Sorry to Bother You writer-director Boots Riley believes the Todd Phillips-directed Joker is anti-rebellion despite the revolution sparked by the downtrodden Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), saying it does the “same exact thing” all superhero movies do: present rebellion as “crazy.” During the San Francisco International Film Festival, Riley spoke out against superhero movies, referred to by Riley as “cop movies,” arguing cop movies express the belief the impoverished “are in poverty because of their own mistakes and their own shortcomings, and it has nothing to do with the system.” Joker presents the future Batman villain as a mentally ill failed comedian who is too poor to afford access to mental health care in crime-infested Gotham City.
“Excellent performances and you know, I love Joaquin Phoenix and hope to work with him,” Riley told IndieWire. “But basically it wasn’t flipping the superhero story on its head; it was doing the same exact thing that they all do, which is ‘rebellion is crazy.’ That’s what they told you, that these people are rebelling and they have no real reason to.”
Riley added the message is “the same thing that The Dark Knight tried to tell us,” referring to themes of economic inequality touched on in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
“You know, The Dark Knight, they made it more like Occupy after Occupy happened because they wanted to make this statement,” he said. “The truth is that these superhero movies are cop movies, and cop stories, cop shows, and cop movies are all about saying one thing — that those in poverty are there because they made the wrong choices, that the impoverished are in poverty because of their own mistakes and their own shortcomings, and it has nothing to do with the system.”
According to Riley, Joker “reinforces that by telling you, not only are these folks there because of who they are, [but that] the poor folks are stupid and when they rebel, it’s because they’re angry, and actually, rich people had nothing to do with them being poor. In actuality, those that are rich got rich off of exploiting the workers.”
Despite the DC Comics-inspired movie grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide, Phillips previously acknowledged Joker is “not a movie for everybody,” and his R-rated character study — inspired by films like Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The King of Comedy and Serpico — began with an attraction to the Joker’s status as an “agent of chaos.”
“I had grown up loving these sort of intense character studies of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I thought, ‘God, you could probably get one of those made nowadays if you did it about one of these characters,’ and it was that basic of an idea,” Phillips told Deadline. “I’d always been attracted to Joker because he’s an agent of chaos, which I’ve always liked, so I thought that could be an interesting approach to do a deep-dive character study on a villain. That was the genesis of the idea.”