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Comment: 'Incel' violence is horrific, but Joker is complex, and doesn't take sides

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2/09/2019 Christina Newland
Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Joker". © Associated Press Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Joker".

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Todd Phillips’s Joker had its world premiere at the Venice film festival only on Saturday, so it’s impressive that nearly everyone on the internet has an opinion on it. Reviews from critics here have been largely positive, though have also already sparked discontented rumblings from that nebulous collection of industry folks and movie fans known as “film twitter”. One of the central points of contention around Phillips’s comic-book villain origin story is that it in some way panders to incel culture, or “involuntary celibates” – men who see themselves as losers and “beta males” who women don’t want to sleep with. Angry, misogynistic and feeling entitled to sex and attention, incels have been prone to real-world violence, as with the Isla Vista murders in 2014, when a killer targeted a sorority – shooting 11 people and killing six before killing himself.

In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged Arthur Fleck is in every sense a loser – and perhaps in all but self-identification, an incel. He is friendless aside from his mother, works as a party clown, and his paralysing tendency to burst into peals of maniacal laughter unnerves everyone he meets. And when, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (obsessed by Betsy), he becomes romantically intrigued by Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a pretty girl he barely knows, his fantasies go into overdrive.

Yet romance and sex, or lack of these, is not a major factor in Joker’s move towards violence; he never expresses any particular malice toward Sophie. Rather, Arthur is driven by a (still very incel-esque) need to be seen and loved. In his case, it’s as a star comedian, but when he can’t achieve that goal, he finds more insidious routes to fame.

The hand-wringing of cultural commentators is concerned that Joker might spark copycat violence or make the character a sort of folk hero for incels. It’s a possibility: Fleck has real wounded vulnerability, and while he seeks counselling and takes psych medications, social services cutbacks prevent him from accessing suitable care. Will some alienated young man identify with this? Will he, in the vein of Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr (obsessed by Bickle’s assassination plot and Jodie Foster), see a movie about another alienated young man and become obsessed with taking action? Maybe. Does The Wolf of Wall Street encourage people to go out and sell bad penny stocks? Does Scarface glamorise cocaine? How different is this from blaming gun violence on video games?

Joker is a smart, stylish, and troubling film: the man it depicts is a product of our current era

Essentially, what Phillips’s film asserts that we invite bloodshed and chaos if society ignores damaged people such as Fleck. That claim may be questionable, but what is true is that the film is good at what it does; it makes him disturbing and perversely thrilling to watch as he rises to the position of Gotham’s legendary arch-villain.

However, despite suggestions that it is a reactionary call for incel vigilantism, Joker doesn’t especially cleave to one political perspective. With severe cuts to mental health services affecting Arthur’s stability, along with Phillips’s focus on the ominous effects of widespread gun ownership, it seems odd that it’s being hailed as wholly rightwing. Joker is a smart, stylish and troubling film: the man it depicts is a product of our era. But when people prepare themselves to hate a film based on its perceived political position, the culture of cinema suffers.

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