The Clown Prince of Crime is having a cultural moment.
Not that he’s ever been far from the pop culture spotlight, but Warner Bros. seems to be deep in The Joker business. There are multiple projects featuring the erstwhile Batman villain in the works, including two that would have Jared Leto reprising his turn with the character from Suicide Squad, one of which would reunite him with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
First up is Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. The final trailer for the film was released last week, just before it started screening at film festivals, first Venice than Toronto.
While the reviews coming out of those festivals are almost uniformly positive – many of them hailing it as a potential awards contender for the film as a whole and/or Phoenix’s performance in particular – the marketing campaign mounted so far by Warner Bros. has been problematic to say the least. Many of my own thoughts were expressed succinctly in this post.
A Twitter conversation that ensued when I pushed back on someone who dismissed that point of view basically amounted to “well that’s not what the movie is, so it doesn’t matter” and a refusal to acknowledge that this perspective is a valid reading of the film’s marketing.
But watch the trailer.
What do you see?
- Told by society he’s weird and unacceptable
- Frustration with support systems
- “All I have are negative thoughts.”
- Mockery by the rich and powerful
- Feelings of being held back from the success he deserves
- Refusal to continue playing by the rules
- Identification with unusual marginalia
- Tendency to insight chaos
- Adoption of wholly new identity as a way to channel his anger
That list reads like the characteristics of any of the number of white men in the last several years who have been radicalized by online platforms to the point they bring a gun to school, work or some other public place to exact revenge against the women and others they feel have wronged them in some way. You know, the kind who dress as comic villains and shoot up movie theaters.
If the movie has something more to say about how society can drive people mad, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But the trailer and the rest of the campaign aren’t conveying any of that to the public, instead hoping that the public’s familiarity with the Joker character and hope people are in the mood to continue rooting for the bad guy.
The Joker is a character with a long history in comics. Interpretations have run the gamut and are often used as mirrors exposing some aspect of society that needs to be addressed. The Joker seen in Scott Snyder and Greg Cappulo’s Batman run (disclosure: I worked to promote that while managing DC Comics’ social media accounts from 2011 to 2015) is a romantic who wants to get his crush’s attention, a perfect representation of how dangerous obsession can be. Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance in The Dark Knight was a chaotic anarchist, perfect for how society was expecting more and more safety and conformity. Comic versions in the 70s portrayed him as an over-the-top performance artist, a contrast to the grizzly cruelty invading society at that time.
What’s missing from the campaign is any indication of what exactly the version of the character created by Philips and Phoenix is a reaction to. That hasn’t been evident in any of the trailers, nor is is clear in any of the interviews with the two. If there is societal commentary being made, it’s entirely missing from the campaign and that’s a problem in and of itself, even if it can be found in the movie.
That needs to be addressed and acknowledged.