I didn’t want to see Joker. Not because of some fear that I would be gunned down in the theater by enraged Incels, Antifa or Marvel Cinematic Universe fans. Nor because I was annoyed by the antics of various parties on-line claiming the movie would embolden anti-social behavior, just like video games, rap music, hula-hoops or whatever cause du moment is being blamed for mass murder in America this week.
I didn’t want to see Joker for the simple reason that I’m a comic fan who thinks that giving The Joker a defined backstory is the stupidest idea this side of exploring the dark side of Superman and how he feels alienated (no pun intended) from humanity. Ironically this point was best expressed by Alan Moore in The Killing Joke (the closest The Joker has ever had to a defined origin story) where The Joker said “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it be multiple-choice!”
Yet I did see Joker. Partly because someone had to review it. Mostly because I wanted to support my local Alamo Drafthouse and their pleas for sanity regarding the movie by telling parents not to bring their kids to see it.
Brief Aside: This pleased me because I was trapped between two horrifying examples of parenting when I saw The Dark Knight. In front of me, I had a crying son and a dad who growled at him to man up and shut up because people were trying to watch the movie. Behind me, I had a father attempting to do active learning lessons with his toddler during the movie. (“Okay, that’s Joker. What color is his jacket? Purple? Yes, Purple! Good!”) But I digress.
I fear that some mild SPOILERS are unavoidable in discussing this movie, but I do not reveal any major twists or surprises in the story. That being said, you should not read beyond the next picture if you wish to remain totally unspoiled. Know that Joker is not a rallying cry for the socially repressed. It is not a tribute to the kind of movies that aren’t made in Hollywood anymore. It’s just plain dull, predictable and not worth seeing.
If you want the details, read on. If not, carry on your merry way and fair play to you.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A failed comedian tries to do right by his family. A string of ill-fortune plagues his every waking moment. This culminates in him losing everything because of several bad choices but ultimately being transformed into a legend. The structure is there and instantly recognizable, right down to the punchline.
Writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver took the flashback segments from The Killing Joke and filed off the serial numbers, adding in a few choice moments from Going Sane and The Dark Knight Returns. Our protagonist Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring comic, but he pays the bills by working as a party clown instead of some job in a chemical factory. The loving pregnant wife is now a mother (Frances Conroy) in the early stages of dementia. The only major difference is that Arthur was already mentally disturbed, being on seven different medications, so it takes a bit more than “one bad day” to make him into The Joker.
Phillips strikes a similar chord as a director. Much has been made about his efforts to pay tribute to Martin Scorsese, presumably because, as in academia, it doesn’t count as ripping another artist off so long as you cite your sources and call it an homage. Credit where credit is due, he does a fair job aping Scorsese’s style as a director, in much the same way his previous films owed a lot to John Landis. Yet there is very little honest craft to it and the final effect is something like watching the cinematic equivalent of fan-fiction.
So let us address the elephants in the room. What are the films politics? What message is it trying to convey? What statements is it trying to make about man’s place in modern society? Is it trying to make any statement at all beyond showcasing how clever Todd Phillips is for tricking the teaming masses into getting off their couches and into the theaters to watch an art film disguised as a comic book movie?
In a word, no. There’s a number of messages, but they are sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s remotely possible that Phillips was attempting to troll the audience with the suggestion of a deeper meaning while presenting something as chaotic as The Joker himself but that’s giving Phillips far too much credit.
For instance, there is some debate over whether or not the film is anti-rich or anti-capitalist. The first inciting incident of the movie is Arthur’s murder of three rich college students, who are harassing a young woman on the subway before they turn their attention to Arthur, as he starts having a random laughing attack. This spurs a commendation of the incident by probable mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who declares that this is clearly the work of anarchists who are jealous of the rich, and are getting in the way of people like him trying to fix society.
This leads to teaming masses of activists wearing clown make-up and costumes protesting Wayne’s assertion that all protesters are cowardly clowns who hide behind masks. Yet we also see a gala event screening Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The audience of rich elites completely miss the point Chaplin was making about the plight of the working class, as they laugh at the suffering of his tramp character.
So what’s the message? That people fighting for social justice are easily swayed dopes who are just looking for an excuse to start bashing-in skulls and eating small children? That the elites care nothing of the suffering of the common man and feed on the suffering of others? Phillips never takes a definitive stand, but it is telling that the one consistent theme to the movie is a conservative one; that a lack of fathers and strong male role models are to blame for society’s failings.
This is revealed through a dream sequence, where Arthur imagines his comedic idol, talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) bringing him on-stage, hugging him and telling him how proud he’d be to call him son, simply because Arthur is so devoted to caring for his mother. This inspires much of the “pro-incel” portion of the movie, along with Arthur’s interactions with Sophie (Zazie Beetz) – a single mother in his apartment building, who is seemingly charmed by Arthur’s following her around after she briefly smiled at one joke while on the elevator with him. Because Arthur seems to feel he deserves acclaim and a love interest merely for doing the bare minimum to be a decent human being.
I could forgive the movie being uneven and unoriginal in terms of its story and execution if it were at least interesting. Unfortunately, while Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur is skillfully done and he manages the neat trick of being able to cry on cue while convincingly fake-laughing, it’s not enough to overcome the movie’s chief sin – it is predictable. And that is the one thing The Joker should never be. The film’s twist ending will be obvious to anyone even mildly familiar with the Batman mythos.
Those seeking an original take on The Joker would do well to check out The Joker Blogs – an excellent fan-made web-series, created as an unofficial sequel to The Dark Knight. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it is honest in its efforts to recapture that magic of Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance and occasionally successful. The best that can be said about Joker is that it is inoffensive beyond the hype other people assign to it.