Joker Controversy Aims at Wrong Target

The anxiety around the Joker controversy is understandable, but it's based in an antiquated way of thinking as old as the Hays Code.

Can a movie be too dangerous for “our times?” Should a movie even be considered dangerous in and of itself? These are complicated ideas that each generation grapples with in relation to popular media and how it influences the broader culture. And that conversation has risen again with all the nuance of a social media meme via the arrival of Todd Phillips’ Joker movie.

As anyone who has picked up a newspaper—or just read their Twitter feed—has noticed, Joaquin Phoenix is starring in an R-rated and gruesome reimagining of the Joker. This has made more than a few people anxious, and not for wholly invalid reasons. Among them are several families affected by the tragic 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado; they released an open letter to Warner Bros. stating that upon hearing the character would receive “a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause.”

WB responded by noting that the studio has donated to charities for families hurt by mass shootings and that their parent company, AT&T, supports “bi-partisan legislation” to address the epidemic. That press release also more acutely stated, “Neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

That clear distinction of what a film is trying to say and how it is interpreted seems to be at the heart of the matter, with some apparently unwilling to acknowledge a disconnect between artistic intent and consumption. The media feeding frenzy has gotten so extreme around the possibility of something truly horrifying happening at a Joker screening that municipal police forces have announced a plan to make a show of force around movie theaters, and the U.S. military has warned service members about the danger of seeing Joker in theaters after the FBI uncovered disturbing social media posts by incels.

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What appears to be getting lost in all of this is the actual movie itself. Even in reviews by professional critics, an uncomfortable trend is growing where a movie is judged not by its merits, but by how it might be perceived by a specific type of audience. I have read more than a few critiques that confirmed a common social media narrative (one that predated the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere) about how this movie is just too dangerous. One major publication even refused to give it a grade, because “the wider impact Joker is poised to make seems far more dangerous. And the idea that even one viewer might take its conventions at face value, and then act on them, feels like no joke at all.”

I respect anyone’s opinion or reason to dislike a film. In my own review, I have criticisms about Joker leaning too eagerly into nihilism without revealing a fully cogent reason. And God forbid anything should happen, especially after the news cycle has made the anticipation of Joker something to dread. Yet this influx of paranoia that a movie is “too dangerous to be released, and because of that the film’s actual qualities are automatically forfeit, feels akin to a moral panic. One we’ve seen many times before.

While director Phillips might’ve been too flippant when he told The Wrap that the outrage engulfing his movie is because of the “far left,” one cannot help but note many of the same media personalities clutching their pearls over Joker rightly laughed at President Donald Trump implicitly joining a Fox News bandwagon to have Universal Pictures’ The Hunt shelved, supposedly because it would inspire hatred against conservative-leaning Americans. Like Joker, The Hunt had not been seen by a mass audience, nor seems to actually be depicting rural Americans in a negative light since they are the heroes of the film. Somehow though, when conservative media blames video games or movies for violence, it’s erroneous but fear of a lone Redditor can make more challenging films beyond the pale. Beyond any politics though, this type of scapegoating of media is a bipartisan and timeless talking point.

One of the most famous examples with echoes of Joker is Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes’ Scarface (1932). Before Al Pacino said, “Say hello to my little friend,” Paul Muni was shooting a bloody trail across the screen of Depression era cinemas. And he would have gotten there a year earlier if not for the moral indignation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (the forerunner of the modern day MPAA).

Headed up by a corrupt figurehead named William H. Hays, the MPDDA would be vested a few years after Scarface with the power of real censorship. However, in the 1920s and early ‘30s, they were created by studios as a way to dissuade state and federal governments from censoring Hollywood output, and as such had ineffectual power. Hays came from Washington, first as the Republican National Committee Chairman between 1918 and 1921 (when Prohibition became the law of the land) and then as a key figure in the notoriously broken Warren G. Harding White House.

But if Hays was generally ineffective in the early years of his position, those who worked with him would not be. That included Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman, and Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest, who began creating a code of standards in 1929. What they crafted would become known as the Motion Picture Production Code (or the “Hays Code”). Lord was particularly worried that children were susceptible to bad influences in movies. The code they created, which technically was enacted in 1930, was intended to prevent a movie from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it.”

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That seemingly well-meaning conceit unfortunately meant it was bent by design toward the highly religious and political standards of Catholic American leaders of the time, which in addition to curtailing what they viewed as uncomfortable violence also meant that sex outside of marriage was prohibited from being “attractive or beautiful;” a ban on any act considered to be “sex perversion,” including any depiction of homosexuals; and an explicit refusal of any depictions of “miscegenation” (interracial relationships).

Today all of these restrictions range from the quaint to the horrifyingly racist, but they cumulatively served as a political tool intended to prevent “even one viewer” from taking a movie’s “socially unacceptable” images at face value. Today we are not worried about outright censorship (yet), but neither was Hollywood in 1930 when the Hays Code was poorly enforced. It was essentially acting more as a toothless guideline intended to prevent outside censorship while ensuring the “wrong” type of movie never gets made. Until 1934, and the introduction of Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration, the Hays Office had no authority and merely lobbied to have movies changed or delayed… not unlike social media controversies today.

