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Joker controversy is a misguided stab at a misunderstood character

Joker faced controversy for fear that it might encourage violence.
Illustration: Alex Stallsworth • The Sentry

DC film isn’t perfect, but surely isn’t evil

Before even being released, Joker established such a controversial buzz that the US military released a precautionary statement beforehand. With devastating events like the Aurora, Colorado shooting, this is certainly understandable. Centered around a canon that now has a dark real-world history only exacerbates the intensity of its reception by viewers and critics alike. Joker also centers around a character whose wickedness doesn’t erupt from an unlucky fall into a vat of chemicals, but a for-hire clown with a rare mental disorder stemming from child abuse. The collective concern in question seems to be: Is Joker dangerous? Arguably, after two viewings, all of this cause célèbre is ultimately a positive reflection of the film.  

Heavily inspired by The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which both star Joker cast member Robert De Niro, Joker is the grim tale of comedian Arthur Fleck’s journey from victim to vigilante, taking place in a gritty Gotham circa late 70s. Fleck’s journey faces understandable criticism as to the plausibility of his evolution and the themes expressed regarding mental illness.  

In regards to the transformation, the believability of Fleck’s shift plays best through Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, especially his contorted dancing, giving a bone-chilling plummet from one part of a person’s psyche to another. It’s a Walter White turned Heisenberg scenario, not what many critics seemed to ultimately see: a bullied clown turned criminal mastermind. 

However, painting people with mental illness to all be inclined towards violence is an unfortunate conjured stereotype. Director Todd Phillips may have benefited from a more careful depiction of that trope to counteract such ridicule. 

But the larger reception that Joker suggests it is a victimization of mentally-disturbed societally rejected males? This criticism is a distracted misunderstanding of the film’s holistic suggestions. In a society of socioeconomic stratification that oppresses and stigmatizes poverty and sickness, mental illness is seen as wrong, as immoral. Joker seeks to be a reminder of what that can provoke in an isolated mind.   

Surrounding the public’s serious apprehension of causing incel shootings, the rumor circulating about 2012 Aurora theater shooter James Holmes’ having dressed as the Joker was rejected by the prosecution, saying, “Holmes picked a Dark Knight Rises screening only because it was the big blockbuster being released that weekend.” In genuine respect to the victims of these shootings and their loved ones, there is a logical worry in what a film like Joker may spark. But art and entertainment should not be held solely responsible for human wickedness anymore than a cookie should be held responsible for someone’s blood pressure; it is how it is consumed, not what it is in itself. 

What is necessary is that people ponder its thematic requests, whether its ultimate storytelling is one of success or failure.  

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