Joker and the Long History of Movie Moral Panics

Moral panics about provocative films like 'Joker' are as old as cinema itself. But more often than not, they're just proof of a film's merit — and of a deeply anxious middle class.

The number of times in history that films have created an uproar leading to violence are surprisingly few, making the recent lurid predictions that Joker is likely to inspire mass mayhem a bad bet — possible in our always-deranged country, but not probable.

When it comes to predicted rioting at screenings through film history, a more typical experience is Luis Buñuel’s frustration when audiences didn’t riot at the premiere of his still astonishing avant-garde film Un Chien Anadalou in 1929. (If you’re squeamish, look away when that razor approaches the woman’s eye.) He was enraged when the film he made with Salvador Dali to act as “a call to murder” was greeted with warm applause.

Hysterical critics and pundits predicted widespread urban rioting for screenings of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989, which helped make the film a must-see in what turned out to be perfectly decorous theatrical experiences across the country. But on the other hand, the frenzied and graphically depicted murders in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), which led to its initial banning in Ireland and a delayed release in the United Kingdom, became notorious for allegedly helping inspire “copycat” killings including the Heath High School and Columbine High School shootings.

If you want to talk real riots inspired by films, you’re talking Padmaavet, a 2018 Bollywood epic about a fourteenth-century romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim emperor. Mere rumors that there might be a dream sequence in the film containing an intimate fantasy love scene between the two sparked the vandalizing of the set during production by right-wing Hindu groups, car- and bus-burning street protests, the banning of the film in four Indian states, threats to cut off the nose of star Deepika Padukone, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali burned in effigy, and court intervention to ensure the film’s release with some prudent changes.

The unlikeliest riot sparked by a film is probably Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, which premiered in 1939 Paris on a double bill with a patriotic documentary on French history. Right-wing organizations that had packed the screening booed the incisive portrait of the French ruling class. Fistfights broke out, and someone tried to set fire to the theater. The ill-starred film was a commercial disaster, banned in France from the outbreak of the war for its “demoralizing” effects, and the film prints and negative destroyed in an Allied bombing. It was thought to be a lost film until a lone surviving print was discovered in the 1960s, whereupon a critical reevaluation established it as the pinnacle of Renoir’s work.

A member of the French Communist Party and the leading filmmaker working on behalf of the Popular Front, Renoir analyzed the Rules of the Game riot with his usual generosity and understanding:

[I] depicted pleasant, sympathetic characters, but showed them in a society in the process of disintegration, so that they were defeated at the onset . . . [T]he audience recognized this. The truth is that they recognized themselves. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.

The furor surrounding the new Joker movie started not from a disastrous screening but from an ultra-successful one: it got an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and subsequently won the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion Award. Just for context, the Golden Lion goes to films like Rashomon, Last Year at Marienbad, Ivan’s Childhood, Battle of Algiers, Vagabond, Au revoir les enfants, The Story of Qiu Ju, Vera Drake, Brokeback Mountain, and Roma. Just hoping someone’s having a good time somewhere, I like to think the Euro-partiers at the Venice Film Festival that did the voting were just trolling us, anticipating the moral and aesthetic freak-out among the American guardians of culture at the elevation of Joker to significant art film standards. I picture them hooting so hard wine spews out their noses.

But in fact, they were probably quite sincere, and their reverent reaction to the film was, to say the least, not the expected response to yet another movie featuring the Joker, DC Comics’ beloved cackling psycho-villain, a character already played in superhero films three times, by Jack Nicholson (Batman, 1989), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, 2008), and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad, 2016). But with highly respected actor Joaquin Phoenix re-conceiving the role as an angry and isolated white working class incel driven over the edge, that applause shocked and rankled both film critics and entertainment journalists. There’s been a steady drumbeat of alarmist commentary since, including nervous speculation about the possibility of immediate violence as an apparent response to the movie, as in Sarah Hagi’s Jezebel review:

The question on everyone’s mind when watching Joker is and will be: how dangerous is this? Will the target demographic of young white men be inspired by this Joker?

