Podculture: Daily Staffers discuss virtues, flaws of “Joker”

Wilson Chapman, Abigail Sutter

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WILSON CHAPMAN: Hi, welcome to Podculture, a Daily Northwestern podcast covering all of the biggest events in entertainment. I’m Wilson Chapman.

ABIGAIL SUTTER: And I’m Abigail Sutter. In this episode, we’re talking about “Joker.” Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” provides an origin story for Batman’s most famous villain, and in the process has become one of the most controversial films of the year.

CHAPMAN: We’ll be discussing our thoughts on the film, whether the controversy surrounding it was justified, and what “Joker” means for the future of comic book movies. This podcast will contain spoilers.

SUTTER: Let’s get into it.

CHAPMAN: Okay, so Abigail, when you were exiting the theatre, what were your thoughts?

SUTTER: I couldn’t tell if it was a good movie or not. Just because the experience of watching it I just felt so uncomfortable the whole time, which I think was part of what they were trying to go for. So in that sense, they successfully executed it. But I remember you know, when the words ‘the end’ pop across the screen I was just like, especially the last scene like him in Arkham Asylum. I was like was this even real did this even happen? Like, what am I left with? So I definitely was left very uncertain and just kind of like not sure what I was supposed to get out of it. What about you?

CHAPMAN: So this is a movie that, the build up to it was just so intense and so many people had so many thoughts about it before it was even released. So going into it, I didn’t know if I would like it. I didn’t know if I would hate it, but I figured I would at least have an opinion on it. I figured at least I would feel strongly about it one way or the other. And then when it ended, I stewed on it for a day and then the day after I texted a friend who said he had seen it, and I was like, ‘you know, for a movie so controversial, I thought it was kind of boring.’ I’ll be honest, I don’t think the controversy over it ultimately was justified. I think it was pretty reactionary based on nothing, but I also don’t think it’s a good movie, frankly, I think it’s really flawed.

SUTTER: I do agree, I think all the controversy surrounding it like once seeing the film, the Joker’s the protagonist, but they didn’t present him as the hero of his own story. Like I think we definitely saw a very flawed man who hopefully made us all very uncomfortable. I didn’t come away with it being like, ‘Oh, they basically idolized the Joker and what he represents.’

CHAPMAN: I understand the idea of creating a film or a book or something that is open to interpretation. And you can sort of find your own meaning. But the problem with this is I felt like it wanted to have a meaning, it wanted to have a point. And in the process, it was juggling a lot of things and a lot of societal issues in this origin story that ultimately didn’t amount to much. Basically, the film is an origin story for the Joker, which is already a weird decision because the Joker famously doesn’t have an origin story. He’s basically the personification of chaos and the fact that he doesn’t have an origin story is part of what makes him terrifying. But ok. And in trying to create this origin story. It tosses in a lot of things like capitalism, mental health, male entitlement, and it’s putting all of this stuff out there and it doesn’t really commit to, in my opinion, exploring any of them. I think the capitalism angle is the most interesting one to take because, Batman, famously a billionaire.

SUTTER: Yeah, When they started bringing class into it was very it was an interesting take. I think the first batch of killings that the Joker did on the subway, it was very much, I could see why the social movement began around that. But it was just such a weird moment for the riots to continue after he shot Robert De Niro.

They handled a lot of really heavy material and they were talking about a lot of relevant topics, mental health being a big one. And I agree, I feel like they didn’t commit to telling one narrative or even exploring, like, you know, what is it really like to be a mentally ill person, you or low income mentally ill person. They had a lot of these different elements they were throwing around, but it all seemed to be for dramatic effect instead of like storytelling purpose, you know, it’s just like how ridiculous like, how extra can we make the Joker and like every aspect of his life.

CHAPMAN: Yeah, and my biggest problem with it is the storyline with Zazie Beetz as Sophie, the woman he imagines dating, when really their relationship is in his head. I think that entire storyline should have been completely cut out of the movie. First off, it added nothing. I was genuinely offended on Zazie Beetz’ behalf. Like, that was all they could give her? The second part is, the controversy over this movie has been comparing Joker to incels on the internet, the type of people who commit mass shootings, and people were worried that this was sort of an incel wet dream, basically. I don’t think this movie really was like that for the most part, even if I don’t think it was handling these topics super well. I think just having that plotline in there, it just invited the controversy and it muddled the message further and it added nothing.

