Directed by Todd Phillips
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Kinda tempted to start off with a long fake-out talking about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance only for the twist to be that I’m actually talking about Jack Nicholson (“and the physicality in how he moves when they spray paint all those painting in the art gallery = priceless”).
We kinda stepped around The Joker Discourse™ back when it first came out by having a chat about The King of Comedy (which yeah is a fantastic film and you should absolutely go off and see it if you haven’t already). And writing this now into the buildup for the Oscars where it looks like it could come out on top (not to mention the fact that it’s out on DVD next week) made me think – fuck it: let’s just do it as Film Club film (cue: sighs from the rest of the Whatsapp group). Partly because well – of all the movies that have been released in the last year it’s the one film that’s inspired the most chin-strokey pieces that is basically the orbit that this little Film Club exists in, partly because well this is the London Graphic Novel Network after all so maybe it makes sense to approach this movie from the point of view of people that have maybe read a comic or two and also well – I think there’s lots of levels to this film that haven’t really been picked apart already (surprise surprise in the main it turns out that The Joker Discourse™ so far has been kinda… dumb).
Cards on the table: I don’t think that Joker is a particularly good movie. (My quick capsule review would basically be one word: meh). And I don’t think it’s anywhere near as deep as it’s detractors or fans seem to think it is. And pretty much for every film we do for the Film Club I always go off and rewatch the movie as we chat about it just so it’s fresh in mind – but I think someone would have to actually pay me money to make me sit down and watch it again. But yeah I do find it a fascinating film – in terms of how badly it’s constructed and what it doesn’t do and in terms of how people have talked about and the narratives that have sprung up around it. I don’t think Joker is a movie about White Male Rage. And I also struggle to see it as somekind of Marxist parable (if only). Also in terms of it being a comic book movie – it’s just hopelessly fucking confused (in a word: why is Joker in his 40s and Bruce Wayne is a kid? That makes no sense at all godfuckingdamnit).
But then I think all of this stuff circles around a very important question which is this: what do we want from movies? In terms of the White Male Rage crowd it seems like they want movies that agree with their worldview and anything that conflicts with that should be hounded down and blazed from existence. In terms of The Movie is About Class Revolution crowd – I mean – I see where they’re coming from but well Joker is no Fight Club that’s for sure. And obviously there’s a sizable Comic Book Contingent that wants grown up / mature superhero content even at the expense of well – it making no sense at all (godfuckingdamnit).
In terms of what I want? Well – I just want a movie that’s going to entertain me and leave me both shaken and stirred. Confession: I was actually going to skip Joker altogether but then I heard from a friend (looks at Jonathan) that it was cool how at the end Joaquin goes “full Joker” (or something similar) and I thought – fuck it – you know what? That sounds like it could be a fun time at the cinema. I’m always partial to a little bit of nihilism in my movies and the promise of watching a guy get pushed around, kicked and beaten up until he finally gets pushed too far and becomes a homicidal maniac dressed as a clown sounded like a simplistic recipe that not even Hollywood could mess up. Which brings me to my compliant about the movie and why I found it to be so unsatisfying – it goes nowhere near too far enough. I was expecting and hoping and primed for bloody mass destruction and gruesome unrelenting murder like the final act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and instead I got… Joaquin Phoenix shooting Rupert Pupkin in head and then… standing on a car? It’s like watching Star Wars and instead of it ending with the Death Star exploding it just had Luke Skywalker knock on their door and then run away. I mean shit in terms of the media onslaught about how this is the film that’s going to inspire mass shootings I thought it’d be something that would well – inspire some damn mass shootings. You know – like how Hollywood used to make. Redemption through violence and all that stuff.
But hey – what do you think?
My reaction after watching this film was “I liked the bit where he was the Joker” and I think I may have tricked Joel into seeing the movie on that basis. What can I say, you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. There are a few hints of Jokerishness in the movie which are cool, and my main problem is that you only really get a taste of it because the film is trying so hard to be a “grown-up” movie it repeatedly refuses to escalate.
Firstly he’s just not evil enough. In the New 52 Death of the Family book, they spend a lot of time setting up the Joker as more than just a villain but the embodiment of a Crossed style madness that grips Gotham. The suggestion is his complete rejection of society is so strong that people feel liberated by it, and Joker does try to capture that to some degree in terms of being the seed for a joker mass movement. What we don’t see is someone so dislocated from bourgeois morality and the illusion of civilisation that they sees the world like a sadistic toddler sees a Lego box. We don’t see someone whose Lovecraftian levels of malign cruelty inspires the worst excesses of society to run amok.
