Double Take: Unpacking The Controversies of ‘Joker’ and ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Double Take is a series in which Anna Swanson and Meg Shields sit down and yell at each other about the controversial, uncomfortable, and contentious corners of cinema. Meg and Anna were on the ground this year at the Toronto International Film Festival where they caught screenings of 2019’s hottest tickets: Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” about a boy and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler; and Joker, Todd Phillips’ gritty comic book villain origin story.

Joker became a source of contention after its Venice Film Festival debut generated responses of overwhelming praise and moral apprehension, a mixed critical response that only became more fraught after Joker waltzed away with Venice’s coveted Golden Lion. Some feared Joker would serve as a dangerous blueprint of an unstable, disaffected man resorting to violence, with others going so far as to refer to the film as “a portrait of the supervillain as the original incel.” The other big-ticket hand-wringer on the TIFF docket was Jojo Rabbit, a heartwarming de-radicalization comedy trying to walk the tightrope of a twee aesthetic and a weighty World War II backdrop.

The Double Take duo came away from both screenings with reactions they didn’t expect. After taking some time to sort out how they felt about both films, they sat down to untangle the films’ similarities and the reasons they both felt uneasy about the latest TIFF People’s Choice Award winner. This is the conversation that followed.

The following contains spoilers for Jojo Rabbit and Joker.

AS: So, I guess where we could start is that at Venice, where Joker premiered, there were reactions saying “This film is dangerous.”

MS: Dangerous in the sense that it was going to be a movie for incels, which is a hideous thing, absolutely.

AS: Yeah, and I can see how the Joker story could loan itself to those connotations. You can very easily have this be a story about someone who feels slighted by society, but specifically by women.

MS: Or even at the very least that the narrative could fit an already existing incel narrative about misfit men. From the trailer, that did feel like a possibility. So even people who hadn’t seen it, just hearing reactions from Venice, were like: “Yikes!”

AS: There were also some people pushing back against that take, saying that just because the film might be working with difficult ideas didn’t necessarily mean it would condone the character or want you to support him. The idea being that films shouldn’t have to present a morally “correct” narrative to be good, which I agree with. I don’t need a 1:1 ratio of personal ethics to content.

MS: Yeah we are on record agreeing with that.

AS: We had points where we were like, “What if we like Joker?”

MS: It’s not difficult to talk about why an incel-ish movie might be dangerous. On the other hand, with something like Jojo Rabbit, finding the words to explain why a comedy based around WWII and Nazism doesn’t sit right requires a level of nuance that Twitter is not known for. I think it’s easy to pick up on what it is about Joker that could be dicey, but for some folks, myself included, it’s more challenging to articulate why this “Anti-Hate Satire” doesn’t sit right.

AS: And I do want to say, I’m all for satire. Satirize Nazis. Like, what Mel Brooks has done is great. But there’s something so on the nose about calling the film “an anti-hate satire.” I feel like if you call it that you’re almost undoing something. It reads as not putting faith in your audience to figure it out.

MS: I think it also shows that for the marketing team, there’s this idea of “if we position this film as something daring, the people will see it.”

AS: People will think it’s more transgressive than it is. It’s that feeling of thinking that you “get” something other people don’t.

MS: I also think, and I’ll don my tinfoil hat here, that Disney saying they didn’t know how to handle Jojo Rabbit was a lie. I think that was a marketing scheme to make it seem edgy.

AS: Yeah, it also sets itself up as a satire about Hitler as an imaginary friend, which is why when I saw the film I was shocked to discover it is not a satire and not about Hitler as an imaginary friend. The Drop Dead Adolf stuff is barely in the film to the point that if you took it out it would be basically the same movie. The film starts being kinda satirical, but it’s ultimately so earnest that I just don’t buy the branding. And humor is so subjective, but aside from one or two moments, this movie isn’t funny to me.

MS: Yeah, so after seeing these two films, the twist is that Joker isn’t really dangerous.

AS: It’s not good enough or bad enough to really warrant these reactions. It’s a fine film but there’s nothing dangerous or truly brazen about it.

MS: And when Joker goes off the deep end, it’s not because of women. It’s not an incel movie.

AS: He’s angry at the rich.

MS: It’s a movie about the 1%. It’s not about Joker failing with women and being angry because of that. It isn’t about gender. I mean, it does capture a certain male tendency to go into standup, but other than that—

AS: Joker’s targets are men! The anger he has towards women is not because they’re women. I’m not saying this makes the movie good, but it’s just not doing the things people said it was going to do.

