Violence in an alley, a city on the brink and a vigilante to bring fear to those in power. For a film that was supposed to be a fresh spin on the superhero mythos, Joker is certainly wrapped up in aping Batman’s.
Joker is a 2019 film directed by Todd Phillips, written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver.
It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck. It’s a film that could effectively be categorised as a two hour character piece that details the inciting incidents that eventually lead to him becoming the Joker. (of Batman fame)
Arthur Fleck is a clown for hire. Arthur spins signs, he entertains kids at hospitals. He also looks after his seemingly very mentally limited mother and cares for her. Also he speaks to his therapist about his mental health issues, and wants to be a stand up comedian.
He lives in the city of Gotham which appears to be loosely in the late 70s/early 80s. A union strike (the first of several clumsily portrayed class war motifs) has the city overrun with filth and rats, and causing tensions to rise for the populace.
By the end of the film he will have started a revolution and committed multiple murders. You know. Standard clown stuff.
Why set the film nebulously in the late seventies/early eighties? What about the themes suits that choice?
Is it mainly because that’s when King Of Comedy was set? (Joker is cribbing a lot from that film and other Scorsese movies, which is not necessarily a problem in itself)
The time period does vaguely lend itself well to the ideas of social upheaval and change that were present during that period in American history. The film seems to play with this, with the clown based social movements seemingly being built around anachronistically inter-sectional class conflict. But equally, Arthur seems to have no interest in that sort of thing. It just sort of happens around him.
There’s also an undercurrent of this being a time where comedy was at a specific turning point. De Niro’s character specifically calls out Fleck’s standup, adult comedy as not being appropriate. This happens twice in fact, with it happening once in private in the dressing room, and once on air. On both occasions, the idea is put across that comedy (especially that specific brand of late show comedy) has to be safe and include everybody. “A nice family show”.
By contrast, the other comedy presented in the film is generally raunchy underground club standup for the era. There’s an implicit reverence for this type of comedy from the film, it’s what Arthur aspires to do. This “politically incorrect” atmosphere then seems to permeate the rest of the film’s mood. Everything in this film is in opposition. The poor vs the elite. Crass comedy vs family comedy. Joker vs the world.
Arthur’s descent into being the Joker can’t be talked about without talking about this film’s extended thoughts on mental health. It’s strongly implied that Arthur is only “damaged” due to his laughing condition which is never really clearly defined. It’s also implied in the conversations with his social care worker that he was committed previously. These mental health issues that Arthur discusses often are presented nebulously and seem to serve as another part of his slippery slope to becoming the Joker.
There are multiple situations where it feels like Arthur should be breaking down with the same crippling laughter condition caused by his abuse at the hands of his (also mentally ill) mother and her partner. It’s seemingly supposed to happen when he’s stressed/emotional. So damaged mental health “causes” his ostracism on some occasions and yet seems to be forgotten about at other points. When the film starts dealing with Arthur’s mother and the strange gaslighting and abuse she performs, this is again attributed heavily to her own mental health issues. The lack of consistency could be intentional to limit mapping Arthur’s issues on to any one group, or equally just using tropes as shorthand to explain away the awful actions of the Joker.
There’s a weird undercurrent around how race is handled in the film as well.
The very first act of violence we see is a bunch of non white kids stealing Arthur’s sign, smashing it on him and then kicking the crap out of him for fun. His social care worker is the only other character of colour that seems to matter to the film, and an astonishingly unsympathetic character at that.
Then we get to Arthur’s love interest.
Zazie Beetz is in a role that is literally and figuratively non existent. As far as I could tell, her name isn’t actually spoken in the film. She’s a fantasy for Arthur, a calming salve for his delusions. Because she gave him one smile. Considering the conditions attributed to his mother, it again reinforces a level of narcissism and demand that has uncomfortable gender connotations. She’s not a character, barely even having five lines. Instead, she seems to embody all the less positive aspects of a typical love interest in that she literally exists in the film for the hero’s gratification.
The twist is that she’s not real. Or the relationship isn’t. It’s all fantasy and daydreams of a mentally ill person. Arthur’s delusions are also not nearly as clever as the film thinks, with this reveal evoking nothing from the audience I saw it with.