The problem is that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is not that inspiring and maybe he never could have been. Given the premise it’s not clear what he would have to have done differently that wouldn’t have been just either Heath Ledger’s Joker or a sort Hannibal Lector impression, but the route they took, of one man having a series of really bad days, leads more promisingly to Michael Douglas’ character from Falling Down and he doesn’t even manage that.
Secondly he has reasons for actions. If anything there is something kind of cloying about how many excuses they give for the Joker not even being that bad: he’s poor, he’s got debilitating anxiety, he was abused, his mum is crazy, he’s mocked by everyone, and attacked in the street. Any of these would be an excuse to lose his shit and sure he does is kill a couple of bankers (who attacked him), a mean colleague (who bullied him), and a game show host who mocked him on live television. But that just makes him an angry murderer who lashes out, hardly the Clown Prince of Crime.
That being said I actually do sympathise with this effort. I once wrote an over-elaborate Batman film script which had the joker as a good guy – an anarchist fighting against an authoritarian Gotham where any deviance, even graffiti, was ruthlessly put down by an elite army of Batmen. He gets brutalised in prison and when he escapes he murders Batmen as a sort of Scarlet Pimpernel, fighting against a Batman who is a terrifying Darth Vader figure – a ludicrously strong, weaponised monster who stalks petty criminals relentlessly until they go mad with terror and then breaks their arms anyway. Joker, by showing Thomas Wayne as a prick and the Joker himself as a sympathetic figure sort of hints at this interesting change in perspective, but for whatever reason doesn’t commit.
Thirdly he’s not even that serious a villain. Early on in the tv series Breaking Bad, having set up Walter White’s cancer, his daily humiliation as a poorly paid teacher, and his various struggles, they then give him a way out by having his millionaire friends offer to pay his medical bills which he still refuses. That’s how we know by episode 2 that he’ll always make the wrong choices time and again because his pride and arrogance and need to feel powerful were his real motivations all along, he made have outwardly turned bad but in his heart he was always a bastard. At the end of Joker we don’t see this side of him at all really, except possibly in the last 1 minute of the movie. It would have been cool if we could have lost the first 45 minutes of him moping around and instead spent the last 30 minutes seeing finally evolve into him a monster, like scene at the end of the Godfather. What if it turned out in the hospital there were dozens of Jokers committed after the riots and a brawl ensues ending in Joaquin Phoenix crawling out from a pile of dismembered clowns, emerging as the king having gone completely feral. But no, once again the film is scared of its own implications and even suggests maybe it’s a all dream.
Contrast this with Heath Ledger’s Joker who takes over the mob in about a week, kills Batman’s girlfriend, and makes up his own backstory to taunt his enemies. Or Jack Nicholson who puts Gotham under siege, poisons and disfigures random people, and kills mobsters just as joyfully as members of the public. It just feels like with so much time Joker could have done so much more.
Barbican Comic Forum
I’ll try not to be too verbose with my feelings of this film.
1. In Joker we’re presented with Arthur Fleck. A very troubled man who director, Todd Phillips, goes to great pains to victimize. He’s badly beaten by a group of delinquents before the title opening credits scene, his therapist – who doesn’t really listen to him anyway – is about to cease her services with him due to budget cuts, his work colleagues aren’t nice to him, he has delusions, he gets fired and his mother is crazy.
The result of this is, I’d say, a somewhat flawed attempt at making him sympathetic. I mean just go through that list again, it works until it fails to. And it fails when Arthur shows us that he’s not actually the sympathetic character we’re meant to believe him to be. For me that point came early in the film, during that subway scene. In this scene, a bit of uncontrollable, inappropriate laughter on his part leads to some dire consequences. At this point in the film Arthur has Chekov’s gun – because he’s learned from the opening credits scene – and is receiving a harrying by the worst sort of villains in either the MCU or DCEU; city bankers. After trying desperately – and failing – to explain to them that he has a [neurological] condition that accounts for his inappropriate laughter, fists start to fly and Arthur sees that another unfortunate opening credits scene is in line for him. Until he wields Chekov’s gun and unleashes great vengeance and furious anger on the bully bankers of Gotham. And then he goes dancing.
