Bunny: “Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.”
The Dude: “Ah, that must be exhausting.”
~ The Big Lebowski
I’m a sucker for (1) dark movies, (2) origin stories, (3) Joaquin Phoenix performances, and (4) Batman-connected movies that were not directed by Joel Schumacher. (Sorry, nipple-suited George Clooney Batman, but Gotham City deserves better. Much better.)
So it would seem to follow that Joker, a jet-black origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix which depicts the rise of one of the most haunting characters in modern cinema, would be right up my alley. And it absolutely is.
But I won’t watch it in a theater— or maybe anywhere, ever. Here are 4 reasons why.
Reason #1: A director makes a world of difference.
I’m one of those movie geeks who want to know the name of the director who directed every movie I watch, and the name of every other movie that director previously directed. I have been known to watch a movie solely because I appreciate the director’s filmography.
For instance, I will watch anything directed by Christopher Nolan (who is consistently brilliant), Alfonso Cuarón (who is consistently humane and gut-wrenching), and Alexander Payne (who is consistently near-perfect, or at least was up until the not-even-close-to-perfect Downsizing). That one blip notwithstanding, my loyalty to these directors has led to many rewarding movie experiences that I might not have had if I was ambivalent about who stood behind the camera.
So who is the director of Joker? Todd Phillips. What do we know about him? Well, he has achieved great box office success as a director of comedies, mostly R-rated, that aim to elicit laughs and sometimes shock, obliterating boundaries of good taste in the process. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Phillips over the years.
In my early 20s, I was drawn to Road Trip and Old School for both good reasons (Will Ferrell and ‘00s-era Vince Vaughn are two of my comic idols) and less-than-good reasons (I’ll leave that to your imagination). But I never kidded myself into thinking Road Trip was a genuinely well-constructed movie, and to me Old School is only half of a well-constructed movie, while the latter half falls apart like so many comedies have been known to do since the ‘80s.
Speaking of the ‘80s, next up for Todd Phillips came Starsky & Hutch [EDIT: Oops, my bad… that TV show was from the late ’70s], which I thought was both one of the most laugh-out-loud funny comedies — Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson at their comic peak — and also one of the most weirdly dark PG-13 movies I’d ever seen. I don’t remember hearing anyone else make that assessment at the time, but I stand by it. The movie felt R-rated all the way to me, and I was baffled by the typically conservative-leaning MPAA’s rendering of a toothless PG-13 verdict. Among other things, the movie made cocaine and threesomes look incredibly cool. It was a movie that 12-year-olds could easily watch, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable watching with an 18-year-old.
But Todd Phillips’ biggest claim to box-office fame was The Hangover, a movie starring no big names (at the time) that somehow grossed over $250 million and thereby altered the comedy landscape for years, leading studios to bankroll R-rated comedies with reckless abandon. Because of its unexpected smashing success, it was spun into a trilogy of movies, which from what I gather were each more shocking (and less imaginative) than the last.
I only watched the first Hangover and and found it to be fairly entertaining, but there was a casual joke about pedophilia so spectacularly wrong-headed that it led me to not even touch the cash-grab sequels that were rushed to theaters 2 and 4 years later.
So what’s the Todd Phillips takeaway? For me, he is a technically competent director of crass and intermittently funny shock comedies. He is also someone who has given no evidence at any point during his movie career that he has the faintest whiff of a conscience. Even the aforementioned Starsky & Hutch, one of only two “mainstream” PG-13 comedies he’s ever made, and the most solidly constructed and consistently funny movie in his filmography, was transgressive in a way that unsettled me. And not just for the reasons listed above. (Revisit it sometime with an open mind if you’re curious.)
On the whole, Todd Phillips comedies are filled with ugly flecks of misogyny, men behaving badly, morally adrift storylines, and — perhaps most damning of all in my estimation — casual nihilism.
So that’s my first red flag about Joker. Todd Phillips is not a director I trust.
Reason #2: The first trailer made me uneasy. The second trailer made me queasy.
That doesn’t remotely convince me to avoid a movie, mind you. In some cases, unsettling trailers are what make me want to watch a movie. But the more I read about Joker, the more I become convinced that the feeling I had watching both versions of the trailer was not moral stodginess but more of a solid hunch emanating from some reliable, self-preserving part of my soul.
I could feel the trailer rattle through my bones. It made the Dark Knight movies look faintly Pollyanna-ish by comparison. At least those superhero movies had a hero.
But Joker appeared to be a document of unchecked oblivion; an origin story for darkness itself, untainted by even the faintest speck of goodness or light. Even No Country for Old Men — another jet-black movie about a black hole of a villain — had within it a voice of reason in Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff character.
But Joker gives every impression of being, and early reviews have confirmed this, a story of rampant, unmitigated darkness. And to me, the hollow nihilism that is showcased in the trailer is — to crib a term from another DC-inflected superhero/supervillain movie — kryptonite to any good narrative.
