The Clown Prince Rises: ‘Joker’ Takes Center Stage

Want to hear something funny?

The director of Road Trip, Old School, and the Starsky & Hutch movie unveiled his new film at the Venice Film Festival. It won the Golden Lion, an award previously bestowed upon awards season heavy-hitters like Brokeback Mountain and Roma.

And guess what else? It’s a comic book movie!

Want to hear another one?

Well, you’ll never guess who’s in the White House…

All kidding aside, Todd Phillips’ Joker is undoubtedly a sign of the times. It makes The Dark Knight look like Date Night, an exacerbation of the brooding, portentous tone of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (released in 2005, 2008, and 2012) for our even more tumultuous era. Nolan’s films were amongst the first to take superheroes seriously, grounding them in a world that looked like ours, not the gothic fantasia Tim Burton envisioned for the Caped Crusader’s first modern outing. Once upon a time, comic books offered escapism, showcasing heroes and villains who were larger than life. Now they’re just… life.Arkham Asylum is stuffed with kooky, colorful evildoers, known quite well by modern moviegoers — Two-Face, Bane, The Riddler, The Penguin, Catwoman. (Let us never forget 2006’s catastrophic Halle Berry vehicle — the Joker isn’t the first Batman villain to get his own movie.) Theoretically, any of these baddies could star in a standalone project, but somehow, it’s always the Joker at the center of every sea change in comic book movies.

The Joker anchored the first of Burton’s Batman blockbusters in 1989, so memorably embodied by Jack Nicholson at his most berserk, a darker take on the character than most viewers were used to. (At that point, Batman was best known by the campy 60s TV series.) It’s still the only Batman movie to feature just one villain — Nicholson’s Joker was more than enough to carry the film. The Joker didn’t appear until Nolan’s second Batman film, but when he did, Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn earned him a posthumous Oscar, and for the first time made a superhero film a serious contender for a Best Picture nomination. (It’s impossible to imagine the film faring so well without his magnetic performance.) Now, again, the Clown Prince of Crime is a serious threat at the Oscars. Phillips’ Joker is an early frontrunner for a Best Picture nomination, and a Joaquin Phoenix Best Actor snub is all but unthinkable.

For decades, the Joker character has been nudging comic book mythology toward acclaim and respectability. In 2019, he’s closer than ever, and the guy who got him there is… the director of The Hangover movies?

Is this a joke? Yes — and the punchline is prestige.In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a wannabe stand-up comedian who earns his living as a clown for hire. He suffers from a condition causing him to burst into uncontrollable laughter at inopportune moments, such as when someone is about to kick the shit out of him. He lives in a dingy apartment with his meek, mousy mother (Frances Conroy) and harbors a crush on a young single mom who lives down the hall (Zazie Beetz). He worships Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show yukster who gets an easy laugh from the studio audience no matter how weak the joke. Arthur is mentally unwell, but only slightly moreso than everyone else in Phillips’ grimy, joyless Gotham City. The only smiles in this town are painted on.

Joker is modeled on staples of modern American cinema — most explicitly, Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. Martin Scorsese’s New York was no picnic in the squalid 70s, but when Travis Bickle railed against its filth, we didn’t agree with every word. We realized that he was a loose canon; he was the biggest threat in the movie. Scorsese didn’t glorify or pity Travis Bickle, but putting this kind of misanthrope at the center of a comic book movie rewrites all the rules. We’d just met Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but we’ve known the Joker for a long time now — since we were kids. From Joker‘s opening scene, in which Arthur is jumped by a bunch of young thugs, it’s clear that The System is failing Arthur (and just about everyone else). The Joker does bad things, but he’s merely reacting to an endemic evil. He’s not an agent of chaos, like previous visions of the Joker — he’s a victim of it. Phillips isn’t endorsing vigilante violence, exactly, but he does raise a question a lot of people in power seem to be asking themselves these days: if we’re all bad, what’s the harm in being worse?Aesthetically, the film is beautifully made, from Lawrence Sher’s suitably unsteady cinematography to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s moaning, dirge-like score. Phillips is surprisingly confident with this material, effectively assembling a pastiche that is also very much its own movie. The script, by Phillips and Scott Silver, works beat by beat; the climax, in particular, crackles with an unhinged energy we never see in studio movies. Anything could happen — even something depraved, something truly sick. Joker is at its best the further it gets from superhero mythology; at times, it loses its way trying to remind us that this is, at the end of the day, part of a “cinematic universe.”

