Film in the Internet Age Part 1: Joker

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Before beginning this post, it’s worth explaining what this new segment will discuss. In today’s turbulent entertainment landscape, part of the interest in the release of movies is not just the product itself, but the discussion surrounding it. With the advent of the internet, and more specifically, social media sites led by Twitter, movies have taken on a greater dimension. With every film, you’ll find someone online attempting to weigh up the moral character of the piece, it’s importance to society, and the film’s overall worth. Gone are the days when judgements on quality ruled the day. Movies are the lambs to Twitter’s butcher.

In honour of this change in how we talk about movies, this will be the first of a series of posts dedicated to discussing the conversation surrounding the film. Social media as a whole will be taken into account, as well as digital publications, in order to fully see the turbulent reaction to a film.

When thinking about where to start with this segment, there was only really one option. No movie in recent memory has caused such a loud reaction as has Joker, the DC film directed by Todd Philips. Nominated for 11 Oscars and grossing over a billion dollars (the first rated R movie to do so), there is no denying that the film has been a success and has garnered critical acclaim in certain circles. But it also can’t be denied that the film is controversial. Upon its first release in Venice, despite receiving an eight minute standing ovation, some critics immediately voiced their dissatisfaction with the film’s character. Stephanie Zacharek of Time Magazine argued that the film epitomized the “emptimess of our culture” and that it “lionizes and glamorizes” Arthur Fleck’s character. This was echoed in numerous other reviews. David Ehrlich of Indiewire labelled it “incendiary” and “toxic” before giving it a C+ grade (officially classing it as a rotten movie by RottenTomatoes standards).

Film Festival 2019 Joker Red Carpet, Venice, Italy - 31 Aug 2019

These reviews immediately set the Twittersphere on fire, but not necessarily because of their observations about the film’s quality, but because the combination of comments on the film’s moral character as well as the extremely divided reaction (IGN for instance gave the film a 10/10 upon its premiere, something they hardly ever do, and The Guardian awarded it 5 stars) made the film’s appeal ambiguous. The release in cinemas was a whole month after the premiere in Venice, so this inability to define how it was received drummed up anticipation even more so than the much discussed trailers and advertising campaign.

How were the masses waiting to see this film (there were obviously a lot of them, as the opening weekend was close to 100 million domestic) supposed to fill their time between the insanely divided reaction and the general release? They were going to storm the internet to vent their frustrations of course. The first noticeable trend was the vitriolic reaction to reviewers who had poorly rated the film. These just increased as festivals continued; Toronto was far harsher on the film overall, bringing the RottenTomatoes score down to the 70% range. Zacharek was arguably the most abused on Twitter. Users began labelling her a “hag” and fishing through her review history in order to undermine her skills as a critic. A particularly hilarious trend was the idea that the fact that she gave Titanic a poor review back in the 1990s was proof that she was a terrible critic, and therefore no one should take her Joker comments seriously. Imagine thinking a James Cameron film is the bellwether of good journalism.

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(Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Titanic.) Source: https://www.metacritic.com/g00/?i10c.ua=1&i10c.encReferrer=&i10c.dv=21

I digress, but the idea is that battle lines were drawn before the film was released and this would only increase once it was out in cinemas. You either loved or you hated the film, and if you look on Twitter, one side hates the other uncontrollably.  There is no compromise and no middle ground. Well… almost. The Cinemascore for opening day audiences was a B+, hilariously suggesting that general audiences’ reactions were along the lines of “yeah, we liked it” rather than either “this is the second coming” or “this is the worst film in history”. This just shows that the concentrated online community of film commenters on Twitter are not representative of general audiences. It’s remarkably similar to politics, and all this points to a world in which news and perspectives are directed by those who flood social media with polarising opinions. In both current affairs, and political life, we’ve lost a sense of middle ground, and moderation.

Admittedly, the filmmakers behind Joker didn’t help the polarisation that the movie caused during its slow rollout back in Autumn. Todd Philips has been particularly inflammatory, claiming that “woke culture” has killed comedy and stopped him from continuing his streak of funny films that included The Hangover. With this, a narrative was born. The jaded male director, forced out of his preferred genre by the Hollywood elites, makes a movie about a loner, who also feels ostracised from society. How could Philips not expect critics to call into question the messaging of the film? It gives credence to the interpretation that its a lashing out against modern liberal culture, and thus is a rallying cry to the disenfranchised. But unlike something like Parasite, which satirises societal issues with both sympathetic and emotionally mature distance, Joker bases itself within a villain through and through. He’s Batman’s most famous enemy, so to make him the poster-child for all those who feel abandoned by society is much less responsible than other films of its ilk.

To be clear, I do like the movie. It’s an accomplished character piece, and I’m quite frankly more impressed with it due to its ability to spark fierce debate. But I’m not a fan of the extra dimension that has emerged from it. It’s fuelled a fire of online vitriol that quite frankly proves those who predicted its toxicity correct. It may not have sparked mass killings like some ludicrously said it would, but the Twittersphere is a war zone of polarising opinions, and I don’t see a ceasefire any time soon. I can only imagine what will happen if it wins Best Picture come Oscar night.

Find the reviews mentioned here:

Time: https://time.com/5666055/venice-joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-not-funny/

Indiewire: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/08/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-1202170236/

IGN: https://uk.ign.com/articles/2019/08/31/joker-movie-review

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/aug/31/joker-review-twisted-tour-de-force-joaquin-phoenix

 

 

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