Joker, the defining divisive film of the moment, is a fascinating Rorschach test for contemporary cinematic masculinity. It received the Golden Lion and an eight-minute standing ovation at Venice (a festival with its own history of phallocentrism) and has made nearly US$1bn worldwide. But it’s also been denounced as shallow, derivative, cynical, incel-friendly and a crude depiction of mental illness. So incendiary was its pre-release buzz that one US cinema chain banned masks, face-paint and costumes at its screenings for fear of copycat attacks. A few months after Mr Quentin Tarantino’s equally provocative Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, it begs the question: is the age of the “man” film over?
By “man” film, I mean the sort of film that shows a white man channel his disenfranchisement into violence with an infectious dress sense, old-and-new soundtrack and grandiose worldview – a sort of invincible, couldn’t-give-a-fuck nihilism crystallised by a breakthrough role for a zeitgesty actor (Mr Malcolm McDowell in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange; Mr Brad Pitt in 1999’s Fight Club). It has been an undeniably successful formula for cinema, but sexual politics are often stunted, with limited agency for women (in Scarface, Mr Al Pacino’s Tony Montana describes Miami as “one giant pussy waiting to get fucked”). If Ms Margot Robbie is in the film, she will no doubt be underused.