Sunday 3 November 2019


Finally, I've time to sit down and write about Joker, perhaps the most talked-about film of the year. And it's been out long enough now that I feel it's safe to straight in with a SPOILER-filled review, so for those who haven't seen it yet and don't want anything spoiled (although to be fair, it mostly unrolls fairly predictably), stop here. For everyone else, carry on after the break.

Firstly, let's get the verdict out of the way: Joker is a very good film. It is, of course, hugely Scorsese-influenced, partly by Scorsese's early involvement but mostly, I feel, by Todd Phillips's clear (and understandable) desire to pay tribute to him. While it is very derivative, it is impeccably well directed with a stunning central performance by Joaquin Phoenix and undeniably powerfully affecting.

Not to say there aren't shortcomings. The dialogue is frankly functional, often quite clichéd I would have put money on Pheonix's character, Arthur Fleck, saying “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise it's a comedy.” The dialogue is saved by the cast's performance of it, putting a great deal more power and emotion into it than Phillips and Scott Silver's script gave them.

As I said, it is derivative, not only of earlier films but many a dark, tortured take on the superhero genre. Comics-wise, it's clearly influenced primarily by Allan Moore's The Killing Joke, but also Tim Burton's Batman, with elements that have some background in Azzarello's novel Joker, and even the 1990s Batman animated series. But these things all work into and influence each other. This is not a straight adaptation of any Joker story, which is all the better. It provides another origin story for a villain who, famously, said he'd rather it be “multiple choice.” I'm also impressed by DC/Warner's decision to allow a film set explicitly outside the DCEU after they tried so hard to create a shared universe. Some of DC's best comics have been Elseworlds and apocryphal stories, and allowing multiple takes on its iconic characters is perhaps the best approach it could take in maximising the their potential.

It is, of course, impossible to escape the controversy of the film. It's not easy to escape that a lot of people have considerable issues with a film that sympathises with a violent lunatic who commits appalling crimes. Does the film heroise the Joker? I'd say so, and it could most certainly have silenced some of its negative critics by condemning him more. While there are certainly characters – most notably De Nero's comedian-host Murray Franklin – who loudly condemn Fleck's actions, the film seems clearly on his side.

Which is not say that I buy into the idea that violent film – or games, or music – make people go out an commit violent acts. People have latched onto violent material many times in the past and used it to justify their actions, but the problem is with the people, not whatever it is they've become currently obsessed with. Nonetheless, in a world where there have already been violent crimes committed by men inspired by the Joker, producing a film that not only heroises the character, but also extrapolates his development from a mentally ill loser into a violent terrorist is perhaps a bad idea. However, in spite of the gun murders and urban violence depicted with such savagery in the film, the second weekend of its release was the first weekend in which New York saw no gun crime in twenty-five years. Presumably all the people who normally commit such crimes were in the cinema, watching the film.

I won't lie, I certainly had some concerns considering the film's subject. It's an unflinching take on mental illness, albeit one that paints the mentally ill in a very negative light even as it positions itself on their side. What made me most uncomfortable were the moments when I sympathised strongly with Fleck, where I saw elements of his personality that I recognised in myself. Perhaps, then, there is the potential for the film to do good, for if young men watching can see those negative aspects of themselves and where they could lead, they can work against them. On the other hand, there will be just as many angry young white men with chips on their shoulders who'll feel that Fleck's story really speaks to them, and will be galvanised by it.

For a film titled Joker, there's a real paucity of laughs in this grimly serious story. The classic Joker was, after all, fun, even as he was being evil, and there's little sense of that here. Fleck, after all, is characterised as a comedian who explicitly isn't funny (even if he does steal Bob Monkhouse's best line). The Joker's catchphrase laugh isn't because of he's actually finding his actions funny, rather a neurological condition that causes Fleck to laugh when under emotional stress. The film, and Fleck, only begin to get funny once he finally cracks, and while this is no doubt deliberate, it still remains that having fun is not on this film's agenda. Still, given the violence of it all, this is probably for the best, but sometimes I found myself asking, “Why so serious?”

This is not a subtle film, by any means, but there's one story thread that's handled rather more subtly than the rest. Zazie Beets plays Sophie, a neighbour of Fleck's to whom he has a one-sided attraction. He outright stalks her, and yet, when she confronts him, she seems to take this as a compliment and begins to date him. It seems to blame Sophie for what must, inevitably, happen to her, putting her in the position of encouraging a man who is clearly unstable and obsessive. In one of the film's cleverer moves, it's revealed that almost every interaction with Sophie has been in his head, and that there was absolutely nothing between them. It's an effective way of illustrating the mindset of the obsessive stalker, who fails to distinguish between their fantasy and real relationships. What we never find out, though, is what finally becomes of Sophie, although we can assume it won't be good. This is either a gross failing of the script, or a clever way of highlighting how little Fleck actually cares for her as a person, rather than an unattainable idea.

An element I hadn't particularly expected, but which worked well was the “poor-vs-rich” theme running throughout. It's a canny move by the writers in today's climate, where the divide between rich and poor is growing wider and unrest among the lower classes is growing. It's also a clever move in pitching the Joker as a direct opposite of Batman. Making Thomas Wayne an almost villainous figure in the story, pitched directly against Fleck even as he obsesses over him, is a very clever way of tying this film into Batman's story. Indeed, one of the first things I wondered about the film was whether a Joker movie could work without Batman involved (in much the same way that Venom frankly doesn't work because of the lack of a link to Spider-Man). Tying Fleck's story to Bruce Wayne's in an unexpected way is a very clever move. By having Fleck's actions launch a whole movement, it allows him to be responsible for Bruce's parents' deaths, but not in the direct way that Jack Napier was in 1989's Batman. “Kill the rich!” becomes the Joker's legacy, and this makes him a direct opposite of the billionaire who uses his riches to fight injustice.

An element I was ready to hate was the revelation that Fleck and Bruce are really half-brothers, with Fleck's troubled mother Penny (the wonderful Frances Conroy) having conceived young Arthur during an affair with Thomas while on his staff. Eventually, this is revealed as just another joke that life has played on Fleck, with his mother being quite delusional. It's a huge relief, since making Batman and the Joker would be a hugely clichéd step too far, although there is always the slim possibility that Thomas really did have Penny committed to hide his affair. As with much of the story, the actual truth of events is uncertain, although I choose to believe that Fleck and Wayne are not related.

With Fleck's descent into insanity making him a very unreliable narrator, it's questionable how much of the events actually take place as seen. Indeed, the final scenes, with Fleck committed to Arkham, could follow or overwrite the climactic events where he is worshipped on the streets. This is, perhaps, the film's best defence against its apparent hero-worship of Fleck, since we are seeing the world through from his own warped viewpoint. Nonetheless, it seems likely that most of the what we see on screen occurs in some way. What is hard to see is how the incoherent, unmanageable Fleck could become the powerful villain of Batman lore. While clearly unstable, the Joker has always seemed in control of his fate, while portraying Fleck as a victim makes him very much out-of-control in every sense.

Perhaps, with the swarms of protesters in their clown masks rising up in the streets of Gotham, we aren't seeing Fleck become the true Joker, but the origin of the Joker as a concept, and somewhere in that crowd, another iteration of the character is receiving his inspiration. We just have to hope he isn't in the audience.

Postscript: I was at MCM Comic Con last weekend. There were sixteen people dressed as the Joker, more than any other character.

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