SUTTER: Yeah no like everything with his love interest. I literally turned to the person I went with at one point, I was like, ‘are these like dreams?’ Seeing a woman approach a man, this woman who he had stalked approach him and was like ‘Oh, that’s hot.’ From that point on, I was holding on to the hope that it indeed was fake, because that’s not the way women act. The way they think. And I’m very happy it ended up not being real because you cannot even pretend that there’s anyone out there who would enter into a relationship with you when they met through stalking. No, I agree. Like it didn’t really feel like it was glorifying it in anyway. In watching that’s what I was afraid it would be. But I walked out being like, Yeah, no, I felt like they portrayed him in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t a hero of any kind, which I appreciated.

One of the other aspects of the movie I appreciate is, I was worried right before I went to it, because a bunch of people, you know, told me to be careful with the gore aspect. And I didn’t find it to be that bad. I actually, you know, appreciate that there were there were two scenes in particular where he murdered someone fairly violently, and they kind of turned the camera away. So it was just on his face. So they just did something where it wasn’t, like Game of Thrones, like look at how much blood we have in our budget type murder.

CHAPMAN: I think it’s good to talk about how the controversy happened, because it was bubbling up before before this movie was even really shooting. So basically, while it was still in development, an early script got leaked, and that early script contained an early version of the Sophie storyline where he actually was dating the woman and he caught her with another man and that was what caused him to go insane. People were deriding that like hell, so I’m very glad that got changed. And then it premiered several film festivals and people were worried that it was going to cause shootings and glorify like incel culture. And in particular, I think the reason why that fear spread was because of the 2012 Aurora shooting at “The Dark Knight Rises,” which, the shooter was not inspired by the Joker. That was a misconception that was being spread at the time. But it got a lot of people worried, and the film is not being played in the Aurora theater where that happened, which I think is probably for the best.

SUTTER: Even just in memory you know? Especially with a film like this. It’s just tactful.

CHAPMAN: I just in general think it’s a slippery slope to criticize a film for potentially causing gun violence. Whenever a shooting does happen, one of the biggest right-wing talking points is ‘video games cause violence or violent media causes this’ and gun control advocates are usually like, ‘no guns cause violence.’ So I’m not really clear why so many left-wing people were saying, ‘oh, this movie is going to cause violence,’ and what makes this particular circumstance unique. Does that make sense?

SUTTER: No, I agree. I think a lot of it honestly just has to do with the character because I think, for maybe our age type people, the Joker was always a villain, right? But the Joker was always a villain you loved. The Joker was always like the cool kids’ antihero you know? And I think that, at least my worry was that they were going to portray the Joker as they had in the past in this, like Jared Leto was like the apex of this, but like the coolest Joker, you know what I mean? But like even Heath Ledger, people saw him and they didn’t idolize him or they didn’t want to be him. But there was something about him that they were attracted to and drawn to. And I was just worried that it was going to be like this, I was worried it was gonna be this cool Joker moment. But I do think actually seeing the film, I don’t have those same fears anymore.

CHAPMAN: That’s an interesting thing to say about the Joker. I think Heath Ledger’s version, even though that was only 11 years ago, it’s come to define the character in a lot of ways. There’s always been dark, violent versions of the Joker, but Heath Ledger sort of pushed him into this fairly realistic lens, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it does mean that the character has taken on a lot more discussion and a lot more criticism because of it.

SUTTER: Yeah, I agree. I think, and I don’t know if this was before Heath Ledger or after, but I definitely think since at least Heath Ledger took on the role, the Joker has turned into a very psychological villain.

CHAPMAN: Alright, so moving on, what did you think of the technical elements, like the composition, the score, the cinematography?

SUTTER: I liked the use of cello. I used to play cello so I love a good cello. I enjoyed the score. The score is more graceful than I thought it would be. It’s a very gritty movie. It’s a very gross and disgusting movie and so just having the score be gorgeous and pretty, It made me look at it differently. So I thought that was cool.

