Even for a film devoted to perhaps the most iconic comic book villain in history, Joker has arrived front loaded with a measure of positive and negative hype mixed in with a significant level of anxiety and paranoia.
In that sense, Todd Phillips’ deconstruction of DC Comics villain The Joker, Batman’s eternal primary nemesis from almost a century of comic book lore, befits the approach taken by this detailed, Bat-free examination of the character. Phillips’ film takes a major cue from the work of Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker at the core of the American New Wave movement that defined 1970’s cinema, whose work has particularly concentrated on New York City. Were Joaquin Phoenix’s failed stand up comedian Arthur Fleck not a resident of the fictional, legendary Gotham City, Phillips’ film could easily be set in NYC. His Gotham has the same feel and texture, the same nihilistic cruelty and dystopian economic social and political divide. The early 80’s of Joker is Scorsese’s 70’s, riven through Phillips’ key inspirations such as Mean Streets or particularly Taxi Driver, not to mention the early 80’s showmanship of The King of Comedy.
It would therefore be easy to cast Joker off as a pure Scorsese-homage, or even rip off. Joker wears its inspirations very clearly on its sleeve, lifting Travis Bickle’s righteous fury at society’s decay or Rupert Pupkin’s delusional fantasy of fame and recognition, and porting them into Arthur’s descent into madness. Yet there is a case to be made that Phillips’ film and Arthur’s transformation are one and the same thing. Joker presents an origin story in which a murderous psychopath is created as a product of his environment, of his experiences, and of society’s evolution into the shape it is today. Joker, similarly, is an echo of a cinematic 70’s filled with pictures—such as Sidney Lumet’s Network or Serpico, or Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thrillers—that raged at the system, the inequality, and the corruption at the heart of American society. Joker, too, is a product of its own cinematic heritage. It feels like an evolution of the form.
The question is whether Joker, as a depiction of white male rage, is an irresponsible manifesto or a remarkable moment for comic book cinema.
Perhaps, in truth, Joker is a little bit of both. Perhaps part of the problem in how it has been received since early press screenings and through subsequent online discourse is that we have lacked a balanced and measured response.
Therein perhaps lies the irony about Joker, in that balance and tolerance is the one thing lacking in Arthur Fleck’s life. He is entirely a victim of his own delusions and, consequently, many will be reading Phillips’ film as sympathetic to his personal rage. Over the last few years, much has been written and observed about the so-called ‘incel’ movement, with the media courting hysterical anxieties that Joker could act as a trigger for the kind of maladjusted loners who, like James Eagel Holmes in 2012, killed people in a theatre during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The US military have warned about possible incel attacks at screenings, journalists were disinvited to the premiere after Phoenix was angered at being questioned about whether the film could trigger mass shootings. Some have considered Joker one of the most dangerous and questionable pictures in some time. There is palpable existential fear around this film like few others in recent memory.
Much of this feels like the point of Joker is being missed. Phillips’ film is not one that glorifies violence. It does not pitch Arthur as the hero, indeed the only time he is considered as such is by Zazie Beetz’s love interest Sophie, and that turns out to be driven by his own sense of delusion. The point is that Arthur is created by a deeper, more troubling societal problem that exists just as clearly now as it did in 1981, when the story appears to be set. “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” So says a social worker after her funding is cut, after Arthur is again ignored and shunned by an unequal, cold society he considers heartless. “Everybody is awful nowadays. It is enough to make anyone crazy. Everybody yells and screams at each other. Nobody is civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy.” If Joker is anything, it is a cautionary tale. It is a warning to the class structure that exists across Western democracy, a structure arguably breaking down under the weight of populism and growing authoritarianism, that men like Arthur, or Holmes, or Elliot Rodger or on and on and on are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take this anymore. It is a warning that we get the monsters we deserve.
This has not always been the story of the Joker as a character, and this is likely where purists will rail at what Joker presents. Though Phillips does lean toward aspects of Alan Moore’s iconic mini-series Batman: The Killing Joke, which presents the Joker as a failed comedian morphed after losing his family, but twists the Joker away from the anarchist we saw in The Dark Knight and ultimately more toward the theatre of Jack Nicholson or even Cesar Romero. Christopher Nolan presented the Joker as a symbolic antithesis to the order Batman attempted to bring to Gotham, allowing him to operate as more of an anarchist designed to destroy Batman’s character.
Phoenix’s Joker exists before Batman and as a result is less overtly political, instead he *becomes* the political symbol, as opposed to creating a movement. He ends up creating a broader monster, a deep seated, faceless, violent, anarchic class rebellion. A more savage version of Bane’s people’s revolution in The Dark Knight Rises. The Joker becomes a God to the masses tired of the rich and powerful, the elites, taking advantage of the system. Joker is essentially the parable of the white male alt-right personified in the comic book world. “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” He could be talking about any one of the men in masks across Joker, you sense.
Should Joker scare us, then? Should we be afraid of the darkness our own blindness and rigidity to social and political systems is creating? Is there a Joker around every corner, living in his mother’s basement, a victim as Arthur is of psychological and physical abuse, of being ignored or ridiculed, of being laughed at and considered a freak? Are we the architects of our own societal trauma, of a damaged and angry underclass ripping at the seams of the peaceful democracy we claim to venerate? Is the world, as Arthur attests, just getting crazier? Joker believes the answer is yes, whether right or wrong. It is a bleak, intense, nihilistic and painful depiction of trauma, mental breakdown and societal decay. It shows a Gotham where even Batman’s Dad is as much a heartless elitist as the rest of them.
Joker feels like a film with truths and realities we don’t want to face. The temptation is to treat it like a bad joke, or an ugly knock off. By doing that, the joke may end up being on us. A joke, as Arthur might say, we just don’t get.