When Joker was nominated for 11 Academy Awards on Monday morning, cultural critics swarmed like white blood cells trying to repel a virus, with Salon and Slate respectively calling Joker “not remotely Oscar-worthy” and “dumb as hell.”
The Joker Oscar backlash isn’t the first time critics have tried to belittle Joker. Before its release, critics and media figures warned Joker was alt-right incel propaganda in danger of provoking outbreaks of violence. Joker never caused any violence off-screen and bore little relation to the incel-friendly exhortation to violence critics warned about. As left-leaning podcasts Chapo Trap House and Struggle Session noted, Joker’s plot was driven by austerity and anger at wealthy elites. Not incel misogyny.
Joker irritates the hell out of cultural gatekeepers but it’s not clear why, exactly. To make sense of Joker backlash, I reached out to Leslie Lee III, co-host of the Struggle Session podcast. Lee championed Joker on Struggle Session as an expression of left-wing populism and continues to defend the film from increasingly desperate anti-Joker forces.
Broadly, what was your reaction to the Slate story?
It’s just bizarre how angry people get about Joker. It’s like he’s just mad. He’s just really, really mad. It’s part of a theme or a theory that people keep trying to hit. It’s a narrative that people keep trying to come back to on the Joker. People who don’t like it say that the movie is just dumb. It’s dumb. And they just repeat that over and over again as if that will make it true and that will also make everyone who likes it dumb, therefore you are marked if you like it.
There’s so much discourse around liking or disliking this film. People who dislike it usually try to suggest that if you disliked this film it’s because you’re just too smart for it. And only dumb people like this movie, which you know, obviously is incredibly elitist, from the jump. And also very much like baby’s first argument against a movie that people like.
And so is the movie dumb though? Or how would you say it’s not dumb?
Ultimately it’s a movie about a guy getting fed up with would being mistreated by society and culture. I don’t think that’s dumb. It’s a film about austerity, neoliberalism and how the rich are parasites living off of us and inflicting violence on us constantly and ruining our lives and how a natural response to that would be violence. And I don’t think that’s dumb.
The Slate writer accuses Joker of being a Taxi Driver retread that audiences only embraced out of ignorance of film history.
Todd Phillips has been open about how Joker was his attempt to get one of those types of movies made with a real budget with a real star in the studio system in 2020. Now that may be odd for a guy like Todd Phillips who made Warner brothers $1 billion with those Hangover movies. But I think what is very interesting that he had to slap a comic book label on this thing.
It wasn’t his first idea to say this is a Joker movie and to call it the Joker and have references to Bruce Wayne and comics and all of that. That was kind of forced upon him by the economics of filmmaking right now.
So I think people criticized the film because it’s always dumb to try and make a serious movie about the Joker when I think the dumb thing is that you, if you want to make a serious movie, you have to make it about the Joker or Iron Man or Captain America.
Like you said, the movie is explicitly a reaction to austerity and kind of has these like leftist themes going through it. Do you think that fuels the backlash against it?
Yeah, absolutely. Because when you watch this movie, there’s no real out for you if your politics aren’t radical. Now this is not to say every radical leftist likes this film. In fact, some, some I really respect have criticisms of it. But I think if your idea is that you can just vote your way out of these problems, if you can just vote capitalism away, Joker does not have anything to offer for you. It says the only real solution is violent revolution or at least trying to start one. And I think that makes a lot of people uncomfortable in the way that a comparable film like Parasite, which is dealing with similar themes. You could look at a film like Parasite and come away with the idea is that, well, rich people should just be a little bit nicer to the help and you can avoid all these problems. And that’s not a criticism of Parasite. It’s a different type of movie that’s trying to say different things.
Maybe that’s why some people feel Joker is dumb because it kinda hits you over the head with this idea that there’s no nuance about this stuff. It just is what it is.
The trend I’m noticing in the conversation about Joker is that If your politics are in line with that, you’re going to be more charitable to it. If they’re not, you’re more inclined to blithely dismiss it.
Yeah, absolutely. Because a lot of these people don’t generally feel that our system is fundamentally broken, fundamentally violent. They believe that there’s a nicer, cleaner solution out there than burning down and destroying everything. And I want to be clear, I don’t even think Todd Phillips endorses that view. What he did when he was making the film, and this is something that I’ve talked about on Struggle Session before. If a storyteller tries to make a realistic depiction of people of the world with a real connection to the world, even if their politics are not Marxist, they’re going to have Marxist critiques.
Or a simpler way to say is that reality has the last week left-wing bias.
Arthur’s not going to be the problem, the system’s going to be the problem. The fact they can’t get his medicine is the problem. The fact that he’s poor is the problem. You could hire Rush Limbaugh to try and write the story. And if he’s being realistic, he’s still going to have some left-leaning critiques of the system because the natural good guys and bad guys of this story are very apparent to anyone.
The Slate story dismisses Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker performance as showy. Is that fair?
I don’t really think so. I mean, it is a character piece and it’s about him. And he’s a movie star. He’s supposed to be doing a show in some respects, but he’s not playing himself. He’s not even playing like the Joker that we think of. He is playing a character named Arthur, who’s not suave, who’s not charming, who isn’t meant to be handsome, who is supposed to be a little bit off-putting. And yet we’re still fascinated by watching him and watching his journey and he doesn’t understand himself and we don’t always understand him. And that process of figuring out who he is and us figuring it out with him, Joaquin did a masterful job at this.
The one thing anybody who criticizes the film has praise for is that Joaquin did a great job. I’ve seen so many people say it shouldn’t get nominated for anything else, but they’re fine with the best actor. So if people are going after him now, that just shows how desperate the anti-Joker forces have gotten.