The scary precedent is the Aurora, Colorado massacre in which a deranged young man — later reportedly calling himself the Joker — attacked the audience at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing twelve people and wounding seventy others. But this understandable anxiety percolating through discussions of the film tends to broaden toward denunciations of the movie itself as an inherently socially irresponsible project, regardless of its quality. There’s a formulation in many reviews that could be summed up as “It’s good, but so what?”

As Scott Tobias, film editor of The A.V. Club, remarked

JOKER may indeed be a great movie, but it feels like the cultural equivalent of manufacturing Hummers in response to climate change.

A less hair-on-fire idea of what Joker constitutes, so far anyway, is an inventive attempt to make a genre film from overly familiar material by finding a hot-button topical angle on it that will make it intriguing and significant again, such as we see done frequently. The biggest perceived problem here seems to be that the results are too powerful, and the general public will see them.

If this were only an art film dealing thoughtfully with the social forces driving the incel movement, by a respected auteur, designed for the niche audience of the art house cognoscenti, there would be no such hysterical reactions like the one from Entertainment Weekly’s critic Leah Greenblatt, whose editors chose to release her review of the film with no rating:

But the truth is that entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a movie with the message this one hammers home again and again — that life is nasty and short; that no one cares; that you might as well burn it all down — feels too volatile, and frankly too scary, to separate from the very real violence committed by young men like Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in America almost every day.

These reviewers hitting the panic button repeatedly conflate the danger supposedly inherent in the film’s content with the separate issue of the film’s quality, which reduces some to incoherence, as we see in David Ehrlick’s IndieWire piece:

“Joker” is neither a game-changer nor just “another day in Chuckletown.” It’s both. It’s good enough to be dangerous, and bad enough to demand better. It’s going to turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process. For better or worse, it’s exactly the movie the Joker would want.

Even as they denounce the film on moral grounds, Ehrlich and a number of other critics acknowledge — however backhandedly — the unusually bold creativity of the film, its technical prowess, and especially the dangerously effective performance of Joaquin Phoenix in a role which is designed to create insidious audience identification.

From what can be gathered from these advanced reports, the problem is this film is too good. Its very quality is suspect and the key to its malevolence.

And even worse than having what might be a powerfully effective film coming our way for once, we’ve also got to contend with its director, Todd Phillips, who is being dismissed and insulted for his trouble as few successful directors of a hot new film have ever been. Ehrlich describes him as “a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material . . .”

Others merely mention Phillips’s best-known credits as an enough-said slur — Old School, Road Trip, and The Hangover 1, 2, and 3, all comedies — and perhaps refer slightingly to his membership in the so-called “frat pack” trio of comedy directors that includes Judd Apatow and Adam McKay. The implication seems clear that what’s wrong with Phillips is he’s a bro, too bro to be able to handle such volatile subject matter as a film featuring a psychotic man activating the angry masses. We’ve seen this figure in several films in recent years — see Exhibit A: Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a reliable source of topical terror to liberals as they contemplate with absurdly equal abhorrence the political rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

But Phillips’s youthful endeavors do a lot to contextualize the emergence of Joker as an indication of greater filmmaking ambition and the possibility of his actually having made an interesting film. So far no one seems intrigued by Phillips’s early career, which includes a few years studying at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he made the documentary Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, a portrait of the scabrous punk rocker that scored a theatrical and DVD release — almost unheard of for student films. Dropping out to finish Hated, he worked at the legendary, seedy, and comprehensive Kim’s Video and Music in the East Village, a rental house specializing in rare and esoteric films which “graduated” its own illustrious bunch of notable ex-clerks turned filmmakers, musicians, and artists. He co-directed a second documentary, Frat House, which took a darkly critical view of college fraternity life and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival but foundered in release because of claims that frat members were paid to restage events. His third film, the rockumentary Bittersweet Motel, took Phillips on tour with the band Phish, which is where he met director Ivan Reitman, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The ironic end result of all this critical agitation will be increased ticket sales, as people who had lost all interest in the superhero genre find themselves agog to see what possible film treatment of the Joker could be such a menace to society. Critical hints, and more than hints, that a film should be suppressed for the public good will always bring us out in droves.  We’re not wrong in this reaction — there’s a decent chance we’ll see something interesting, and historical precedent tells us there’s always the possibility we’ll watch a truly excellent film that made everybody nervous for good reason.