MS: As far as Joker being a radicalization narrative, it’s about political dissatisfaction, economic unrest, and a lack of healthcare. Those are good things to critique.

AS: Jojo Rabbit is another film about radicalization that was packaged on the surface as being more transgressive and edgier than it actually is. But, I think that below Jojo Rabbit‘s performatively dangerous surface there’s something genuinely insidious that isn’t really being talked about.

MS: Jojo Rabbit‘s big points are that “Nazis are idiots” and that “we’re all human beings.” It’s too twee to actually say anything that could ruffle feathers.

AS: It’s using this Wes Anderson cutesy thing. It’s Moonrise Kingdom with Nazis. Moonreich Kingdom.

MS: (Laughing) Yeah, it doesn’t have any teeth. It makes Nazis look ridiculous but it doesn’t take the extra step of saying anything more substantive than “Aren’t Nazis dumb?”

AS: There were moments where the audience was applauding for the bare minimum “Nazis are bad” moments and it just felt like such a pandering, pat-yourself-on-the-back film that makes audiences feel good for what should be considered a basic fucking human decency opinion that Hitler is bad. It’s not actually saying anything insightful or interesting about fascism and radicalization.

MS: I will say two things: Taika Waititi does have a Jewish background and people process their own histories in different ways. Two: someone could conceivably make a case that sometimes you just need to laugh at stupid Nazis. Is it so bad to sometimes laugh at something that’s dangerous?

AS: Mel Brooks already did that.

MS: Exactly. If that’s what you want, there’s a long history, from before the United States even entered WWII, of movies making fun of Hitler. Chaplin and Brooks and others have done this. Waititi’s a funny, charming guy but there’s a functional angle where I don’t know what this adds as a satire.

AS: I think it’s too focused on its child-centric narrative to be able to engage with these themes in an adult way.

MS: When you take the comedy out, I don’t think you have anything more radical than the kind of humanity-affirming Holocaust tearjerkers that show up in the Academy’s foreign bracket every now and then. This is basically Wes Anderson’s Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and I don’t know what that adds.

AS: “Hitler Imaginary Friend” also just feels like a two-hour version of a rejected SNL sketch they would have done in 2002. But also, “Hitler Imaginary Friend” was a huge part of the marketing and it’s barely in the film. It’s there for maybe the first fifteen minutes.

MS: Which is the strongest section of the film.

AS: Because that’s actual satire. And then the kid blows up and so does the movie.

MS: (Laughing) It’s true.

AS: Which leads me to believe the film is just using “Hitler Imaginary Friend” as a way to posture as being more complicated, interesting, and edgy than it actually is.

MS: The most complex this film gets is that love is the answer, which in the context of very late-stage World War II Germany feels really gauche. Even in 2019, it feels gauche! I think that’s the sort of sentiment you have when you’re in the bleachers 100 years down the line after a historical atrocity. And because history has come back, and really never left, it feels uncomfortable. And not in the way the film promised it would feel uncomfortable.

AS: Yeah.

MS: People were expecting a radicalization narrative from Joker, and that turned out to not actually exist in the way we were led to believe.

AS: A false alarm. Meanwhile, Jojo Rabbit was setting the fire next door.

MS: Jojo Rabbit is a de-radicalization narrative. And what’s at the heart of that deradicalization narrative is actually kind of unsettling.

AS: It’s basically: Jojo becomes de-radicalized because he figures out Jews are people when he falls in love with one.

MS: And the emotional burden of his transformation falls to Elsa, to the Jewish teenager being harbored in his house. The film never goes so far, but when you look at it from a distance, it’s on her to deprogram this radicalized young boy.

AS: Even Jojo’s mom (Scarlett Johansson), who is a figure of resistance, who actually does work fighting with the capital-R Resistance—it’s not any of her work that changes Jojo…

MS: It’s the power of love, Anna!

AS: Oh my god.

MS: The power of love! But not a mother’s love.

AS: It’s not actual resistance or actual attempts at de-radicalization work—you need a pretty love interest. It’s Elsa’s job to be loveable and human enough to save Jojo.

MS: I think about women online, specifically about Natalie Wynn, who have been positioned as “doing the work of de-radicalizing the alt-right.” That’s a wild expectation for women: to do the emotional labor of reminding men that women are people. And I think that, probably unknowingly, Jojo Rabbit does a similar move.

