Rather than simply opening the movie Joker wide in early October Warner Brothers decided to premiere the film a month earlier at the Venice Film Festival, which is a move that garnered the film some initial raves and won it the prestigious Golden Lion award. Ultimately though I think it was a bad move because it meant that critics would spend the next month very publically arguing about a movie no one else was able to see in a way that’s much more visible than it is when they see arthouse movies early, and the discourse has not been pretty. There were initial grumblings as early as that Venice premiere with people saying the movie was potentially “toxic,” which is one of those imprecise words that headline writers and no one else likes to use. From there a certain subset the media decided there were clicks to be found in going full Tipper Gore and drumming up a sort of panic that the movie will cause mass shootings or something. Even ignoring the fact that these articles were making long disproven arguments about violence in cinema and essentially advancing NRA talking points, there also seemed to be an inherit elitism to the whole thing. This type of gritty violence has long been seen as understandable in limited release arthouse contexts but suddenly they were freaked out because it was in a movie that might be seen by the great unwashed masses. But what really annoyed me about the whole thing is that there was this widespread argument about cinema going on and I had no way to weigh in or even follow it because the damn movie hadn’t even come out yet. Well, it’s finally out and I have some thoughts.
Joker presents an origin story for the famous Batman villain as it examines the mental deterioration of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who starts the film with a long history of mental health problems. Fleck lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), herself someone of questionable psychology, and takes multiple medications and has a condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times regardless of his mood. Fleck is working as a clown for hire and has some rather delusional aspirations at becoming a stand-up comedian and idolizes a late-night talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). None of this is working out very well for him but his life starts to take a turn when he gets his hands on a handgun and ends up shooting three bullies who try to attack him on an empty subway.
It is nearly impossible to talk about Joker and not bring up the two Martin Scorsese films that inspired it: 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy. Robert De Niro of course starred in both of those movies and his presence here seems to be a tacit nod to this inspiration. Like Taxi Driver this is following a man with a clear screw loose as he loses it, begins arming himself, and forms unhealthy stalker-like obsessions with a woman and with a politician and like The King of Comedy this unhinged man has delusions that he’s a talented comedian and wants to find his way on a popular talk show by any means necessary. That the film is plainly derivative is something of an albatross around the movie’s neck which for many will blunt whatever it accomplishes what with it standing on the shoulders of giants to get there, and I do sort of feel that way to some extent but simply dismissing it as a rip-off seems unfair and inaccurate as well. First of all, a lot of perfectly good movies do stuff like this. Boogie Nights is basically Goodfellas in the porn industry, Black Swan is basically Repulsion meets The Red Shoes, First Reformed is basically a hash of ideas from 1950s art films, and perhaps most comparably there’s the movie Logan, which could easily be described as a watered down and comic bookified rehash of Children of Men and The Road. Let’s also not ignore the fact that Scorsese himself is second only to Tarantino in his propensity to proudly wear his influences on his sleeve.
Of course the thing that does differentiate Joker from the Scorsese movies that inspired it is that this is a comic book movie, a fact that’s often been downplayed when arguing in favor of the movie but which is actually kind of crucial to it. The things that happen in Joker are generally bigger and more operatic than they would be in a Scorsese movie from the 70s. Also the film is quite specifically set in Gotham City rather than New York, and not even the kind of hyper modern Gotham that we say in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films but a kind of decaying Gotham of the past. This isn’t the first time Batman has been done as a semi-period piece. Tim Burton’s Gotham was a mix of 30s art deco and futuristic technology, possibly as a means of bridging the comic book’s Golden Age origins with modern cinema and other Batman properties like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gotham” followed suit. This film never cites a year it’s supposed to be set in but it certainly looks like it’s straight up set in the 70s or early 80s both in terms of technology (all televisions in the movie are CRTs) but also in terms of social conditions because the city seems to be dealing with the kind of crime rates and budget shortfalls that New York was experiencing when Travis Bickle dreamed of a rain to “wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks.” Almost like what Tim Burton’s version of the city would have become in about thirty years were it not for the intervention of The Dark Knight.
