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Joker

I give you, the average man! Physically unremarkable, it has instead a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity’s self-importance. The club-footed social conscience and the withered optimism. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, is it? Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them, they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor, pathetic specimen survive in today’s harsh and irrational world? The sad answer is “not very well.” Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this, any other response would be crazy!

Joker, “The Killing Joke”

Batman is a gargoyle. He watches over Gotham from high above, dressing himself in horns and leathery wings and demonic imagery. By contrast, Joker dresses himself in colorful and playful imagery. He’s more like a pedophile moonlighting as a shopping mall Santa Claus. A razor blade in a candy apple. A fatal crash on a rollercoaster.

Batman is a false monster, made to scare away and defeat the true monsters and threats. Joker is a false comfort, made to ensnare and destroy the pure and innocent. Batman inspires the courage to face down adversity and carry on through all darkness. Joker inspires fear and mistrust, the paranoia to look for any real or imagined danger in anything wholesome or friendly.

Of course both characters have gone through numerous wildly different incarnations and everyone has their own preference. But at their absolute best in any iteration, each character sits directly atop a razor-thin and perilous line. For Batman, it’s the line between tough and crazy. For Joker, it’s the line between funny and scary.

The two characters are eternally equals and opposites. Their conflict of order versus chaos is so legendary that each of them can only be truly and completely defined in contrast with the other. Thus a standalone Joker film makes about as much sense as… well, a standalone Venom film, come to think of it.

In fact, it makes even less sense, given that Eddie Brock’s motivations and origins are such a crucial part of who and what Venom is. Not so with the Joker, who neither wants nor needs any kind of motivation or backstory beyond pure chaos.

Alas, properly understanding all of this requires a level of nuance and insight that DC/WB has shown themselves incapable of in recent years. This was immediately obvious when they approved of Jared Leto playing the character as a tatted-up, nakedly aggressive, materialistic thug for all of five minutes’ screentime. To say nothing of the psychotic backstage fuckery that WB openly glorified, as if mailing dead rats and used condoms to co-workers wouldn’t get anyone else fired and arrested at literally any other workplace.

In any case, given the current and future WB/DC slate, it appears that the partnership is employing the “New 52” approach with their movies. By which I mean they’re jettisoning everything that didn’t work while trying to keep what did, pretending that the context isn’t totally different and all the previous backstory never happened. Jared Leto is off the roster and Harley Quinn is getting her own movie without her Mister J.

Enter Todd Phillips.

From the beginning, Phillips has been clear in stating that he wanted to make a standalone, character-driven, mid-budget comic book film. In theory, not a bad idea. God knows we need more mid-budget films in a time when the industry is polarizing into shoestring flicks or $100┬ámillion-dollar blockbusters. Hell, this might be a fantastic way for DC to set themselves apart by doing what Marvel couldn’t. At this point, it’s doubtful that Marvel could make a standalone film without a single greenscreen even if they wanted to.

(Reminder: Venom and Into the Spider-Verse are both Sony flicks, so they don’t count.)

Not a bad idea… except that Phillips wanted to make his mid-budget comic book movie experiment about the Joker. A dicey proposition, given the aforementioned points.

Moreover, Phillips made his name off of films like The Hangover, which worked precisely because they were intelligent movies about stupid people. His movies are all about taking the piss out of unsympathetic leads, and that has a short shelf life (as evidenced by the Hangover sequels). It certainly doesn’t help that War Dogs — his most recent film — had an inflated sense of self-importance to go with the drop-off in humor, both of which are reflected in Phillips’ recent social media rants about how comedy is impossible in the “cancel culture” of today. As if we’ve never gotten a single funny movie since Bill Cosby got indicted.

Then we have Joaquin Phoenix, our latest cinematic Joker. While an undeniably powerful actor, he’s also known to be an unstable presence and he’s had no shortage of public breakdowns and unprofessional behavior.

Case in point: Word has it that on the set of Joker, Phoenix would frequently walk off the set in mid-scene without any explanation to the cast and crew. Is any of this on par with the actively hurtful and arrogant behavior that Leto is known for? No, but I’d say they’re in the same class.