As a Batman villain origin story, Joker doesn’t make a lot of sense. Arthur Fleck is no mastermind. The mayhem he inspires is mostly an accident. He’s a hothead, the kind of criminal any superhero worth his salt could subdue without breaking a sweat. Batman won’t show up in this version of Gotham for another dozen years, at least — but by the end of this film, the city already looks to be at the breaking point. The Joker needs to inject chaos into a functional world, but by the end of Joker, social order is already beyond repair. It’s hard to imagine how Batman could even hope to save this version of Gotham City, or why he’d want to. The Joker’s work is done here. There’s nothing left for Arthur Fleck to do to Gotham that it isn’t already doing to itself.Joker unfortunately tries to connect to the larger Batman mythology, overusing Thomas Wayne as a foil and giving Fleck an unnecessary personal grudge against the Wayne family. It feels jammed in from a different kind of movie, reeking of studio notes. Joker works much better as a one-off, the tale of an early 80s misanthrope who just so happens to resemble an iconic comic book villain.

Joker isn’t a particularly thoughtful film, thinly plotted and lacking in compelling characters. Even Arthur himself is more of a sketch than a fully drawn protagonist. He’s mentally ill, and therefore capable of anything in any given moment. That’s not so much a character as an excuse to go way over the top, and Phoenix delivers in spades on that front. We know what he’ll become — it’s right there on the poster. He’s doomed from moment one. There’s no suspense, no mystery here. There’s not even a glimmer of a chance at salvation. Nothing to hope for. No one to root for.

Why, then, is there so much to discuss? Perhaps because Joker isn’t a very good movie — but it’s a fascinating art project.Joker borrows its look, feel, and certain story beats from some of the greatest films ever made — Taxi Driver, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, A Clockwork Orange, Psycho. These are challenging, provocative movies that no major studio would greenlight today…

…Unless, of course, they could wedge a well-known comic book character into it. The joke’s on you, Warner Bros! Todd Phillips tricked you into making an actual movie!

Joker is a sign of our times indeed, when even one of the year’s most explosive, provocative awards contenders must be based on blockbuster IP. This is what cineastes have to look forward to? Are you fucking kidding me?

It’s both the resurrection and the death of a certain kind of movie (in that order). A major studio has revived the spirit of cinema’s most daring era — that’s good! But oh… it’s wearing a clown suit. It’s Red Nose Day for Norman Bates, Taxi Driver in a clown car. For someone who loves audacious, original movies, this all comes off like one very sick joke.

Maybe we’ll get more of this sort of thing. Citizen Kane on a shooting spree. Casablanca in capes. If nothing else, it’s more interesting than another one of Disney’s safe bets, not to mention most other franchise movies. DC Comics has desperately tried, and utterly failed, to come up with its own spin on Marvel’s success… until now. Joker‘s box office coup signals a new moon rising: Marvel’s evil twin. And if we have to live in the cinematic equivalent of Disney World these days, I’ll take any blood-spattered Batman movie I can get out of the studios… since that’s all I’ll get.

Joker isn’t just punking Disney’s Hollywood, though. It’s a poke in the eye of Trump’s America, too. The lines between trash and triumph have never been blurrier. Look no further than the oaf in the Oval Office for proof of that. Todd Phillips’ Joker simply wouldn’t work in any other political climate, under any other circumstances but these fucking circumstances. It’s a movie about a troll that is, itself, a troll. It’s a film about a low-income, poorly educated white guy alternately grandstanding and feeling sorry for himself; Phillips takes turns worshipping and pitying this sad sack, too. The Joker has delusions of grandeur, and so does Joker.

