The madness of Joker’s woke critics

They have had to invent reasons to damn this otherwise unremarkable film.

Fraser Myers

In normal times, Joker would be a relatively unremarkable film. It’s a mainstream, entertaining, three-stars-out-of-five affair, which thinks it’s cleverer than it is. It’s not especially original – its influences are blindingly obvious. It’s one of those ‘serious’ superhero films in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series – with the Joker, this time played adeptly by Joaquin Phoenix, providing the standout performance. Its other debt is to Martin Scorsese, highlighted by the casting of Robert DeNiro, who played Scorsese’s narcissistic, nihilistic antiheroes, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver.

But these are not normal times. Art and films in particular are now judged by both time-rich tweeters and professional critics as much on their adherence to woke standards and their political messages as on their artistic merit. And Joker has caused an enormous transatlantic stir for failing to live up to these new moral standards. Perhaps that’s nothing new. But what’s unusual about Joker is that it has been judged wanting based largely on its imagined qualities.

Millions went to see Joker on its opening weekend — it grossed $234millon worldwide. But critics seem to imagine its intended audience is made up of ‘incels’ – a niche grouping of sexless, basement-dwelling millennial internet trolls. Incels became infamous following a number of murderous terrorist acts, such as Elliot Rodger’s mass killing spree in Isla Vista, California and Alek Minassian’s van attack in Toronto. Commentators and critics worry that the film could spur incels to acts of violence – or at least justify their hatred of the outside world. Warner Bros even felt moved to release a statement pointing out that ‘neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind’.

For a reviewer in Indiewire, the film’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck (Joker’s real name) as a mentally ill loner taking revenge on a society that abused him makes it a ‘toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’. A critic in Vulture describes the film as an ‘anthem for incels’. A writer for Slate worries about ‘not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theatre using [the Joker’s] resentments to justify their own’. The film could act as an ‘incel manifesto, offering not just comfort or understanding to disaffected young men angry at the world but a playbook for striking back at it’.

What so many critics seem to forget is that Joker is a film about an anti-hero. That means its ‘message’ or ‘philosophy’ is bound to be morally ambiguous at the very least – nothing that millions of ordinary cinema-goers can’t understand, even if woke critics struggle with such ambiguity.

Other critics cast the net wider than the tiny collection of internet incels but still worry about the effects the film will have on the ‘wrong’ type of audience. Jeff Yang at CNN worries that Joker provides ‘an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power’.

Making a Joker-Trump parallel is not in itself invalid. But in order to sustain an entire article on this theme, and, most importantly, to attack the film’s moral standing, Yang has to invent parallels that aren’t there. Joker is the story of the ‘forgotten man’, he says. So far, so plausible. Apparently, this forgotten man is ‘crushed underfoot by the elite, dragged down by equality-demanding feminists and climbed over by upstart non-white and immigrant masses’. Only the first of these parallels makes any sense. The film doesn’t feature any feminists and the non-white characters experience the same destitution as Fleck. The only black character that has any nominal power or status over Fleck is his social worker, whose funding is cut halfway through the film and she is never heard from again.

Yang also worries that it ‘doesn’t quite seem accidental that all the incidental characters Fleck encounters are black’. It doesn’t quite seem accurate, either. Fleck encounters a whole host of white incidental characters. Yang finishes his review by urging us to ‘imagine Fleck as Trump, shrugging off impeachment, rebounding with his roaring red-hatted supporters’. Imagination is certainly what’s needed in order to sustain this interpretation and line of attack.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody really allows his imagination to run wild in his review. He declares Joker to be ‘an intensely racialised movie, a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering’. His main evidence for this is an allusion he sees in Arthur Fleck’s first beating and the first murder he commits. In the film’s opening, Fleck is beaten up by a group of youths, which reminds Brody of ‘the attack wrongly attributed to five young men mislabelled as the Central Park Five – an attack on an isolated and vulnerable white person by a group of young people of colour’. A colleague gives Fleck a gun to protect himself in the future. He then uses that gun to kill three bankers on the subway. For Brody, this evokes the murder of four black teenagers by Bernhard Goetz. But because the victims in Joker are not black, Brody accuses director Todd Phillips of ‘whitewash[ing] Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive’.

Of course, Joker is not about the Goetz murder. It’s a comic-book film about a mad clown. His first victims are obnoxious Wall Street types, not young black men. Brody conjures up an allusion that doesn’t fit and attacks the director as racist on the basis of his own failed analogy. In other words, Brody is angry with his own imagination. (Brody is a repeat offender in this regard. Take his review of the horror film, A Quiet Place, in which he decides that the monsters represent ‘the dark other’ and, in turn, attacks the film for having regressive, white supremacist undertones.)

