According to the hype in the weeks leading up to the foray of writer/director Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover trilogy) into auteur cinema, Joker was supposed to inspire someone (most likely a straight white male “incel”) to violence. Instead, at some point during my viewing, I looked to my left to see the woman seated next to me deep in slumber. My girlfriend was likewise asleep to my right. Apparently, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck’s transition from mental illness to psychopathy only inspired them to boredom.
I considered waking my girlfriend for a moment before accepting that she wasn’t in the movie’s target market. She, just as the woman to my left, was an innocent bystander to our convoluted cultural conversation in which, for some reason, we turned to an artist best known for comedies centered on hijinks spawned from adolescent inebriation. And as should have been expected, an origin story helmed by that artist about a supervillain whose only goal is destruction and chaos provided no revelations.
Joker begins by traveling the same route as the many movies aiming for artistic credibility before it—the emphasis of the victimhood of protagonist Arthur. All 30/40 something Arthur wants is to make people smile, but Gotham City is cold and cruel. During the day as a clown-for-hire, he is assaulted by teenagers and bullied by coworkers. During the night at home, he shares a tiny run-down apartment with his mother who is obsessed with Thomas Wayne, Gotham’s wealthy business magnate who is ramping up a mayoral campaign. Physically, Arthur is emaciated and weak. Mentally, he is drugged up due to several afflictions, not the least of which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the most inappropriate moments, drawing the ire of whomever is around. That this victimhood narrative is applied to a straight white male in 2019 probably explains the amount of disdain many critics have shown for the movie.
Before continuing, I would like to pause to acknowledge the technical achievements of Phillips and his crew. Phillips’s directing shines at times through well-framed and crafted shots. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher finds a disconcerting beauty in the decaying world of 1981 Gotham. Composer Hildur Guonadottir rouses the audience’s emotions in a manner that doesn’t distract from the story but supplements it. Most importantly, star Phoenix elevates the material as, perhaps, only he could, finding the right balance of pitifulness and madness. These successes are likely what those people praising the movie are celebrating. Unfortunately, no amount of effort could have redeemed the self-contradictory story.
A major thrust of the narrative is how Gotham’s wealthy are ignoring the suffering of the rest of the city. The more deviant Arthur becomes, the more he accidentally inspires an Occupy-style protest movement that eventually plays a large role in the climax. Thus, though the Joker himself says he isn’t political at all immediately preceding the climax, it will be difficult for anyone watching not to read his own bias into the movie.
For those viewers on the left, Arthur’s victimhood is emphasized when the social services that provide him a counselor are cut off due to funding issues. He’s also treated callously by members of the Wayne household when he reaches out to them for assistance. For those viewers on the right, Arthur’s mental illness is emphasized throughout. It is especially linked to his more violent and erratic behavior, enabling them to read the movie as an absurdist parody of the social justice worldview.
Then there is the most radical possible interpretation which says that the entire movie is in Arthur’s head while he is committed in the asylum shown in the final scene. This theory is raised not only by the final shots but when it is revealed that Arthur imagined an entire relationship, calling into question the reliability of the “narration” of the movie. Is the audience only seeing through Arthur’s flawed perspective the entire time? Is that approach why none of it makes any sense?
What stretches believability the most, however, is that the audience is supposed to believe that Arthur is somehow capable of becoming the renowned supervillain. Whereas Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker in The Dark Knight seemed measured and meticulous in action to illicit his intended outcomes, everything Arthur “achieves” is by whim or accident. The riot he causes on the subway in the final chase is tangential happenstance to his escape, not a devised diversion. Does Joker work better or worse as Batman’s archnemesis if his madness is channeled into destructive planning as Batman’s psychological trauma is channeled into protective planning?
This consideration also calls into question another narrative choice. The murder of the Waynes is retold again, this time as an outcome of the final mob melee that is indirectly incited by the Joker’s insanity. That’s right. In this telling of the tale, the Joker created Batman (or the Joker imagined he created his archnemesis). Does the inclusion of that part of the myth achieve anything except showing how clever Phillips thinks he is?
(Note: Several readers have pointed out that Joker kills the Waynes in the 1989 Batman movie. He does so when he is still just Jack Napier, a mob hitman. Thus what creates Batman in that version of the story is still the level of crime in the city, not the anarchy caused by Joker.)
On the other hand, maybe Phillips really is that clever. Joker has already broken October box office records and, with all the controversy and hype we’ve created surrounding it, has become fodder for water cooler conversation. Considering how little sense the movie itself makes, isn’t that outcome exactly one that the Joker himself would be proud of?