Topping all of this off is a heaping helping of bullshit generated by the kinds of people who truly and genuinely believe that Tyler Durden Was Right. The basic premise of the film (i.e. An insecure white man becomes a violent psychopath and lashes out against the world) pushed all sorts of buttons in the fraught sociopolitical climate of today, and DC/WB apparently saw no downside in stoking all the controversy for press. That’s not even getting started on the death threats and bad faith arguments from the most toxic and vocal of the DC stans.

(To be fair, most fandoms have their own breed of overzealous loudmouthed freaks. The Star Wars stans have been especially rabid lately.)

Our stage is set sometime in the ’80s, when a labor strike has literally buried Gotham in hot garbage. Various social services throughout the town are being cut and the poor keep getting poorer, so of course it’s seen as more than a little tone-deaf when Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) decides to run for mayor. Cue the timely themes of political/economic disparity.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a party clown who dreams of being a famous stand-up comic. Trouble is, he’s got a long list of mental illnesses and antipsychotic prescriptions, all of which make him generally unfit to function in society. For example, he’s got a Tourette-ish kind of condition, such that he laughs uncontrollably as a means of coping with stress and anxiety. That doesn’t exactly work well with the pressure of being onstage.

(Side note: How anyone this poor could afford to take seven medications at once, and stay on all of them without any visible side effects, is beyond me.)

Additionally, Arthur lives in a run-down apartment where he cares for his invalid mother. Between that parental stress and genetics, we can chalk up family as another reason why he’s unstable. Naturally, his love life is non-existent and he doesn’t have much in the way of friends. But what really matters most about Arthur is that he just wants to make people laugh. He lives to smile and dance and bring joy to others, no matter how many times (figuratively and literally) he gets knocked down and beaten by a cruel and unjust world.

I’ll remind you that this is an origin story for the Joker. You know, the same villain who beat Jason Todd to death with a crowbar.

To make a long story as short and spoiler-free as I can, Arthur gets himself embroiled into a flashpoint in the conflict between rich and poor. As a direct result, clowns become a rallying symbol for revolution and anti-fascism (not unlike the Guy Fawkes mask of V for Vendetta, another DC/WB property). Thus we have the distinct possibility that Arthur Fleck isn’t the actual Joker, but simply the figure who inspired the actual Joker (a concept suggested by the recently closed “Gotham” TV show). However, as the film obviously makes no explicit point of this, I find it far more likely that Arthur really was intended to be the actual Joker.

You know, the same one that sexually assaulted Barbara Gordon after crippling her and kidnapping her father.

I want to give all due credit to Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role. His performance is genuinely transformative, and his screen presence is absolutely magnetic. It genuinely is compelling to watch Arthur descend into homicidal madness, driven by the corruption and evil that plagues Gotham and ruins his life. Therein lies the problem.

I firmly believe that it’s more important to understand a character than to sympathize with them. Just look at The Punisher, Walter White, Travis Bickle, or yes, even the Joker. Some of the best villains and antiheroes in pop culture history are so iconic precisely because they are strongly motivated to do terrible things for clearly understandable reasons.

The filmmakers don’t seem to comprehend this distinction. It’s not enough for us to understand where Arthur Fleck is coming from, he has to be such a well-meaning put-upon loser that the filmmakers clearly intended for him to be a sympathetic figure. So is this a “Macbeth” kind of drama that follows the tragic downfall of a once-sympathetic character? Well, not really. It’s actually rather confusing, as the visuals seem to glorify the Rise of Joker while the score is loaded with foreboding tones. It sends a lot of mixed messages, but the filmmakers seem to typically lean on the Joker’s side.

This is most especially obvious in the climax, when Arthur gets into the subjective nature of comedy. Three people get shot to death on the subway in cold blood and he thinks it’s hilarious. Millions of others all throughout Gotham are getting killed or injured as riots burn the city down, and he thinks it’s beautiful.