AS: And it’s not satirizing the narrative of Jews having to prove to people that they’re human, or how the onus is often placed on oppressed people to prove themselves as being worthy of basic human decency.

MS: In the film’s defense, it tries. Elsa says things that are ridiculous about Jewish folks, how they have horns and sleep upside down like bats, to show how ludicrous Jojo’s beliefs are. But it’s so silly and toothless that it never registers as a satirical hit because none of us need to be convinced that the dehumanization of Jews is wrong. That humanistic leap, if you can call it that, has been done many times, better in other movies.

AS: And anyone who doesn’t feel that way is not going to be convinced by this film.

MS: “Getting along with the enemy” is the heart of the movie. That’s what it’s trying to reveal with its purported satire: that our common humanity will unite us and allow us to dance in the streets once the dust is settled. That the “weight” of that reveal is carried on the back of someone being oppressed leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

AS: The way that the film frames that reveal in emotional shots is just cheap. Like, “Oh you want people to feel a certain way? Great: Bowie song.” It’s the most basic, pandering route.

MS: I just don’t know why, in 2019 of all years, we need to have a feel-good movie about World War II and the Holocaust.

AS: If it actually had teeth and if it was actually a satire, then absolutely there’s a place for that.

MS: Sure, when Nazis are a thing again and you look at a film like Jojo Rabbit you think: “okay, there’s something there.” But Jojo Rabbit never leaves 1945. It’s a modern movie in a lot of ways, but there’s nothing that acknowledges our current predicament.

AS: I don’t know if the thing of a historical film throwing in references to our contemporary period always works for me, though.

MS: I meant it more in the sense that the modern Nazi presence is the only thing that could justify Jojo Rabbit as a satire, and make it different from anything we’ve seen before. That it’s being made in 2019, a year where Nazis walk among us, was what gave it some bite and it never digs into that.

AS: Right that’s what would distinguish it from The Great Dictator

MS: …or To Be or Not To Be, or any of these movies. That’s what would have made it relevant as a satire, not the fact that it was directed by a comedic director whose tone we like right now.

AS: Waititi is such an earnest filmmaker, I don’t know if he knows how to work with satire. It’s such a sincere film. And you can see that he gets this sort of imaginary friend conceit out of the way and then it becomes a very straightforward, emotional-beat driven film. And I think something like Death of Stalin is the much better version of a similar idea.

MS: We all know that dictators suck and that the vulturous bureaucrats that encircle them are stupid. But they’re not just goofy. Death of Stalin goes the extra step of revealing the pettiness and self-destructive tendencies of an inner circle. It’s great, funny, and disturbing. I don’t know if Waititi can be disturbing, which is what satire does: it uses comedy to help us put on our big boy pants and walk into a fire and find the thing no one wants to talk about.

AS: Satire has to involve a certain degree of the rug being pulled out from under you, where you get to a comfortable place with something and then the film pulls back to reveal what’s actually going on that’s insidious. If what Jojo Rabbit reveals, aka “Nazis are bad,” doesn’t really provide any insight on how people become radicalized or deprogrammed. There’s no bait-and-switch. There’s no rug, there’s no floor!

MS: This is an extremely comfortable film about Nazi Germany. And I don’t know how that’s productive. And now it’s won the Audience Award at TIFF. 

AS: Should we talk about its Oscar chances?

MS: I mean, I was going to leave to go make a bunch of alt-right boys fall in love with me so I can de-radicalize him. That’s what I’m going to do.

AS: Yeah, that’s the lesson of this film.

MS: Guess we’ll have to wait and see if the Academy makes the bold stand that Nazis = bad. What an opportunity for them after Green Book. Look, I don’t know, Jojo Rabbit is fine if you take a few steps back and you squint, but the problem is that once you step that far back you start to wonder about what it all means.

AS: The film is too childish to actually get the depth it to function as a satire. It has floaties on. It can’t sink.

MS: (laughing)

AS: It can’t. It’s splashing around at the top of the water trying to dive and it can’t.

MS: I just don’t know what “safe Nazi comedy in 2019” does.

AS: If the Academy truly wants to reward a film that’s good for the Jews, Uncut Gems is right there. Oscar for the Sandman, that’s how we’re ending this.

Anna Swanson: @annaswnsn Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.