“Joker” is a work of art in the way any movie is. That said, this isn’t some high-minded art-house flick. It’s a cash grab by a major studio (in this case, Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia), which capitalizes on intellectual property with 80 years of history, catering to a perceived desire among its devoted fanboy base for edgier comic-book-inspired fare.
Still, the fact that the opening weekend was thankfully uneventful doesn’t eliminate concerns about what the movie represents. And using the cloak of “This is art” in response reflects a kind of arrogance, as well as myopia about the wider context that fueled the controversy.
As it happened, the debut of “Joker” coincided with a debate about the whole notion of “art” and blockbuster movie-making, triggered by Martin Scorsese. The legendary director likened Marvel movies to theme parks, questioning whether they should be considered “cinema” in the traditional sense.
Yet if Scorsese sounded dismissive, and perhaps a little out of touch, he was identifying the fact that such movies operate as cogs in larger corporate machines — designed not merely to create an experience in a theater, but to move merchandise, inspire theme park attractions and so on.
That doesn’t mean blockbusters don’t or can’t have something to say. Yet when movies have a line of happy meals and other tie-ins attached, it’s advisable not to sound too pretentious about them.
“Joker” is obviously a different breed of film with comic-book roots, but it still comes from that world. It’s essentially an adult-oriented offshoot of the DC Entertainment label, one that will surely spawn plenty of Halloween costumes, even if the studio — recognizing its niche — didn’t go all in on merchandising around it.
Falling back on the “Hey, it’s art” defense also ignores why people felt uncomfortable — namely, past associations that particularly pertain to this franchise, including the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Col.
There is, admittedly, a tendency to blame media for violence — from movies and TV to videogames –in a way that goes well beyond any correlative evidence. Sometimes, those assertions are used cynically to deflect attention from other culprits and potential causes, among them guns.
Even so, Hollywood does itself no favors when it broadly uses “Art is messy” as a shield.
In a free society, offering a big buffet of content, that’s justification enough. But being free to do something doesn’t mean being free from criticism. “Joker” looks like a smashing success, financially speaking. By dressing up the movie as “art,” though, the Joker isn’t the only one hiding behind poorly applied makeup.