Clearly, the filmmakers understand the philosophy and methodology of the classic comic book villain. But given the context of the movie (and Phillips’ comments outside of the film), the filmmakers don’t seem to understand that this exact philosophy is precisely what makes Joker a VILLAIN. It’s one thing to agree with the notion of comedy as subjective — it’s quite another to agree with that notion in the context of a character who takes it to such barbaric extremes that it’s what makes him one of the most gleefully immoral and unrepentant mass murderers in the entire DCU and all of comic book history.

Basically put, this is a movie about a man who tries to be a ray of sunshine in a dark and cruel world, learns how to find humor in the darkness and cruelty, and therefore becomes a monster every bit as awful as the world in which he lives. It makes for a deeply repugnant film. It’s also the only way a solo Joker film could’ve possibly ended up.

Without getting too spoilery about it, the film concludes with yet another portrayal of the Wayne Family murders, one that directly ties the Rise of Joker with the origins of Batman. However, this only happens in the film’s closing minutes and it’s treated as basically an afterthought. The movie itself never explores how Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck were both shaped by the exact same criminal forces that corrupted Gotham, yet one sank below and made the problem worse while the other rose above and pushed back. Without the crucial counterpoint provided by Batman, all we’re left with is the Joker’s philosophy that people are inherently evil, capable of no beauty or joy save for that in chaos and destruction. It makes for a deeply misanthropic film, which would be enough of a caveat if it didn’t keep mistaking the Joker for a tragic misunderstood hero instead of a villain.

And shit, that’s not even getting started on the “mental illness” angle. Yes, the lack of available mental health resources is a mitigating factor, but the genetics angle (as presented) makes it highly unlikely that Arthur could’ve been receptive to any kind of help. Thus the movie makes a very strong case that Arthur was already inclined toward homicidal mania because of his various mental problems. In terms of portraying mental illness onscreen, that’s problematic at best, and at worst… DAMN.

Speaking of problematic, there’s the matter of our female characters. Arthur’s mother (Penny Fleck, played by Frances Conroy) is also mentally ill, but it’s played as more of a plot device than any kind of deep-seated character trait. Likewise, the love interest Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) comes off as more of a plot device or a cardboard cutout than any kind of actual person or character. Though she does get a neatly tragic twist going into the third act, this is still a pathetic waste of a perfectly good actor. Ditto for Robert De Niro, painfully miscast as a late night talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, but of course De Niro’s been phoning it in for years. Still, at least the bit parts are all played by rock-solid character actors. (Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Brian Tyree Henry, and Douglas Hodge are all particular highlights.)

Even so, it has to be repeated that Joaquin Phoenix works wonders, greatly assisted by the camerawork, editing, and production design. Yes, it was rather distracting how much Gotham looked and acted like 1980s New York, but that’s hardly a new comparison. (Hell, the real-life NYC has been nicknamed “Gotham” for decades.) It really was impressive how detailed and grungy the whole production was, nicely fitting with the ugliness of the story itself. But then again, the story concerns itself with anti-fascist demonstrations, domestic terrorism, revolution against the One Percent, going viral, all of which were either completely non-existent or far less prevalent forty years ago. So much of this would have made more sense in the modern day, why not set it in the modern day?

Even before Joker was released, social media had it pegged as a film made by and for the moviegoers who thought that Fight Club and Taxi Driver really were nihilistic works with sympathetic lead characters. I would add that it’s also a film made by and for those who point to Joker and Harley Quinn as a model relationship. It’s frankly disturbing how the filmmakers look at all the reasons why Joker is one of the most infamous and terrifying villains in pop culture history, and present them as reasons why he’s the hero we need and deserve in these modern times.

Yes, the lead performance is phenomenal, and it’s obvious that everyone behind the scenes put in a ton of work toward a well-crafted film. If anything, that only serves to make the film even more unpleasant to sit through. Also, as someone who loves superhero cinema, I’m honestly insulted by how the filmmakers show such outright shame at the prospect of making a comic book movie, with only the bare minimum of perfunctory fan service.

Everything about this movie is ugly, and the ugliness is the point. Not recommended.

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