CHAPMAN: Yeah, I did enjoy that contrast. I also thought the cinematography was pretty good. There were a lot of striking shots in the movie, especially those scenes with him alone in his apartment and I enjoyed the way the film shot Joaquin Phoenix when he was doing those weird contortions.

SUTTER: He was really flourishing around. Yeah, all those shots you could tell were very intentional.

CHAPMAN: I think one of the main criticisms of the film is that it borrows a lot from Martin Scorsese films, specifically two: “Taxi Driver” which starred Robert De Niro. It was from the 70s. it’s basically about a mentally ill man who thinks of himself as a hero purging a society that has grown corrupt. A lot of the scenes of him just isolated in his room are, I don’t want to say they’re homages to specific scenes in “Taxi Driver,” but they’re very reminiscent of some of them. And just the portrayal of the city is clearly lifted very intentionally from Taxi Driver. And then the other is “The King of Comedy.” That one starred Robert De Niro again as a comedian who grew obsessed with this late night talk show host and started imagining that he was friends and colleagues with him, and started harassing this host to get a spot. So obviously, having Robert De Niro as the talk show host in this movie was a nod toward that. Do you have any thoughts or not?

SUTTER: I don’t know if I have any specific thoughts because I haven’t seen either of those. But I do think that there is a line between giving nods to a different movie or movie that inspired you or informed whatever you’ve created. But I think if you’re watching a movie, and all you’re seeing are references to inspirational figures or films that you drew from, then it gets to the point were like, ‘I’m here for this movie.’

CHAPMAN: Yeah, I think that might be part of the reason there is a bit of a divide between critics who, most thought found it pretty dull, and viewers, by and large, I think seem to like it. I think that has to do with the fact that viewers might not be as familiar with these movies, whereas critics obviously recognize the references a lot more.

I think what most people like about this movie is Joaquin Phoenix in it. So what do you think of his performance?

SUTTER: The first thing that I just want to get out of the way is I heard he lost 50 pounds. I don’t know if that’s true, but the first time they did a shot of his body I was like this man was committed to this movie.

CHAPMAN: He’s one of those actors who’s very big into body transformations. Right before the filming of this movie, he bulked up for another role and got very brawny and then in this movie, he’s very skinny, like, lots of protruding bones. He had a weird comment where he said it was empowering to lose that weight because he felt empowered to have that control. And a lot of people on Twitter, were just like, ‘That’s what eat people with eating disorders say.’

SUTTER: It must be fun and cute when you have personal trainers tell you exactly what calorie count you can eat and what foods will make you feel happy and fun. So that aside, I could definitely tell he committed to the role. When I was watching it, I very much would always see the character and the character always shone through. Yeah, it’s just hard to know because it was just such a very strange, confusing movie.

CHAPMAN: On some level I do admire him for how much he committed. But on another level, there have definitely been performances by him that I’ve found more developed and part of that is just because the script was stronger with those movies. But I do admire him for putting his all into this movie, at least, and I think he’s definitely gonna get nominated for an Oscar.

I guess that’s a good transition for what I want to talk about next: this film at the Oscars, and if it’s going to make an impact. I think at the very least, he’ll probably be nominated. I don’t know if he’ll win, but he’s never won an Oscar before and he’s sort of one of those great living actors who hasn’t gotten his due yet, so I think that’ll push him to at least a nomination.

SUTTER: Sometimes they surprise me. Some of those different design awards, I could see it getting at least nominated for. It just struck me very much, every scene was very gritty and realistic. If it got nominated for one of those types of awards I wouldn’t be surprised. I guess I’d be surprised if it won probably.

CHAPMAN: It’s gonna be interesting. There was a lot of hype for it to, not win Best Picture, but at least get nominated. But I don’t know, I think it’s going to be one of those films that’s on the consideration list, but whether or not it makes it sort of comes down to chance.

SUTTER: It’s one of those films that you really don’t know what you were supposed to get. And you don’t know if you got it, at least that’s how I walked into it. And that’s how I walked out of it. So I feel like it’s hard to say, ‘This was a great film. This was such a good film.This was such an exciting film or such an inspiring or thought provoking film.’ because you’re still dissecting what it was you just saw or what it was you just felt or what it was. Yeah, the award shows may have a difficult time wrapping their head around it.

