Because Todd Phillips’ Joker tells the relatively grounded story of a disaffected white man who goes on a terroristic rampage because he feels as if he’s been dealt a bad hand in life, there’s been an ongoing discussion about whether the movie has the potential to inspire certain viewers to model themselves (idealistically) after the titular villain.
Even though the Joker is objectively made out to be the villain of his own film, it’d be disingenuous to say that he isn’t framed in a heroic way because the story being told is about his origins and ascendance. We know that the clown is destined to become one of Gotham’s most enduring threats and one of the few people capable of going toe-to-toe with Batman, and so the Joker’s on-screen actions, horrific though they made be, all build toward the idea of him becoming a powerful, important figure in society.
While the Joker movie is meant to be a critique of people like its central character, it’s easy to see how it could also be interpreted as a celebration of them – but, apparently, that idea never quite occurred to Joaquin Phoenix or Warner Bros. During a recent interview for a profile in the Telegraph, Phoenix allegedly stopped the conversation dead in its tracks after being asked whether he’d given any thought to the possibility that audiences might take the wrong message away from the movie.
Rather than stopping to mull the question over, Phoenix simply left, much in the same way he was alleged to often do while shooting the film itself:
“Yet Phoenix doesn’t seem to have considered this kind of question at all. So when I put it to him – aren’t you worried that this film might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results? – his fight-or-flight response kicks in. Mine too, just about.
It takes an hour’s peace-brokering with a Warner Bros PR to get things back on track. Phoenix panicked, he later explains, because the question genuinely hadn’t crossed his mind before – then asks me, not for the last time, what an intelligent answer might have sounded like.”
And no, Phoenix never answered the question.
It seems unfathomable that Phoenix could have taken this role on without spending any time reflecting on the cultural landscape the movie exists in, given the actor’s reputation for diving deep into the essence of the characters that he plays. Even if he somehow managed put together his take on the Joker in a vacuum, it seems just as unlikely that this topic never came up during the movie’s production process, or that someone at Warner Bros. wouldn’t have thought to themselves “hmm, someone’s probably going to ask about the movie glorifying angry white men taking up arms.”
Joker – a movie few people have actually seen yet – hits cinemas on October 4.