Director Todd Phillips has made a kind of superhero movie, Joker, which forgoes the usual tights-and-tights comic-book formula to tell a different kind of story, a psychologically realistic account of the interaction of loneliness, despair, poverty, and cruelty. Surprisingly for what is, at after, a species of Batman film, it was awarded the Leone d’Oro for best film at the Venice Film Festival,and Joaquin Phoenix’s nomination for an Academy Award for his performance already is generally assumed.
But we live in philistine times, and the mob demands that art serve them. For that reason, film, television, literature, music, and much else is subjected to a standard of social utilitarianism, meaning that they are not judged on aesthetic criteria but for their value as propaganda, moral instruction, or therapy. Therapeutic notions are at the moment especially prevalent; that is why press criticism of Game of Thrones, to take one example, dealt with questions of demographic “representation” to the exclusion of almost everything else.
And so Joker is challenged on its “fitness for the present political moment,” as Sam Adams puts it in Slate. “Is this really the time for a story about a frustrated, alienated white man who turns to violence?” he asks. Of course it is, which is why there are at least five productions of Coriolanus under way, and the bestsellers lists are full of worked about frustrated, alienated white men who turn to violence — strangely, no one criticizes Margaret Atwood on those grounds. (What, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments aren’t about frustrated, violent white guys?) Joker is in fact now criticized on the grounds of empathy, or at least suspicion of empathy.