CHAPMAN: So this is a comic book movie. There have been a lot of pieces about what direction it’s going to push comic book movies. The review of this movie for the site Indiewire, its title was, Joker changes comic book movies forever. I wouldn’t go that far, but do you think this is going to push people to make comic book movies in this vein? Because this film was also very successful. It smashed a lot of records for October openings. It currently has made half a million dollars at the box office.

SUTTER: It’ll be interesting to see because right, if that’s where the money’s going, that’s where the art will go. But I think it definitely opens up that new world. I think a lot of different comic book movies have been testing different limits of what the audience will allow; like how much swearing can we get in, how much violence can we get and how much gore can we show the fans before they will say ‘no, this isn’t that cute, fun comic book verse that I know and love.’

CHAPMAN: In a very real way, this film is meant to launch a series of films for DC that are alternate universes unconnected to their main film universe, which at this point is just so confused. I say this as someone who’s both a comic book fan and a real movie person, I can barely keep up with what direction they’re taking it in now that they’ve recasted Henry Cavill, They’ve recasted Ben Affleck. Like, I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t keep up with this stuff.

SUTTER: Oh gosh yeah. That’d be rough for sure.

CHAPMAN: Since this movie is successful, DC is definitely going to go forward with that sort of alternate universe, one and done series. I don’t know, I think pegging this movie as the one that changes comic book movies forever is pushing it. Because there have been pushes to sort of redefine what the genre can be for a while now. I mean, “The Dark Knight,” for example, that was a big one in 2008.

SUTTER: I’m thinking that Wolverine movie that came out, “Logan,” I’m thinking even “Deadpool” with the amount of raunchiness and swearing they got in. I think that even opened up the door.

CHAPMAN: Yeah. I think it’s the reason we got this movie to be honest.

SUTTER: No, I agree. I think they basically showed that you could do something that no one’s expecting and have it be really successful or do something that’s very true to the character itself and make it very successful. Like you don’t have to cookie cut it for what’s worked in the past.

CHAPMAN: It’s going to be interesting. I don’t think this will have an effect on Marvel’s approach on comic book movies since they’re blowing everyone out of the water. Like, half a million dollars, they’d see that and would just be like, ‘pathetic.’

SUTTER: Yeah, Marvel’s got a winning formula, I don’t think they’ll change anything up too drastically.

CHAPMAN: The Batman movie I really want to see is a Catwoman movie. We need a good Catwoman movie. Like, she’s always been the best character in the franchise.

SUTTER: Anne Hathaway as Catwoman was everything to me as a child.

CHAPMAN: She was the best part of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

SUTTER: She was everything I needed. They could do so much with her right now. I can think of 5 million actresses right now who could play her well, so they should let one of them do it. Yeah. Honestly, no, I love that. Also, the other Batman villain who never gets her due is Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy is my favorite villain because she’s an eco terrorist and like, I get it. She’s so fun. And especially because her connections to Catwoman and Harley Quinn, I just think there’s so much potential for development. And no one ever gives those ladies their time.

CHAPMAN: Since you mentioned Harley Quinn, I am excited for, I can’t remember the full title, like, “Birds of Prey (And the Fabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn)” or whatever it’s called. I’m excited to see Margot Robbie have the chance to put that character in a good movie.

SUTTER: Yeah, I think she did a really good embodying the character of Harley, and Harley can go off in so many different directions so I’m very excited to see where they take that.

CHAPMAN: Yeah, and I want a movie with her and Poison Ivy. And they have to be gay.

SUTTER: Yes please. Yes, everything about that I love. I don’t know specific comic books very well but I know characters’ comic book backstories and definitely those two have history, and Poison Ivy definitely tells Harley Quinn at least a few times that the Joker is bad for her, and I just want that girl talk.

CHAPMAN: Yeah, I think that’s what I would need after the Joker, after this movie.

SUTTER: Yeah, like “Joker” was good. Now let’s have this movie about bashing on the Joker.

CHAPMAN: That’s it for this week’s Podculture.

SUTTER: We’ll be back two week from now. See you next time.

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