Mark Hughes misconstrues, I think, the concerns over whether or not something about Joker is toxic. Or, at least, he doesn’t seem to recognize that there are different kinds of concerns about this, not all of them about whether the film somehow glamorizes the character. That he chooses only that concern to address is revealing, because, honestly, it’s an age-old pop cultural debate, and the lowest-hanging fruit.
For my part, having now read a number spoiler-filled reviews, I safely can say that I have precisely the same concerns as I had before: that the character is a sad white guy with mediocre talents who is angry that the world hasn’t given him what he feels he is entitled to, and because he’s also mentally ill he satiates his anger through cruelty and violence on the world that hasn’t given him his due.
There are people out there talking about this film as if somehow it’s brave or daring or dangerous. Given the moment we are in where the President of the United States, the National Rifle Association, and the Republican Party are trying to scapegoat the mentally ill rather than deal with the actual causes of so much gun violence and mass homicides—those being the toxic masculinity of fragile men, and their access to guns—the above suggests that the only dangerous thing about it is reinforcing the popular notion that mental illness is the cause of mass violence.
That’s what’s toxic about Joker. Audiences have shown for a long time that they can handle arguably “sympathetic” portrayals of a problematic character without somehow becoming cultish stans inflicting that character’s will upon the real world. That’s not the issue here.
Arguably, a truly brave and iconic choice for Todd Phillips to have made would have been very deliberately not to make Arthur Fleck mentally ill. To film instead a portrait of a sad, pathetic man raging against a world to which he felt entitled. One who, surrounded by so many other sad, pathetic men who nonetheless managed to fail upward, lashes out not from sickness but purely by choice.
That’s frightening. It’s also real.
To do what he’s done instead isn’t brave or daring, and it’s only dangerous to the many mentally ill Americans who already are being scapegoated for mass violence by people like the President, who only just recently said it’s time to start putting them into institutions again.
That makes this movie little more than just one, long, sick joke, and one played on the wrong people.
ETA: Jim Lee calls it a “cautionary tale” but is “beware the mentally ill or they will murder you” a great or true cautionary tale? Owen Gleiberman’s review in Variety is like a thesaurus of derogatory words for mental illness.
ETA: Matthew Sozsa called the movie out back in April: “It is a trope that leads to real-life stigmas that affect people with mental illness — and it’s one that really, really needs to go away.”
ETA: Jenna Busch shows that fears about stigmas the movie might reinforce are not unfounded when she suggests that “we’re looking at that guy with a devastating mental illness who we didn’t say hi to that one time”.