Deep or Derivative? ‘Joker’ Continues to Inspire Discussion

There’s a video floating around on the interwebs of a young Rian Johnson talking about how he’d rather audiences come out of his films with opposing opinions rather than receive universal acclaim for his work. People have interpreted those comments to mean that Johnson deliberately sets out to piss people off, but I think what The Last Jedi director is actually saying in the video is that he wants his films to say something. And anything worth saying is going to meet resistance from people who disagree with whatever it is that’s being said. These disagreements usually generate discussion (or arguments). And in the best case scenario, those conversations lead to better understanding. Of each other and, hopefully, the world. 

Whether Todd Phillips’ Joker has led to a better understanding of anything is unclear, but discussions are happening. 

The film was released to theaters amid concerns it would inspire acts of copycat violence. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and all of that pre-release controversy probably didn’t hurt the film’s box office – a record-breaking $1 billion and change (on a $55 million budget). 

And though the controversy has mostly died away, the conversations haven’t. 

In fact, over the weekend, a few of us here at SAW were discussing Joker’s merits – or lack of. 

A few of us – Kane, King Alvarez, and myself – took the position that Phillips’ movie is an interesting character study that represents a step in the right direction for genre movies. Sailor Monsoon thought Joker was a rehash of better films (namely Martin Scorsese movies), and Marmaduke Karlston said the DC film was “overrated”.

Some have said Joker has a lot to say that is relevant. 

Joker has spurred discussions on issues as far ranging as mental health, income equality, and cancel culture, and some commenters have claimed the DC movie completely upends our current political narratives

Others are less sure. 

A writer for Forbes described the film’s message as so jumbled and noncommittal that it ultimately ends up saying nothing at all. Our own Mitch Roush wondered whether the film’s portrayal of mental health is “problematic”. And Vox asked if Joker should even exist at all

Other discussions have found their genesis in the film’s plot itself, with some outlets and commenters debating whether the events of the movie actually happened or if Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally unstable Arthur Fleck simply imagined them. Much of the discussion has focused on whether Phillips’ Joker is supposed to represent the Joker, citing the Clown Prince of Crime’s lack of an official origin story as evidence that Fleck is probably just a crazy guy and not Batman’s arch nemesis. 

Though, the inevitable sequel will likely squash those discussions sooner than later. 

The point is, three months, $1 billion, and 11 Oscar nominations later, we are still talking about Todd Phillips’ Joker. 


But now it’s your turn to weigh in.

Is Joker a fluke? A side effect of the controversy that preceded the film or did it earn its place as highest grossing R-rated film of all time? Does it have something interesting and relevant to say about society or is it empty pastiche riding on the coattails of its cinematic betters?

You tell us in the comments below. See you in the trenches.

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Author: Billy Dhalgren

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts.” -Andrei Tarkovsky