Todd Phillips’ recent critic-dividing blockbuster Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, has had an interesting reception. On the outset, it’s a spin-off based on the greatest comic book villain of all time with some 80s nostalgia thrown in, but dig a little deeper, and Joker is much more intriguing, and more worrisome than that.
The film has yet to be released, and alongside the people with an aversion to clowns, it appears to be causing a little concern. Phillips’ take on the Clown Prince of Crime is one of an unhinged male, white by nature, heading for a life of violence, psychopathic laughing and so on as the world around him stops making sense. Why is this alarming? Well, it falls into a stereotype – the much-featured Angry White Male.
For context, anger is neither exclusive to white people or men, as a black woman could be just as angry, or a trans Asian person, but there is a narrative that has been going since the late 70s about white men, angry at the world at large, taking the law into their own hands.
Some of the films that define the trope: The Dirty Harry films series, The Death Wish series, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Falling Down, Fight Club, Law Abiding Citizen, The Punisher, Gran Torino and Harry Brown all fall into this narrative.
All of these films are fiction, and don’t include ones based on real events, but the sad reality is, fiction is inspired by reality and reality is inspired by fiction. For example, a character like Dirty Harry Callahan, a cop who goes rogue to teach scum a lesson by way of lethal force might be a call back to Westerns, and Eastwood slinging guns like a good ‘ol boy is something that can be enjoyed as pure entertainment — there’s an even chance your granddad is a massive fan of Dirty Harry — but for context, these are films about an officer of the law dishing out lethal force when he feels it to be necessary, not the law.
The US law known as ‘stand-your-ground’ (or ‘line in the sand’, or ‘no duty to retreat’) is law that claims a person is allowed, legally, to use extreme — even lethal — force if they feel they are in danger or others, in any place they have a legal right to be. How does this relate to Dirty Harry? In the fourth film in the series, Sudden Impact, Callahan walks round the back of a diner that is being held up, holds a gun to someone and explains the law before uttering his iconic line – “go ahead, make my day”.
The Castle Doctrine or stand-your-ground law is also sometimes called the make-my-day law after this moment in the film. It is also the law that George Zimmerman exploited when he fatally shot 17 year old teenager Trayvon Martin.
The problem is: while filmmakers might want to explore themes of mental illness, putting it into the white man and having him gun down a load of people is no way to spark a conversation, especially since there is so much of that happening out in the world.
Perhaps more worrying are the people who see the characters in these sorts of films as inspirational. The number of Fight Clubs that began after Fight Club, and the rise in urban terrorism post-2000 isn’t something to forget, nor that films like Taxi Driver or Falling Down, both about unstable white men going out and exacting revenge on society, have had real world implications.
John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan after viewing Taxi Driver and believing Jodie Foster was attracted him. Falling Down’s portrayal of Michael Douglas going on a rampage may have simply been interesting to some, but it was the go-to bible for 2015 Chapel Hill shooter Craig Stephen Hicks.
Yet the point isn’t that Travis Bickle or D-Fens Foster or Harry Callahan are the heroes, they aren’t, no one should be idolising Tyler Durden, these are people who belong in hospital. They believe their grandiose war of the world is noble, but it isn’t.
The kind of hate and resentment they foster — Bickle’s anger that his life isn’t like the porno movies he watches, D-Fens’ belief that he isn’t being rewarded in life, Durden’s view that essentially, nothing matters — are the kind of narratives fixed to most mass shooters. Think of Oklahoma City, Columbine or even the news in the past few weeks. And it isn’t just the US, these narratives happen across the world. The UK has them, Germany, Australia, everywhere across the planet are people doing this.
And that’s where Joker comes into play. In the new age of snowflakes vs pussy grabbers are we really able to have intelligent conversation? No. Sadly, mass shooters are by-and-large mentally ill people, and yet when this happens, the right want to make it a mental health issue, the left want to make it a gun control issue, and neither want to sit and discuss properly. Joker, from the outset, looks to be a film about the “us” vs “them”, and a rise up. Not unlike how people missed the point of V for Vendetta, rioting for no reason wearing those masks as if that’s what V stood for.
It’s concerning because we are only seven years on from a young man walking into a cinema screen, opening fire on a group of movie fans, and calling himself who? The Joker.
It’s important that we as a society acknowledge that the world is changing, not to some ultra-liberal, PC, so-called ‘snowflake’ state where jokes must be stopped, nor a muslim banning N-word using gun-toting shooting range society, but rather a place where people are able to talk through their frustrations and be educated. What’s worrying is that people are already donning the face paint, and assuming The Joker stands for the downtrodden and the repressed. He doesn’t, and frankly, if he were real, the kind of people that think he does would be his first casualty.