Less flippantly; he ends the scene by killing one of the bankers, in seeming self defense, and then mercilessly executing the others. And then dancing about it in a liberating sort of bacchanalia. Now, one could almost read this as the straw that broke the camels back. Enough bad things have happened to Arthur up to this point it’s understandable. One could read into the scene that the first death was Arthur’s response to the bad world once again forcing itself upon him… but then we must also surely read the other deaths as Arthur, maliciously forcing himself upon the world. And if this (the latter) was the film that Todd Phillips wanted to make, then I would’ve been down with seeing it.
But that’s not the film he sought to make, because that’s not the film we got. Read the first paragraph once again. From the first scene of the film, we’re supposed to believe that Arthur is the victim here, right? If Arthur really is the victim here then the totality of his bad experiences to date doesn’t lead me to see this story as the origin of one of the greatest villains in DC lore, but rather – to quote Jonathan here – leads more promisingly to Michael Douglas’ character from Falling Down. Which leads me to my second point.
2. This story might be about a Joker, but it is most certainly not the Joker. The story that we’re given could very well have been the origin story of any unfortunate villainous soul – probably not a city banker though – but I definitely don’t see this as the origin of the Joker, of the Batman canon. We’re shown a completely different character.
Quick interjection. This anecdote might be apocryphal but it serves the point I’m trying to make, and I like it: I have an ongoing memory of Amir once telling me that the terrifying thing about the Joker is that he’s likely to kill you just because he doesn’t like your tie. But he’s equally as likely to kill you because he does like your tie.
The lesson of the above is that there’s an inherently arbitrary and indiscriminate nature of casual violence that’s associated with the Joker of the Batman canon. And that’s one of the things that’s absolutely terrifying about him. But I don’t get a sense of this terror from Todd Phillips’ Joker. Here’s a simple way to think about it; If you find yourself before the Joker… run like hell. If you find yourself before Todd Phillips’ Joker… just make sure you weren’t mean to him in the past.
In conclusion, we were given the story of an unfortunate character who made a series of unfortunate decisions and then a movement grew up around him and then he killed someone who slighted him and then the movie ended. And then and then and then. All of that does not a Clown Prince make. So, besides an element of actual danger, what is it that makes different the Joker of the comics, or the Dionysian terror of Heath Ledger’s Joker, or even the Oscar-winning Joker of Jack Nicholson?
I think it’s this; in any of it’s depictions Gotham City is a horrible, terrible, miserable place. And, until the last 30 seconds, Todd Phillips’ Joker looks like he doesn’t want to be there. But every other version of the Joker does.
I think a big part of how one feels about this film, even moreso than usual, is predicated on what their expectations are going in. I didn’t really have much in the way of expectations and so what I got was a solid dark comedy. To some extent I think this is intentional, to some extent it’s a product of the film’s innate absurdity (the Joker as Travis Bickle) and ludicrous bathos. We get very funny scenes, like Arthur walking into an automated glass exit door after police questioning, and the whole encounter where he murders one of his former co-workers, which I found to be reasonably effective dark comedy. Meanwhile in terms of bathos, everything with his mom, the absurd degree of random unprovoked arbitrary cruelty he experiences, is so excessive and ham handed that it feeds into the tragicomedy. Of course we could wrap back around and argue that the film’s failure to commit fully to absurdism mirrors it’s failure to commit fully to violent psychopathy, but I think it works as it is, even if it’s frustrating in terms of falling short of something better.
While the film wants to be Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, what you get instead is I think a very close cousin of the (Batman universe alumni) Joel Schumacher directed Falling Down, which works on the same odd alchemy of intention and accident to produce an entertaining, funny, and insightful-in-ways-it-doesn’t-mean-to-be film. As a character study, Arthur is too silly to take seriously. But as a caricature of a social moment and it’s (perceived) audience, it’s kind of interesting. It’s like a shallow oily puddle in a parking lot. Not a lot of depth, but it catches a reflection of the world around it, with a dark rainbow. It also bears, tonally and in some plot elements, striking similarity to the TV show Mr. Robot.
