Reinventing the Joker, Again
It’s hard to go in to watch Todd Phillips’ Joker without any pre-conceived thoughts and ideas. Some critics have already proclaimed it ‘film of the year’ and a ‘masterpiece’. Others have hated it. Phillips, previously perhaps best known as the director of the three The Hangover movies, hasn’t helped himself by claiming that it is now impossible to make a comedy because of the current ‘woke culture’.
But the biggest discussion around the movie is about how apparently ‘dangerous’ it is. Some media outlets seem determined to present the film as something to be afraid of: that it’s celebrating gun violence, it’s going to lead to mass shootings at screenings, it’s a hateful, disgusting, violence-filled movie. There were even headlines about – shock horror – people causing trouble by vaping during a screening! Clearly, this film should be banned.
Perhaps it was one or more of the above that had me on edge throughout my viewing of the film, or perhaps it was something within the film itself: some dark, disturbing edge, tugging at me and making it an uncomfortable viewing experience. That’s not to say that the film was a bad film – far from it, in fact. The cinematography, performances (especially from Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, aka Joker) and music were all superb. It’s an adult drama disguised as a comic book villain film, rarely diving into the tropes of the latter, and aside from one or two moments keeping its feet firmly planted in the former.
It could be this degree of realism that has caused the film to be branded ‘dangerous’. Joker is presented as an everyday nobody. He’s a man struggling to make a living as a clown-for-hire, living with and looking after his ailing, ageing mother. He dreams of making a better life for himself as a stand-up comedian, with a particular desire to appear as a guest on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) late-night talk show. The film presents the challenges faced by a mentally unstable person, who needs more help than he is able to get, particularly after the centre he goes to for therapy shuts down due to funding cuts. He suffers delusions, he has dreams which it’s clear he will never be able to achieve, and he has a debilitating condition where he sometimes finds himself laughing uncontrollably at situations that just aren’t funny. He’s one of ‘us’, and it is ‘them’ – the elite, the rich, the powerful – who are grinding him down, stopping from achieving his true potential and have a balanced, stable mind. Even Thomas Wayne is presented within the film as being something of an elitist snob who looks down on the little people, despite claiming that everyone who works for him is like family. This is not something we’ve ever seen in previous iterations of the Batman universe on screen: Wayne has always been a philanthropist, doing everything within his power and means to make Gotham a better city for its citizens.
The rich and powerful controlling the lives of the ‘little people’ is clearly something that is on the minds of a great many people on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and perhaps there is some degree of recognition (whether conscious or otherwise) that the situations in the film are a somewhat exaggerated reflection of real-world situations.
The film is dark and disturbing to a degree, but it is certainly no more violent than many other films that have been released recently without any controversy whatsoever. Other than a brief moment towards the end of the film (which may or may not be all in Fleck’s head, as it is made clear on several occasions that not everything we have seen play out on screen were events that ‘really’ happened).
The influence of Martin Scorsese’s earlier films is clear throughout; Scorsese himself had been previously attached to the project as a producer, though he dropped away somewhere along the line. There are certainly shades of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) throughout. Robert De Niro’s casting in a relatively small but vital role in the film is surely no coincidence. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle’s gladness at ‘the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks’ is reflected in a plot point about the garbage collectors all being on strike, leaving trash to litter sidewalks and alleyways, adding to the grimy stench of the Gotham created for the film (clearly a loosely disguised New York, as Gotham always has been). The darker side of life on ‘the streets’ is something that Scorsese explored frequently in his earlier films, particularly Taxi Driver and the earlier Mean Streets (1973), both of which were also considered controversial for the gun violence presented throughout. Bickle shares many traits with the Joker as he is presented in the new film: a seemingly poorly-educated loner who struggles to keep a job, and feels those in power are responsible for everything that is happening to keep them down and stop their dreams from happening. It is little wonder, then, that Scorsese was attached to the project, and I can’t help but wonder why he left the project.
Whilst Travis Bickle had some sort of plan, misguided as it may have been, this is a Joker with no true purpose. He himself states within the film that he doesn’t believe in anything. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was a mob boss who fell in a vat of acid, so his reign as the ‘clown prince of crime’ made sense. Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight (2008) presented the Joker as a complete enigma, seemingly coming from nowhere and constantly reinventing his own backstory. The less said about Jared Leto’s horrendous (IMHO) take in Suicide Squad (2016) the better. But this new version is very much a product of society. He is not a criminal at the start – he is a nobody who just wants to be seen. Ignored and let down by the systems set up to help people like him as he watches the rich get richer and the poor get trampled on. His turn to crime is accidental, at first, but he soon sets his sights on the man who he had practically worshipped for most of his life, who also became responsible for giving Fleck his new moniker: Joker.
Though the message is clear – the rich and powerful are keeping the rest of us down – it’s far from a new concept, so it’s really is hard to see where the controversy is coming from.
Perhaps it’s nothing more than the fact that this serious message, presented seriously and dramatically, through excellent performances in a well-crafted film, is given to us in the form of a super-villain origin story, where the comic book trappings of Batman and the world we’re used to him inhabiting is just around the corner.
Comic book movies shouldn’t be about anything.