The worst thing is that that horror of her implied murder wasn’t earned. By the logic of the film, all we know of her character is that she has a daughter and that Arthur is infatuated with her. Otherwise her murder is pointless and petty and meaningless in the wider thrust of the film.
With the kids and Beetz character, these are random individuals who don’t get to exist as characters within the film, only existing as props to give Arthur something to react to.
Similarly, this film has a lot to say about body image and physicality with regards to goodness and mental wellbeing.
Gary (Leigh Gill) has a broadly sympathetic character. He’s a nice guy who appears friendly to everyone. Multiple dwarf jokes are then directed at him, admittedly by clearly awful people. These are meant to provoke sympathy for the character. But the problem is that your film still has dwarf jokes in it, and your audience is still going to laugh at those jokes as presented. The intent I won’t argue. The effect I will. People laugh at the jokes you put in your movie and signpost. Even having the main character literally state that Gary was the “kind” one isn’t some kind of make up for this. That plays especially strangely since the very next gag from the film is Gary being unable to reach the lock on the door. That one got lots of laughs.
The film wants to have it’s cake and eat it. Gary is the sympathetic character that not even the Joker wants to kill, but also he’s still a dwarf, so he’s an object to be made fun of.
As for Joker himself, Joaquin Phoenix is skeletally gaunt for this role. The camera spends long lingering shots highlighting bone poking out from his flesh, especially following moments of particular cruelty. There’s an effect of linking his hunched grotesque form with the ups and downs of his mental health. As the film goes on, his form seems to elongate and become even thinner, exacerbated by his lanky, flailing limbs as he dances.
The film has this whole core theme of escalation. Joker is sliding down this slope towards being an out and out villain, but it never feels earned. The film presents Joker as the hero. Not the protagonist, not an anti hero. The language of the film says that Joker is right to take the actions he does.
This is true throughout the film. It’s the painfully on the nose resurrection scene confirming his Messianic status to the crowd. It’s his reasoning for the first murders (defending himself from misogynistic muggers) And It’s the violence against people who are proven to be cruel through their own actions in the film.
Those who aren’t “cruel” by the standards of the film escape. Or the violence and crimes against them are mediated by the vagueness that plagues the film. Arthur doesn’t murder everyone on the set of Murray’s show and he lets Gary go in a darkly sweet fashion. The audience is left ambiguously wondering about what happened to Beetz’s character.
Hell, this ties back into the us vs them narrative that’s been bursting at the seams of the film. Joker represents the poor and disenfranchised of the city taking control of their city. The people of the city literally end up being represented by him through their clown masks and their violence. And the film codes them as right to do so. They rise up from the filth of the union strike against an elite that’s portrayed as smug and luxurious.
I have no problem with Joker being the bad guy in this film. The sequence on Murray’s show where Arthur finally just gives up on trying to hide his ambivalence towards society is the best part of the film. It’s honest and Phoenix plays the role in an engrossing fashion. But the language of the rest of the film keeps couching Arthur and the Joker in this heroic imagery and language.
It goes back to the opening violence. This is a film that’s still heavily framed in the Batman myth.
There’s an incredibly obviously handled duality of Joker and Wayne that feels like it’s supposed to be this ongoing clever reveal. The film starts with Arthur being beaten in an alley. It ends with Bruce alone in an alley with his dead parents while Arthur is (literally) resurrected as the joker. It even has an incredibly on the nose median where Arthur and Bruce meet. The only thing separating them being the barred gates to Bruce’s higher social order. As I said, this film is not subtle. Joker is paralleled by Bruce, because he’s quite literally the hero of another story.
The film has some perfectly serviceable cinematography, and the direction never slips into being boring or dreary. The dialogue for the characters is perfectly reasonable, not campy or over the top. But at it’s core, this film kept trying to tell me that the Joker was a chaotic villain in one breath, then lionizing him as a hero in the other. It keeps setting up all these oppositional themes and giving ugly reasons for why he’s obviously acting the way he is. Joker wants to be an origin story for a villain. But it also really thinks he’s right.