Which brings me to the larger context of the film and it’s marketing: Both the superficial “class consciousness” and the sturm and drang over “white male rage” and mass shooters and such. It is all blatantly and cynically part of the click-bait ecosystem, meant to pander to one audience and provoke another, and create think-pieces and arguments to ensure a lot of online brand engagement. Whatever the intentions of Todd Philips, it’s obvious WB commissioned this film as a dark anti-hero movie for the zoomer and millennial male audience: It’s R-rated, un-PC, nihilistic, edgy (within the confines of the brand’s tolerances), and evokes imagery and ideas of dark anarchic uprising against the status quo. It’s channeling all the (hypothetical) guys that had joker posters and guy fawkes masks after the 2008 crash, when Ledger and Nolan’s joker became an icon of fuck-you-society misfit alienation. The mirror of the Harley Quinn film, whatever it’s actual merits, being blatantly marketed at the liberal feminist grrrl power audience.
All it really does tell us is that however superficial, Hollywood does perceive the growing and sustained backlash against the ruling class, and sees it as sufficiently large to be a worthwhile marketing demographic. Make of that what you will.
As for the Joker character — the film and the brand are trapped between the popularity of the character as an anti-hero and the popularity of Batman as a hero. It’s still probably too risky and too destructive of their brand to go all the way and make Batman (or his father) totally the antagonist. However sympathetic in his own origin film, the Joker ultimately has to re-emerge as the antagonist to the good ole’ Dark Knight Savior of Gotham, who however edgy and morally grey, still has to be ultimately a “good guy.” Hence the fundemental problem with cape movies, mega-franchises and cinematic universes: Even the best films are constrained by the larger brand identity. They are categorically incapable of doing more than hinting at bigger and bolder ideas or stylistic choices. This is what makes every better-than-average MCU movie profoundly frustrating.
I think Tyrell’s post is really insightful and I agree with all of it I think – but I guess the part that I can’t make sense of is: why is Joker so defanged? As both Jonathan and Fred have both gone into: Arthur Fleck never really goes “full Joker” and the entire film is basically just a two hour edging session that well.. never really reaches the climax that it keeps promising. In terms of what we’re shown Arthur’s reactions are always completely understandable – and even tho he crosses lots of moral lines (killing people is indeed bad) we always get where he’s coming from. (Robert DeNiro’s last lines are basically: “Come on! Why don’t you shoot me? Come on! I dare you! I double-dare you! Do it you coward! Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me!”)
If Hollywood sees that there is a quick buck and Oscar glory to be made from “eat the rich” dollar then why don’t they just fucking commit to it? I mean: if they made the type of Joker movie that I was hoping to see (Full 100% Joker) then surely that’s an even better way to appeal to everyone wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and tweeting #BernieorBust? Or is there a real danger there that we can’t have the real medicine and have to stick to the placebos?
I don’t know if anyone remembers Matt Damon’s Elysium? (I mean I went to go and see it in the cinema and I don’t: so I wouldn’t hold it against you if you’re like: huh?) But from the excellent trailer it totally threatened to be Class Warfare: The Movie (in Space!) but instead what we got was a tasteless mush that disintegrated in the mind as soon as it reached your eyes and gave the audience nothing more than a lifelong hated of Neill Blomkamp (seriously – screw that guy). But my question is: why does it have to be this way? I mean: I get that Capitalism is slowly destroying all of our lives, wrecking the planet and poisoning our souls: but couldn’t they at least make good movies? I don’t get why they even have to deny us that too.
Like: didn’t movies used to be more fanged? I mean: I heard a lot of talk about Parasite being this anti-Capitalist masterpiece before I saw it which meant that when I finally got around to watching it I’ve gotta say that it wasn’t as good as I was hoping. Like: I saw a thing with people mocking Obama for him saying it was his favourite film of the year but – hey: it kinda makes sense? There’s not really much in the film that would stop anyone from enjoying it and at the end of the day you can always just say: well that’s human nature isn’t it? As opposed to: oh wait – maybe our system doesn’t work?
But then maybe that’s the problem with films in general? Even if Full 100% Joker came out – if it was done well: then there’s not much that’s actually going to change the world (or even people’s points of view).
It’s just a guy in clown make up right?
I think score is an often overlooked category because as with editing you should only really noticed it if it’s not being done right. But Joker’s urgent and portentous score cuts right through to your bones and builds the brooding menace that the film needs to secure its attempts to be taken seriously. Indeed it’s slightly overblown epic melancholy is the only feature of the film which helps draw the line from watching just another sad loser to watching the sad loser – and means every wound on Arthur Fleck is one more straw on the camel’s back and one more inch for a society heading over a cliff-edge. If you just listen to the soundtrack you can believe this is as much a story about the descent of Gotham into super-criminal infested institutionally corrupt hellscape as it is about the Joker. Both him and the abyss are regarding each other and wondering who created who.