Reason #3: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”
This indelible quote is from the late, great Roger Ebert. I think about it often and have probably most often applied it to a certain other cinematic provocateur.
Quentin Tarantino is a wildly polarizing but quite popular director (at least among cinephiles) who has made films about (1) slavery, (2) World War II, and (3) a woman getting revenge for the death of her unborn child. And yet at virtually no point during Tarantino’s career has he managed to impart any lingering sense of moral resonance. He makes films that are technically virtuosic and morally vapid. Movies that shock your eyes and ears but leave your conscience numbed and your heart untouched.
Tarantino is living proof that just because a movie is about slavery or Nazis and is, well, anti-slavery and anti-Nazi (as one would assuredly hope) does not mean that the movie grapples in any meaningful way with these precipitous subjects. Tarantino’s goal is always to wow us with snarky dialogue and innovative camera work; never to be honest or vulnerable enough to grapple thoughtfully or sensitively with subjects of massive, undeniable real-world resonance.
And so, I suspect, will be the case with Todd Phillips’ take on the Joker’s derangement.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea — not in the slightest — to make a movie that explains the rise of an eventual villain, building empathy by conveying the depths of anguish that person experienced in his earlier years. In fact, this can be a constructive narrative exercise that encourages us not to view anyone as an inherent monster with no raison d’etre. Everyone is complex and worth understanding, including those we have categorized as villains.
But in order to pull off the delicate narrative balance required by such an assignment, choosing the right director is of paramount importance. And I can only think of a handful of people who would be less qualified for the job than Todd Phillips.
Not only has he exclusively directed comedies, with zero forays into pathos. But he lacks even a trace of the moral weight that would be needed in spades (along with some degree of heart) to pull off a Joker saga.
This movie may technically be “about” mental health and suffering and the cycle of violence. But every indication I see is that the way that it’s about these delicate, hair-trigger subjects could — perhaps unintentionally — turn the Joker into a hero. It appears to be all dark, gritty style without the requisite emotional substance that would be needed to stick the landing.
And if that indeed proves to be the case, as many of the critics I trust most have solemnly indicated in their early reviews, then Joker could be a powderkeg. Its release could be like throwing a grenade into our already rage-addled society.
At least that’s my darkest fear.
Reason #4: Studios bankroll what we tell them to bankroll. Spend accordingly.
Beyond all the fears of copycat violence and the dangers of normalizing nihilism, there is a pragmatic reason I won’t pay money to watch Joker in a movie theater. If this movie is a box office juggernaut, which it gives every indication of being, then it will send a bat sig… or no, let’s say a Joker signal, to movie studios everywhere.
It will tell financiers that it’s well worth their investment to greenlight tales of depravity and darkness that are even faintly connected to a superhero franchise. After all, superhero movies are the single most mainstream — and most eminently bankable — movie products of the past decade.
But before Joker, and to a lesser extent perhaps Suicide Squad, there were very few superhero movies that could be thought of as truly transgressive. Even the more violent entries in the genre tended to always have some kind of moral compass. That’s the essence of a superhero movie, after all — the villain may be super-villainous, but the heroes are super-heroic and find supremacy in the end. (Or at least they do by the end of their trilogy.)
Joker represents a new, ultra-dark direction for the superhero/villain genre. If it makes $300 million, as it could easily make based on hype alone, these kinds of movies will proliferate. And sure enough, a trailer was just released this week for Birds of Prey — another Joker-adjacent property — that rivals Todd Phillips’ Joker as one of the grittiest, grimiest superhero trailers of the decade.
So ask yourself: Is this what we want as a society? To turn the superhero genre on its head and begin to use it primarily as a conduit for our most primal rage and darkness? If so, then this weekend’s near-inevitable Joker windfall means that we’re well on our way.
But if it’s not what we want as a society, then the only way to stop the trend dead in its tracks is to not throw money at the movie studios that produce this soulless content, seemingly without care or compunction.
And for me, that means that I can’t bring myself to spend 8 bucks to see Joker in a theater. No matter how much dark, dizzying allure it absolutely holds for me. I simply don’t trust Todd Phillips or believe in his vision of unrelenting nihilism.
Money talks. It screams, in fact. So I refuse to simply pay for what makes me curious or even what enthralls me. And I refuse to sign up for this particular future, either for cinema or for humanity writ large.
I’ll pay for what I believe in. And I’ll sign up for a future where hope and meaning aren’t a tossed-off afterthought. Life is not a sick joke.
But this has all the appearances of being a pretty sick Joker.
2 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Watch ‘Joker’ (Even Though I Find It Just As Alluring As Everyone Else)”
“But he lacks even a trace of the moral weight that would be needed in spades (along with some degree of heart) to pull off a Joker saga.”
These thoughtful and witty treasures are reasons I enjoy your writing!
Thanks, Rachel! I figured only a few people would notice this little nugget, but you’re in that exclusive club. Guess you’re just a diamond in the rough.