Why Is Todd Phillips' "Joker" So Polarizing?
At the 2020 Oscars, Todd Phillips' psychological thriller film, Joker was nominated for 11 awards, making it one of the most Oscar nominated films of all time. For reference that's the same amount as Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II, and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. All of which are considered to be some of the best films ever made. However, Todd Phillips' Joker only holds a 68% score on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the lowest rated Best Picture nominees on the site. So what makes this movie so divisive in the first place?
Initially the general consensus about Joker's negative reception was thought to be due to the graphic violence and disturbing subject matter. But after watching it many, many times I really don't think that's the case. Plenty of films with way more disturbing content have been successful and more positively reviewed such as such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò or Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream. Unsettling content has never been a surefire way to turn a film into a critical failure. That's why I seriously doubt that the negative reception was due to a graphic scene or two. I believe it was something much more substantial.
I'm not trying to say that Joker is a terrible movie. There have been way worse productions to get just as much attention. There are a lot of aspects about the film that I really enjoy and they deserve the acclaim they were given such as the Oscar winning performance by Joaquin Phoenix, the cinematography by Lawrence Sher and the fantastic score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. While there are a lot of negative characteristics of this film that I will soon talk about I can easily see why so many people love it. Now on to the interesting stuff...
I remember being so unbelievably excited to see Todd Phillips' Joker in 2019. As a comic book fan as well as a cinephile I eagerly anticipated the movie for months. When I first saw it, I loved it. Over the course of the next few months I would occasionally sit down to watch it with my brother and we could have a great time. However during those few months I happened to essentially double my movie count and ended up seeing over 700 different movies over the course of a year and with that comes a much larger frame of reference. And I have come to the realization that Joker seems to get worse as your frame of reference expands.
It wasn't until I watched more films that the faults in Todd Phillips' movie started to come to light. Regardless of what you think about this film, the truth is that Joker is one of the most painfully derivative films to ever hit the big screen, especially when it comes to the work of Martin Scorsese. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery but there is a point where a homage turns into a knockoff. It's no secret to anyone familiar with this film's biggest influences just how similar Joker is to two particular Scorsese films. Those of course being, Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982). Not only do all three films include Robert De Niro but their plots are just too similar to ignore.
Martin Scorsese's 1976 film, Taxi Driver is often considered one of the single greatest films of all time. It has been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" by the US Library of Congress and is my second favorite film of all time. Consequently it has also been really influential in the world of film and Joker wears its influences on its sleeve. Taxi Driver tells the tragic story of Travis Bickle, a US veteran who drives a cab in New York City and is slowly driven to madness after witnessing the depravity of Manhattan's seedy, crime-riddled underbelly. That's right, the tale of a man who's psyche is ruined by the harsh society he lives in and later resorts to killing people...sound familiar? Todd Phillips' Joker is also similar to Taxi Driver in the somewhat cultish fan base that idolizes the main character, which is a huge problem. Travis Bickle was not written to be admired. He is a compulsive, unstable maniac who is the personification of toxic masculinity yet viewers continue to miss the point and either idolize or put themselves in place of the main character, painting him as a misunderstood hero. Again...sound familiar?
If the plot and character dynamics of Taxi Driver sounds eerily similar to Joker for you just wait until you hear about how much it rips off The King of Comedy because they are essentially the same movie. For those who have never seen it, Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy is easily among his best work. It is about a wannabe comedian named Rupert Pupkin (also played by De Niro) who is irrationally obsessed with a talk show host and driven by his complete delusion that one day he will become a famous comedian. Now that's not just similar to Joker, that is the entire plot summary of Joker. From the fame-hungry, neurotic protagonist to the obsession with a talk show host it is practically impossible not to see the similarities between the two. Todd Phillips' movie feels less like an homage to Scorsese's work and more like a lazily written knockoff to act as a safe plot line for the studio to make millions of dollars off of. To be fair, it worked since Joker is currently the highest grossing comic book movie ever, grossing a total of $1.074 billion dollars worldwide. I firmly believe that Joker is a decent movie but only if you have no frame of reference and after observing the film's notorious fanbase, it seems like that's exactly the case.
The sheer unoriginality of Joker is not the only reason why this film is constantly looked down on by critics and film fans alike. Since its release in October, 2019, Joker has accumulated a rather infamous reputation on the internet due to its fanbase. Just like Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, it seems like way too many people idolize or identify with the main character which is not only dangerous but missing the point of the film entirely. However unlike Taxi Driver fans, the Joker cult seems to be deeply rooted in incel culture. Incels are a relatively new community on the internet consisted of "involuntarily celibate" men who express their sexual frustration online through extreme and sometimes violent displays of misogyny. The subculture has been linked to a litany of crimes in past years including the 2014 Isla Vista Killings, the Toronto van attack, and even the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting of 2018. Ever since the much-awaited theatrical release of Todd Phillips' Joker it seems like the rampant incel communities of sites like Reddit and 4chan have found a sort of poster child for their deranged, self-loathing tendencies. There is a case to be made that having a toxic fanbase is not exactly the fault of the film itself, but it is not a issue that can go ignored. This association with the online incel community has caused the film to become notorious on the internet and has even received hate and criticism from people who haven't even seen the movie and simply judge the film based on its cultish fanbase.
Despite being one of the most polarizing and derivative mainstream films of the 21st century so far I cannot confidently say that Joker is a "bad" movie. It certainly has a lot of artistic merit in terms of technical aspects like editing, cinematography, acting, and music but it is far from perfect. It is the kind of film whose problems only reveal themselves when you come from a certain frame of reference. In my experience, this is a film that only gets worse with every new movie you see after it. If you liked Todd Phillips' Joker I would strongly recommend that you see either Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, they're basically the same movie...done better.