As Batman says: “They told me there was nothing out there, nothing to fear. But the night my parents were murdered I caught a glimpse of something. I’ve looked for it ever since. I went around the world, searched in all the shadows. And there is something out there in the darkness, something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets revenge… Me.”
The film is looking at the other end of the telescope than the Nolan films, but it clearly in conversation with it. If you listen to the very first a few seconds on Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight Soundtrack, appropriately titled “Why so serious?” it has a similar sound to Joker, only the note isn’t a gloomy minor key, it’s like an air-raid siren. The musical story for the Dark Knight is a call to arms: “things are bad, there is an emergency but we have forces on our side to combat the threat.” The Joker’s mournful soundtrack however, is all about despair, and his dance in the bathroom is him embracing the depths he has fallen. He’s not asking for help, and he’s never has help, he is now deciding to dive straight into the oblivion tailgated by all the other clowns.
This level of deliberation makes me think that when this film was being produced at least some people were paying attention. Indeed the production is hard to fault, whether it’s homaging Scorsese, Fincher, or Nolan they do a pretty solid job, except that, as the refrain has been, they can’t seem to make their mind up. Is this gritty realism or dark urban fairytale? The thing about that choice is when you look at what’s good about the movie it’s when it commits to the former, but if you ask me what I wanted to see when I bought a ticket it’s the latter.
So the reason you knew the Joker movie was gonna be disappointing was because it was a Joker movie. Like even when it was suggested that Martin Scorsese was gonna be involved, you could imagine someone thinking “well I saw Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson so I know all about the Joker, but who was he before he was the Joker? [thinking face emoji].”
The thing is that the Joker is to Batman villains what Skelator is to He-Man, he’s a good nemesis but a terrible end of level boss. In other words you may have to have a main bad guy for cosmic balance but when they actually face off it doesn’t really work. First of all since Batman is a good-guy and only uses hand to hand fighting to dispatch his enemies, it’s not “plausible” for the Joker to be able to take Batman in an actual fight. The screenwriter Marc Bernardin talks about the way to make Superman stories work is not to try and create someone even tougher than Superman, but instead confront Superman with devastating choices. He points out that Superman can hear everything and so he knows there is someone falling from a mountain on one side of American and a tidal wave on the other, and so every day he’s forced to acknowledge the limits of his powers. That being said, at least Lex Luther is an super-genius inventor and can use kryptonite + tech to even the odds. All the Joker has is his web of schemes and a complete lack of humanity to troll Batman until he is forced closer to his ethical red lines. This can only result in an unstoppable force ultimately deciding to crush a highly moveable object which doesn’t make for a great showdown.
And it’s not like it’s slim pickings either. Unlike the Joker, EVERY other Batman enemy has a juicy origin story which could be fleshed out and reimagined. Mr Freeze, Bane, Riddler, are all richer characters than the Joker. As I have said the past, Poison Ivy is an amazing character and is utterly wasted. As environment degradation accelerates it would be so easy to have her as essential an avenging angel, taking down the polluters and despoilers and oil companies, with Batman just another billionaire on her heels. Riddler would also be great as a burgeoning Moriarty figure whose only weakness is taunting law enforcement. And Bane was born to the fucking darkness! All would be the basis for great in a stand-alone movies and indeed there is no reason why you can’t do a good Joker stand-alone movie. But this was never going to be that.
But who can blame them for playing safe. I think maybe the only passable DC movie since Dark Knight has been Shazam, and the Joker is the only other one that hasn’t basically been a mess. Instead it’s sacrifice to blood god has been cashing in on the hopes and expectations of Batman fans while also saying that this movie is better than the usual comic book drivel, as embodied for them by the Joker in Suicide Squad who was so bad he didn’t even make it into the Harley Quinn movie. The result is that there is little incentive for DC to do anything that isn’t tediously obvious, especially since this movie made a $billion, but lesson from this won’t be “people like bad guy origin stories” even though Venom also inexplicably made crazy money; or even “people like interesting stories which subvert your preconceptions about famous characters”; the lesson will be “aah Marvel is for kids but grownups want everything to be real.” A lesson which is neither true nor original but is born out by Joker outperforming Endgame at the Oscars.