Joker vs Society

Joker is undoubtedly one of the year’s greatest success stories. Shot on a budget of $55 million dollars and with a limited advertising presence, it has already made over $700 million dollars worldwide and is on track to make profit on par with Avengers: Infinity War. On top of Joker beating the odds in that way, it has also beaten the odds for your average R rated film. R rated movies seldom do this well, and when they do, they are normally crowd-pleasers like Deadpool or It. Joker is anything but a crowd-pleaser – it’s a dark, violent, and nihilistic character study. As such, Joker has found a significant following amongst the “incel” – involuntary celibate – subculture. Amidst fears of incel acts of violence inspired by the movie, the media was thrown into a frenzy, condemning Joker any chance they got.

Beyond the sensationalized headlines scaring people that incels would shoot up a cinema, likely filled with other incels who also idealize the Joker, the critical response has been similarly bizarre. On a technical level, Joker is an excellent film. The central performance from Joaquin Phoenix is incredible, the cinematography is top tier, the soundtrack is great, and it shows the Joker’s descent into madness in a compelling manner. It’s easy to say that it isn’t deep enough or it’s too simple, but it is undeniably a “well made feature.” So why have so many critics trashed it? Bob Grimm of Tuscon Weekly says, “Phoenix is great, but the movie is hack job.” Ani Bundel of NBC News THINK says, “[Joker] is nothing more than an incoherent, misbegotten, and embarrassingly dull two hours.” Some critics have even gotten political, with Robert Daniels of Mediaversity Reviews criticizing the serious lack of a progressive narrative.

There are hundreds of other reviews written in the same manner – criticizing aspects of the film like the violence, its politics, or its position as a piece of culture co-opted by incels. Despite what they say,  Joker is anything but dull or a hack job or political. Joker is a riveting exploration of mental illness, alienation, loneliness, and violence. It’s Rotten Tomatoes score currently sits at less than 70% percent, while the audience rating is almost 90% percent. Joker is just another film in a long line of releases that shows the disconnect between the media and the public at large. While the media response has ranged from begrudging appreciation to seething hate, the public has latched onto Joker, creating all types of memes in appreciation of the character.

Arguably the most infamous of the many memes to come out of the Joker is the “Joker stairs.” At a pivotal moment of the film, Joker dances down a set of stairs to the tune of “Rock and Roll Part 2” by disgraced British rock star Gary Glitter. Memes began as simply as Photoshops of Donald Trump dancing with Joker; but as soon as people found the stairs in real life, people were taking the pilgrimage to the 2019 pop culture Mecca. The real stairs, situated in the Bronx, are now inundated daily with droves of people from around the world taking selfies or mimicking the now iconic Joker scene, much to the chagrin of the local population. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has commented on the steps, warning people against going there as they’re traditionally a hotbed for crime.

Joker is the pop culture event year, even more-so than the blockbuster Avengers: Endgame. Nobody talks about the Avengers anymore, but you can have a long conversation with pretty much anyone about the Joker. I can understand the complaints of critics who feel Joker is shallow or too derivative of Scorsese classics, I cannot understand their insistence that Joker will have no cultural impact. Siddhant Adalakha of Firstposts writes, “it’s admittedly hard to imagine a film like Joker inspiring real-world violence – or inspiring much of anything.” The “Joker stairs” is just one example of the numerous ways Joker has already left an impact on society, and as the year goes on, there will undoubtedly be more. Joker might be another comic book blockbuster, but it’s one that everybody will remember for years to come.