Which brings us back to Scarface. That film, like its remake, was an excessively violent for its time depiction of an unrepentant gangster. The film lacked the moral compass of a square-jawed hero, which back then would’ve been denoted by their badge rather than a flowing CGI cape. The Hays Office read the script and was apoplectic that it depicted a gangster as sympathetic instead of as the arch villain to an upright hero, never mind that he had lustful thoughts about his sister and died going out in a blaze of glory at the end. One of the foundational cornerstones of the Hays Code was that all criminal actions must be punished, and neither a crime or a criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience. The fear was Scarface would inspire people to become criminals.

Hughes told Hawks, “Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic and grisly as possible.” After Scarface screened in Los Angeles in 1931, the Hays Office refused to give it their licensed stamp of approval and led a media campaign decrying the film. Afraid of state and local censors, Hughes would ultimately delay the movie a year so that the concerns were addressed in reshoots and an alternate ending that Hawks refused to participate in. Thus Richard Rossen received co-director credit for including scenes where a newspaperman admonished the menace of gangsterism preying on society, and a new ending was filmed that erased an original where Muni’s Tony goes down firing his empty gun at the cops until his last breath. Now Tony reluctantly turns himself over to the police, and audiences see a judge addressing Tony and sentencing him to death (Muni was unavailable to shoot these sequences), and finally Tony’s silhouette is hanged. Crime doesn’t pay, kids!

It was a ridiculous overreaction that became a prelude to what happened when the Hays Code gained real power in 1934. They were finally able to deny movies the ability to even shoot without script approval.

read more: The Secrets of the Joker Movie

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This is not to say that we are on the path to censorship in 2019. But the same general attitudes that made the Hays Code possible have reemerged in the last several years en masse for both moviegoers and movie criticism. Intriguingly, as major studio output continues to mirror the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” which primarily existed beneath the grim gaze of Breen’s Production Code Administration, so do our concepts of acceptable mass commercial entertainment.

Social mores dictated what was wholesome entertainment for the whole family from 1934 through the ‘50s (the Code limped into the ‘60s before finally expiring in 1968).  Musicals, Westerns, romantic comedies, and biblical epics were the order of the day. That some musicals had blackface, many Westerns depicted Native Americans as savages, and biblical epics were often gaudy proselytizing (and a good excuse to get around the censors because the Bible is full of sex and violence!) has aged less gracefully. But most of these films had black-and-white morality, and outliers, like the film noir movement for instance, had to rely on implication to get around the censors and still have law and order reaffirmed by the end.

We are once again inundated with formula and blockbusters by the big studio releases—and the whole industry breathlessly covers who’ll make Spider-Man 8. It’s why Joker is doubly unusual. In addition to being an R-rated comic book movie, it is also a fairly high-budgeted character study about someone without moral foundations. While that kind of storytelling became popular with the mainstream in the 1970s, to the point where nihilism was considered bankable especially in the better movies that inspired Joker, today we are again most comfortable with proverbial cops and robbers. Some audiences (and critics) even want that “robber” to be as reassuringly flat and evil as… well, a traditional comic book villain.

I can only speculate whether these trends are related or anecdotal, but they are part of a larger growing media criticism that evaluates art solely by how it should be received. For good or ill, the fact Joker depicts a mentally ill man drawn toward violence is judged by many as a reckless provocation of violence; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features a racist cop who is a horrible human being, but also one with some dimensionality, and is thus seen as a cinematic refuge for racist cops everywhere. It’s not that different from President Trump saying The Hunt will inspire attacks on Trump voters: a movie presents an idea we are uncomfortable with examining, so the best reaction is to cast it out.

Of course there is an undeniable correlation between media violence and aggression in some viewers, particularly children. This previously accepted wisdom (and now statistical fact) made Scarface scary when it screened after a decade of mobster-related violence during Prohibition, and it’s made Joker uncomfortable for some after decades of mass shootings and a total lapse in government leadership to control the epidemic of guns in our society. But to blame these movies or fear them is a misguided attempt to control something more manageable—the cultural conversation—than the abject helplessness felt by years of lawlessness or mass death.

In the last 25 years, as media violence increasingly grew more accessible in the age of streaming, actual crime rates have decreased. And in a global market where movies like Joker can open in the U.S. and Japan on the same day, one of those countries can have less than 12 deaths by guns a year while the other has about 40,000. Hint: The lower one does not allow citizens to buy assault rifles. Even as tragic as the events around the Aurora shooting are, few seem aware that William H. Reid, the court-appointed psychiatrist who interviewed shooter James Holmes before his trial, said Holmes was not inspired by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. That was a common misconception in 2012 that clearly still holds in 2019.

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I have some trepidation going into Joker’s release after weeks of breathless news cycles have turned a nationwide release into a high-profile target. But art, even at its most commercial or misbegotten, can be a mirror. It can be a mirror of our most adolescent or cynical visions too. Swinging at that reflection is never going to fix the problem we see. To expect an artist to be as sensitive about our current socially accepted comfort levels as a politician, and therefore their art to only be a glorified political platform we can all agree with, is as shortsighted and doomed as the Hays Code.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.