It is no surprise that an ambiguous film like Joker has drawn scorn from the woke, who increasingly demand ideological conformity in the arts. But it is surprising that so many critics now rely so much on their own vivid imaginations – whether an imagined audience or imagined political and historical parallels. The backlash has been madder than Joker himself

Fraser Myers is a staff writer at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Watch the trailer for Joker below:

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Alex Cameron

18th October 2019 at 5:22 pm

Brilliant critique. It illustrates a great tragedy of our times…the need to defend ‘ambiguity’ in the arts!

Joseph Bogman

11th October 2019 at 7:37 pm

“For Brody, this evokes the murder of four black teenagers by Bernhard Goetz. ”
None of them were murdered or even died. He was attacked previous to his shootings on the subway by black punks, who make up almost all those sorts of punks, but NYC refused to prosecute those punks. So much for the lie about “blacks doing 20 years for a joint”. Jeez, who does ur research, a #BlackLiesMatter intern?

Paul Christie

10th October 2019 at 1:22 pm

Just one word to describe the left. Projectionists.

Anna Borrence

9th October 2019 at 3:41 pm

Brazen Lyers

How fey-gay do you need to be? Do you get kokksukker points for breathlessly regaling us with yet more kokksukker news?

Stay the fk away from fake news.

bf bf

8th October 2019 at 9:00 pm

Eliot Jordan

8th October 2019 at 3:11 pm

Who writes the original memo that all critics (especially woke ones) get their narrative from?

antoni orgill

8th October 2019 at 2:53 pm

Travis Bickle is a ‘narcissistic, nihilistic’ anti-hero? Superficial, dude.

Dean Laccohee

8th October 2019 at 2:52 pm

I notice in many reviews now, both in film and theatre, that the reviewer is writing about the play or film that they wanted to see, rather than what is in front of them. Lots of comments such as ‘what this play fails to point out’ or ‘what the playwright chooses not to address’ – why not just critique what they have written? Perhaps there’s a very good reason why the writer would choose not to address certain issues. I very much David Mamet’s London production of ‘Bitter Wheat’ recently, as did most of the audience who gave the cast a standing ovation. This from a one-star review of the same play – “Some prominent critics and commentators took it to task, sight unseen, for offering a male perspective of the #MeToo story that was properly the territory, they said, of female writers only.” Damned before it had even opened!

Andy Brim

8th October 2019 at 2:38 pm

Listen to CJ! It’s Pupkin!!

Jerry Owen

8th October 2019 at 12:04 pm

Are these young white men giving the film the ‘okay sign’ in their racist way !!
If it’s got De Niro in then I refuse to pay to watch it.

Anna Borrence

9th October 2019 at 3:42 pm

You’ve done ur dash.

Jane 70

8th October 2019 at 11:34 am

@ VEN OODS -they might be odd bots!

Gareth Hart

8th October 2019 at 10:25 am

Quote: “‘incels’ – a niche grouping of sexless, basement-dwelling millennial internet trolls”

Herein lies the problem. What you did not mention were a number of pranks made in cinemas during the weekend that Joker premiered. These pranks focused on signs stating a no admittance policy on the grounds of public safety, not against incels, but single men. So much so that AMC had to go public and explicitly state on Twitter that single men were not banned from seeing the movie in their establishments.

Now “single male” rather than “incel” in those pranks is important. Because it demonstrates the true targets of the current moral panic we find ourselves in. When a moral panic is created, a threat is identified (a few thousand radicalised incelsof which only a small percentage end up going on a shooting spree), the definition is extrapolated and applied to a much larger group (single men who can not or struggle to find a partner which could total hundreds of millions people worldwide and hundreds of thousands of people UK wide) so that the public becomes terrified and demands censorship, proscription and ostracisation of the targeted outgroup.

Nothing new, happened with rock and roll music, Mary Whitehouse and her war on ‘video nasties’, video gamers and the false claim that video games cause violence and/or sexism, Islamic terrorism and so forth.

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 11:35 am

Presumably, that’s ‘sexless’ as in ‘not getting any’, and not ‘devoid of gender’.

Gareth Hart

8th October 2019 at 2:53 pm

Of course.

Andrew Leonard

10th October 2019 at 3:42 am

Western culture is losing the ability to differentiate. It can only integrate.
All ‘incels’ are potential mass shooters.
Men are women, and women are men.
All cultures are equal.

The basis of intelligence is the ability to discriminate, at all levels; sensory, perceptual and conceptual.
The finer the distinctions that can be made, the more intelligent the organism can be.
Western culture is anti-discrimination. As a consequence, it is also anti-intelligence.