That this is set in a fictional time and place is, I think, what’s maybe throwing some critics for a loop. People seem to be expecting this to be a movie that is making a statement about America today when I think it was actually meant to be a bit more off in its own world than that. This is still very much a comic book movie, just more of a gritty 80s comic book than a fun silver age comic book. Its set in a city that’s over-run by crime, not necessarily a problem in America today (at least not relative to 1976), but it was certainly a problem in the Gotham City that gave birth to Batman, and while it does have some interest in the plight of the mentally ill Arthur Fleck’s situation is pretty specifically rooted in a fictional condition that’s poorly treated by the shortcomings of a fictional city’s healthcare system. This isn’t to say there isn’t some relevance to real life conditions here, after all this fictional world was inspired by social problems that have and do exist in the real world, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be as tapped into the current zeitgeist as it’s been suggested.
This I suppose brings me to the criticism that the film in some way endorses or glamorizes the violent actions of unhinged individuals, which I think is largely unfounded. First and foremost it should be noted that the Joker in this movie is not exactly what you’d call a mass shooter. Any violence in the film is generally quite personalized and is committed by small and unglamourous weapons like knives and snub-nose handguns. There are no assault rifles to be seen and even at his worst this Joker isn’t taking out his anger on random individuals. Then there’s the rather lazy assertion that the film is some sort of “incel” manifesto, which is odd given that “incels” are a fringe online group who are defined almost entirely by their rage at women who don’t want to sleep with them, and while Arthur Fleck has all sorts of grievances with the world his sex life or lack thereof is not really a focus of the film and also isn’t one of the character’s main stated grievances and very few of his victims are women. This isn’t to say that the character is entirely free of misogyny, his treatment of the Zazie Beetz character is certainly all kinds of creepy, but he generally seems far more angry about his trouble holding onto a job and random street violence than he is with the women of the world. Additionally, the movie never falls into the trap of suggesting that Fleck is some sort of kind soul who’s just misunderstood. The film has enough sympathy with him to not want him to be assaulted on the street and wants him to have access to social services, but it’s upfront about how messed up he is from the very beginning and why everyone around him has very good reasons to keep their distance.
So if this isn’t trying to make a grand statement about society what is it trying to do? Well, I think it’s trying to say something about Batman. Specifically it seems to be contrasting the oft filmed origin of the caped crusader with this new birth of the clown prince of crime and suggest that one is the funhouse mirror reflection of the other. And I’m going to have to get into spoilers here. Batman was famously born of a tragedy caused by street crime but it’s also said to have been Bruce Wayne’s unconventional means of carrying on the legacy of his enlightened Carnegie-esque millionaire father. Joker rather cleverly re-casts Thomas Wayne as someone who was also a father figure to Fleck, at least in his own head, but also suggests that he viewed him as being less of a swell humanitarian and more of an out of touch condescending Randian asshole and that Wayne was more the cause of than the solution to Gotham’s many problems. Where the real son opted to emulate his father (or his conception of him) and rebuild law and order by peaceful means, the fake son opted to rebel against his “father” (or his conception of him) and go on a sort of nihilistic crusade against law and order. There’s obviously more to Fleck’s descent into madness than that and his murderous ways are of course wrong whether or not he’s “right” about Thomas Wayne, but the movie does do a very good job of decontextualizing the origin story we all know and love.
So how does one make a final analysis of Joker? It’s certainly no Taxi Driver, but then again what is? I’ve certainly seen lesser riffs on that formula like The Assassination of Richard Nixon and One Hour Photo. Ultimately I think the choice to draw inspiration from that film is an aesthetic choice more than anything and it makes Joker something rather unique among comic book movies: one that plays like a drama rather than an action movie. To me that’s something that’s unique and valuable but it’s only an impressive aesthetic choice if you’re looking at the movie as a comic book movie rather than as some sort of realist drama: looked at as a comic book movie it’s one of the most impressive entries in its form but looked at as a realist drama it’s… not, and probably never could be given the fantasy elements that are inherent to its very nature. Either way it’s an exceptionally well made movie that’s hard to look away from and features a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s certainly better than director Todd Phillips has made previously and significantly better than the more conventional superhero fare that Warner Brothers has been giving us through its DC Cinematic Universe. Just maybe don’t take it too seriously.
**** out of Five