At the time this essay went up, Todd Phillips’ Joker, an origin story for Batman’s most iconic villain, has released a few trailers and enjoyed controversial reception, with half painting it as a brilliant, evocatively directed character study of a lonely, unhappy, mentally-ill man, and the other half deriding it as an incel-friendly piece of sloppy, maudlin filmmaking. I watched the trailer and feel pretty comfortable guessing that when/if I sit down to watch it, I’m going to find myself thinking “I could have just watched Taxi Driver“; one thing that puts me off the current crop of superhero movies is that many of them feel like they’re trying to ape the quality of older films by copying their superficial elements, and the trailers I watched do feel like an incel’s post history recited over Martin Scorsese’s movies. I am, however, very fascinated by the pre-fandom that seems to have popped up around the film. They definitely seem like the same men who were complaining about the mere existence of Ghostbusters (2016), Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Captain Marvel, partially because Joker seems to be everything they were demanding in style, theme, and content, but mainly because they display the exact same baffling behaviour as those anti-fans but in reverse. I don’t intuitively grasp what it is that would drive a man to look up a post on a movie he doesn’t like and trot out the exact same three or four points in the comments section over and over.
(Look, I really want to act in good faith writing this article, but I also have a sneaking suspicion most of them picked up these points from someone else, which only makes it even more baffling to me – wouldn’t that get boring very quickly?)
What’s strange is that I think I get why they’re looking forward to the movie. I mean, I’d have to, they keep repeating themselves, but they don’t quite word it the way I would. The look of the film, the tone, the things protagonist Arthur Fleck does and says; these are things that validate their emotions. They feel lonely, they feel angry, they feel humiliated, and they feel like the rest of the world actively shuts them down and taunts them, and here is a movie with a guy who feels all the exact same things. I’m struck by one line that seems to have caught on: “All I have are negative thoughts.” I believe there’s much overlap with the men who love Rick & Morty for giving them the phrase “Nobody belongs anywhere, nobody exists on purpose, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV,” and for much the same reason. What’s especially interesting to me is how these men don’t actually want solutions for their anger and pain, only artistically comfortable validation of them. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Art can lead us to recognising our own emotions, and then perhaps we can find a solution for them somewhere else. Obviously, the flaw is when we either wallow in an emotion as opposed to solve it (which is what 99% of the incels, MRAs, and other assorted groups are going to do, simply repeating the basic fact of their suffering as opposed to dealing with it) or find horrific solutions (which is what Arthur Fleck and the real-life shooters do).
I suppose that does explain some of their bizarre actions. If your starting point is requiring a story to validate an emotion, then by definition, that emotion is not stable, and seeing it attacked or even not actively validated must be frightening, like seeing somebody breathing heavily on your house of cards. Constantly commenting on posts about movies you love (or hate) must be something like keeping the emotion safe in the same way one keeps a house of cards aloft by hitting anyone who comes near it, as opposed to, like, reinforcing the base of the whole thing, or even not building a house out of cards (uh, the metaphor is getting away with me here). Like, the absolute strangest thing I have seen one of these men do is when I saw someone say that they didn’t like The Last Jedi at first but found it grew on them with multiple watches, and a guy responded with a smug laughing emoji and something like “you’re working so hard to convince yourself it’s not a shit film”. I’m playing armchair psychologist here, but that’s a statement that not only presumes that art is not subjective and that all people have unique emotional reactions to stories (when we have demonstrable proof that people can like the exact same thing just as much in entirely opposed ways), it projects this one guy’s emotional reaction onto the whole population, and anyone who claims differently is trying to justify not expressing exactly what he believes. The best interpretation of this guy is that he’s so insecure in his emotional reaction that he can’t handle dissenting opinion and has to attack it and destroy it and rationalise that these people are jumping through hoops to pretend they don’t feel what he does (the worst interpretation is that he’s operating in the exact bad faith he assumes the original commentor was and is just being an asshole).
It’s interesting because it puts into perspective what I do. I couldn’t give two polished, well-hydrated fucks how anyone feels about The Shield or Tarantino movies or Cowboy Bebop; I often find the different perspective interesting, but I’m not invested at all in making people like them (or for that matter making people dislike Steven Universe or The Sopranos). This has sometimes gotten me in trouble, when I’m not concentrating and forget that, oh right, sometimes people get upset when you talk about things you don’t like about a movie they were just celebrating because they’re not trying to find some kind of explanation for your differing reactions (I don’t care about what people think but I do care about needlessly upsetting people for no good reason, if nothing else because those conversations are so fucking tedious). But there was a point where I resembled these men, even if in a different way; I like to think that essay-writing has sharpened and stabilised my worldview. I see these men try and beat people into submission with phrases they picked up, and I see the younger, more insecure version of myself who tried to impress people with cool insights I’d picked up and been impressed by, and seen them eviscerated by people who’d put more thought into their way of thinking, as opposed to simply half-assedly repeating something cool someone else said. It’s aimed to a slightly different purpose – getting people to think the way I think as opposed to liking what I liked, although I had my moments of that too – but it’s the same basic principle. I wonder what the post-essay-writing version of those guys will look like.