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‘Joker’ is the latest case of commerce masquerading as art

Warner Bros Pictures

Defending “Joker” amid pre-release criticism, director Todd Phillips reminded us that art doesn’t always make people comfortable.

“Art isn’t safe,” he told the Washington Post. “You want a safe art form? Take up calligraphy.”

But as the film’s protagonist might say, who’s kidding whom?

“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.

‘Joker’ — a political parable for our times

Despite hand-wringing about the movie — and doubtless in part, because of it — “Joker” opened to an estimated $96 million in North America — a record box-office haul for the month of October — and $235 million worldwide. Those results prompted inevitable headlines about “Joker” overcoming the naysaying and laughing all the way to the bank.

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.

Many fans howled, and some directors of Marvel movies — including Joss Whedon (the first “Avengers”) and James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) — rather gently pushed back.

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.

Add that to recent coverage of mass shootings, and as Hollywood Reporter columnist Scott Feinberg noted, “random senseless killings don’t play like they used to at the movies.”

Is it likely that someone would seek to emulate that in connection with “Joker’s” release? No. Is it totally far-fetched that a disturbed individual might glean the wrong message from a movie that showcases a monstrous character and seeks to conjure empathy toward him by exploring his origins? You’d have to be living in a cave, batty or otherwise, to completely dismiss those apprehensions, which have been expressed by, among others, families of the Aurora victims.

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.

The most significant gripe about “Joker,” in fact, is that there’s no real reason for it, beyond the expectation — accurately, as it turns out — that the name recognition, wedded to the talent involved, would prove to be a box-office draw.

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.



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