has the privilege of expecting to be accepted by society, a privilege that women of color often don’t have, causing them to feel negatively toward him. Yet through elements like Gary Glitter’s song, the movie attacks its own ethos. Suddenly the inclusion of these women does not feel intentional but just a grab at more controversy by making the film feel more racially charged. Race is made into a profitable commodity, which is a dangerous precedent to set. Joker distances a topic in constant need of further discourse in this country from anything resembling true discourse.

Similarly, the allowance of Joker to deliver his manifesto on a late night talk show is noteworthy, yet also tainted by the film’s greed. Considering that Arthur is a stereotypical representation of incel culture, the fact that the dissemination of his face and message was facilitated through television is a topic that could have been investigated further given today’s relevance. Save a 30-second long shot of televisions covering Arthur’s murder of Murray, nothing pushes this idea as an intended angle. Everything after the Joker’s appearance on the talk show comprises of shots of him enjoying the burning city and riotous protestors, shallowly eliciting the same crude feelings of power as most of the film. What is fleetingly exciting is brought to the forefront instead of a conversation the movie brings up, most likely because it is on possible viewer’s minds, but fails to give proper screen time. The movie could have cautioned this glorification of terrorist violence through its overrepresentation in the media. Yet, the flames burn without a motive besides their bright, alluring color.

Is Joker enjoyable? Yes, but in the same way as most superhero movies. It’s fun seeing all the flashing colors on screen for an hour or two. Most superhero movies, though, know that their place is not to bring up tough topics because it is not what their viewership is there for. And at the very least if those movies did, they would actually give those discussions the consideration they deserve.


Chris Gold

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

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