Forlorn Dream

8th October 2019 at 10:21 am

Young white men have grown up being told their natural behaviour is wrong. Told they’re not allowed a voice because of white male privilege. Told even asking a woman for a date is rape. Immasculated at every opportunity by rabid feminists. In a lot of cases they’ve watched their mother destroy their father in the divorce courts. Etc, etc.
Is it any wonder we now have a generation of either broken or angry young men? Now the people who helped to destroy a generation of our men are terrified of a film? Well, you’re holding a tiger by the tail and God help us all if it ever turns around.

James Hillier

8th October 2019 at 10:25 am

Quite. Only I don’t think it’s just young white men. It’s young men across the board: discriminated against in education and increasingly also employment while simultaneously being told, often by those doing this discriminating, that any murmur of complaint or even unhappiness only confirms that they deserve what they’re getting. Where do they think this ends?

James Hillier

8th October 2019 at 10:14 am

The way the woke react to culture is amusing, fascinating and horrifying by turn: a strange cocktail of lies, self-deception, ranting intolerance, demagoguery and what looks an awful lot like mental illness.

George Haworth

8th October 2019 at 10:11 am

The setting of this film; Gotham city is controlled by a small elite of powerful bankers who are getting rich while the rest of the city suffers due to cuts to public services. This plot could’ve been written by Jeremy Corbyn himself, and this film should be fawned over by those on the left. I haven’t heard anyone mention this aspect, all I’ve heard is their disgust that the film should portray a male ‘incel’ in a sympathetic light. It’s a shame that this pathological fixation on identity politics has distracted many on the left away from their valid and useful function; to prevent economic inequality from getting so out of control that society descends into violence.

Perverted Lesbian

8th October 2019 at 9:54 am

What is with the moderations?
They never appear. This is lame

Perverted Lesbian

8th October 2019 at 9:53 am

I’d give the movie 4 stars out of 5, the performance of Joaquin is magnificent. The makers deliberately draw on King of Comedy and Taxi, so I don’t see any problem with that, it is homage rather than stealing.

Perverted Lesbian

8th October 2019 at 9:53 am

I’d give the movie 4 stars out of 5, the performance of Joaquin is magnificent. The makers deliberately draw on King of Comedy and Taxi, so I don’t see any problem with that, it is homage rather than stealing. As for the woke ‘critics’, firstly are they actual film critics in the same category as Kermode for eg? No, and secondly the angle they adopt when writing for their publication is based solely on their ability to gain ‘clicks’, they have to consider ‘which way is the wind blowing’ and how best can ‘I’ avoid being canceled. This means that nothing receives critique on it’s own merit.

Perverted Lesbian

8th October 2019 at 9:52 am

I’d give the movie 4 stars out of 5, the performance of Joaquin is magnificent. The makers deliberately draw on King of Comedy and Taxi, so I don’t see any problem with that, it is homage rather than stealing. As for the woke ‘critics’, firstly are they actual film critics in the same category as Kermode for eg? No, and secondly the angle they adopt when writing for their publication is based solely on their ability to gain ‘clicks’, they have to consider ‘which way is the wind blowing’ and how best can ‘I’ avoid being canceled. This means that nothing receives critique on it’s own merit.
I personally thought the film was amazing, and ironically the ‘good guy’ SJW’s who believe they are ‘fighting the system’ are actually part of the elite calling the working class ‘Clowns’, which is funny as they are utterly oblivious to themselves.
The film does not glamourize violence, you certainly do not want to emulate Arthur, you are left feeling unsure of who to ‘root’ for, it is ambiguous in terms of ‘who are the good guys’, and how much of what happened was a part of Arthur’s delusions and what was real.
Another point that has probably been made before, these woke critics would secretly love for there to be an actual incident, that is probably the most disturbing thing to take away from all of this, more disturbing than a film that depicts a mental car crash in slow motion.

Mark Bretherton

8th October 2019 at 9:50 am

My only problem with the film is trying to give The Joker a back story to try and make us ‘feel’ for him. He’s a comic book villain FFS! He doesn’t need one, he’s just BAD. Just like the comic book heroine’s weren’t femisists fighting for the ‘sisterhood’, they were just w*nk material for teenage boys in the days before porn became mainstream and you would get a thrashing for nicking your dad’s Playboys.

John Millson

8th October 2019 at 8:03 am

Phoenix’s portrayal of pain caused by life-time abuse is amazing. Please gd. that there is no sequel with the grown up Batman who witnessed the brutal murder of his older parents. Phoenix must have more taste.
Great photography.
(Will Glitter really make that much from soundtrack royalties? Personally, I don’t care if he does.)