Joker is maddeningly muddled, in some ways as “awful” as Fleck claims everything else is. It doesn’t glamorize vigilante violence any more than, say, John Wick — but it doesn’t not glamorize it, either. For all his failures, Arthur still has a straight white male’s sense of entitlement; minority characters often stand in his way, and he increasingly uses a sharp tongue or brute force to dispatch of these obstacles. But is that a problem with the Joker, or a problem with Joker? Thanks to Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance and Phillips’ commitment to misery, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. It might as well be an autobiography, written and directed by the Joker himself.

Perhaps only a film this doggedly single-minded can cut through the clutter of peak TV and an exhausting news cycle. Rarely are movies this nakedly narcissistic; Joker is about itself, and only itself. We might as well be scrolling through Arthur Fleck’s selfies for a couple of hours. But we do that kind of thing all the time! Have you ever found yourself drawn to the ranting, rambling Twitter feed of some idiot you disagree with? You read more, and more, hoping one of these tweets will shed light on how this maniac could possibly believe that horseshit — but the more you read, the less meaning you’ll find. That’s Joker, folks! It’s hard to imagine anyone as problematic as Arthur Fleck could inspire a movement of deranged, devoted followers to wreak havoc in his name — but guess what? It’s happening.

Fleck rails against the system — the social workers who are really just punching the clock, the billionaires and celebrities who feign camaraderie with the common man, the slick Wall Street bros who are even more blatantly predatory. They’re all “awful,” he says. He’s not wrong — and neither is the movie. Like Arthur Fleck, Joker is more part of the problem than a thoughtful counterpoint… but can you blame it?

A little over seven years ago, a man walked into a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises and shot over fifty people, killing twelve. It was one of the most horrifying mass murders since the Columbine massacre… but nothing changed. Headlines like that have only grown more common, forcing us to desensitize ourselves to the horror in order to preserve what’s left of our sanity.Joker isn’t a response to the senselessly violent, woefully corrupt, irreparably broken world we live in today, or even a reaction to it. It’s a reflection. Many of us don’t like what we see when we look in the mirror, so we shoot the messenger. But it’s not the mirror that’s cracked — it’s us.

Comic book movies have been getting progressively darker for decades. Now Joker has pushed them over the edge. There are no heroes anymore. There are only villains who put on crazy clown makeup and go on shooting rampages, and villains who don’t.

In so many ways, Joker is the defining film of these past three years, a film in which the bad guys win or nobody wins. There’s no other option. We may enjoy seeing Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain America save the day in Avengers: Endgame, but that’s escapist fare. The comic book movies that reflect our modern world have done away with heroics entirely. Our current state of affairs is so bleak that our Batman movies don’t even have Batman in them anymore. We, the citizens of Gotham, have waited too long for a masked hero to show up and do something about this mess we’re in. Collectively, we now agree. He’s not coming.Only a society as broken as ours could produce a nasty piece of work like Joker. Only a society as broken as ours could stomach it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but that’s life! We see guys like this on the news every day. We grin and bear it. Todd Phillips’ Joker is a sneering, ugly, awful fucking movie, but that’s what we deserve. So maybe it’s a masterpiece.

Joker‘s nihilism has turned off many critics, some of whom claim the film is irresponsible or, at worst, likely to incite the kind of violence it depicts. Joker makes us complicit in Fleck’s journey from bad to worse, the same way Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street implicated us in Jordan Belfort’s capitalist excess. A lot of critics didn’t like that, either. But blaming the movies is predictably defensive once the movies start blaming you. And if we’re not going to punish the greedy bastards who plunged us into a recession, hurting the poorest amongst us most, well… someone like Arthur Fleck might just try to punish them himself. And if we’re not going to prevent that man from walking into a store and buying an AR-15 rifle, the movies have nothing to do with it.

Arthur Fleck is white, and male, and poor, and sick. What is Joker saying about the mentally ill? What is it saying about toxic masculinity? What is it saying about race in America? What is it saying about endemic violence?

Ultimately? Ehh — nothing.

And that’s the joke.

Get it?


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