Perverted Lesbian

8th October 2019 at 10:33 am

I agree with everything you said.
I don’t care if Glitter gets royalties, do victims of his crimes receive compensation? The song seemed most apt, you are uneasy in Arthur’s company and then they throw in a song by a pedophile, adds to the overall ‘ewwyness’ feel of the movie for me.
Loved ‘White room’ too, it is a great movie, I think Fraser is just being a bit of a contrarian in this instance.

John Millson

8th October 2019 at 11:39 am

Apologies for the pedantry but I think most people wouldn’t have known the song was by ‘paedo’ Gary Glitter (just saw a headline in The Sun) but I get what your’e saying. Just a great piece of recorded music – crude, ‘rebellious’, ‘delinquent’… End.
(Though The Sun has done its bit for the film industry (and GLitter): playing film excerpt with some of his music.))

Trudi Hauxwell

8th October 2019 at 8:00 am

The problem with today’s film critics is that they’re taught this kind of pseudo-Freudian analysis at college. It’s the same if you study English literature. Students are expected to tear apart good work, hunting for themes and commentary which the author, in all likelihood, never intended.

I’m reminded of Edward Hopper’s painting The Nighthawks. When it was shown to art critics in 1942 one reviewer asked the artist what the philosophical meaning was behind his decision to paint a scene in a diner that had no exit door. Hopper’s response was that he simply forgot to put one in. Although he may have been pulling the reviewers leg the story illustrates the desperate hunt for meaning that critics and reviewers often embark on, for no better reason than it justifies their own existence. Without it they wouldn’t have jobs, and their liberal arts degrees would have been for nothing.

John Millson

8th October 2019 at 8:39 am

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation should be required reading, maybe?:
“The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form” (Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays)
Obviously we need some ‘interpretation’.

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 7:30 am

If we’re attributing this level of influence to mainstream film output, can I be the first to blame ‘The First Wives Club’ for almost giving us the deplorable Hillary as Prez?

Jane 70

8th October 2019 at 6:36 am

Winston Stanley

8th October 2019 at 7:13 am

Joker kills only ppl who have abused him in some way.

Jane 70

8th October 2019 at 8:36 am

Whereas Pogo molested, assaulted, then killed. Still, the resemblance is there

Perverted Lesbian

8th October 2019 at 9:55 am

We should set up a chat forum on reddit, the reply section on this site is terrible.

Jane 70

8th October 2019 at 10:36 am

Isn’t it just; time and again one wants to reply to a comment, only to find the reply option has dematerialised!
And the mods seem to have some odd criteria.

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 11:31 am

“And the mods seem to have some odd criteria.”

You think the mods are odd bods?

jessica christon

8th October 2019 at 6:55 pm

If someone does that, I’ll join. The moderation here is a mess.

Jane 70

9th October 2019 at 5:39 am


Winston Stanley

8th October 2019 at 5:17 am


A reversal of the usual batman story, poor rich kid grows up without his parents and spends the rest of his life hunting down the evil criminals, like it is not rather poor kids and yes criminals who tend to grow up without both their parents while the “good” rich live it up. It needed to be made.

“Incels”. 50% of adults in UK are not married, marriages last 11 years on average, 35% have never been married, 38% of men are single and 12% are in a relationship. Most kids reach 16 without both parents.

Ironic that some critics think that a film about childhood abuse and mental illness is actually all about them and “racism” or whatever when the movie is making the point about how ppl tend to care only about themselves.

Good if the film is not “moral”, there are other stories to be told. Maybe they should stick to something simpler.

Torrent hash: 47850E8320B450730A35D77549A983D338682FDC

Richard Procter

8th October 2019 at 10:26 am

“50% of adults in UK are not married, marriages last 11 years on average, 35% have never been married, 38% of men are single and 12% are in a relationship. Most kids reach 16 without both parents.”
What is the source for these facts please. Can this really be true?

Winston Stanley

8th October 2019 at 10:41 am

Start here and google around for further stats from Sept. 2019. I looked last night and most of the links on google about that story have vanished and they are now about “marriage is great”. Constant state interference in search results? I can look later. You want ONS stats.

The end of marriage? Proportion of women who are hitched dips below 50 per cent in England and Wales while the single population SOARS

Ian Wilson

8th October 2019 at 5:15 am

Does anyone actually care what critics think? I’ve always found that genre of people hilarious, and somewhat pointless as a profession, where their own biases are so clearly on show. And I have to say I’ve no idea what an “incel” is, nor have I ever heard the term. Must be because I’m not a time rich Twitterer…

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 7:25 am

I liked Clive James’ stuff. Even when I disagreed with his movie reviews, he was always witty.


8th October 2019 at 1:45 am

It’s Rupert Pupkin 😉

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 7:22 am

Yes. Rupert Pumpkin was in Halloween.

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