Joker’s Dismissal of Pop Culture Narratives Is Precisely What Brings It Down

Joker garnered a lot of positive buzz after its first showing at the Venice Film Festival, where it won their Golden Lion Award. The early premiere gave the film plenty of time to bask in this glory without a wide audience, which is an odd situation for a superhero movie in this day and age. Typically, these projects care more about fandom’s reaction than anything, but Joker was very clear about projecting a different image: It was Art, not something the masses were meant to group in with dreaded popular entertainment.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked. But Joker doesn’t display the intention needed to pull it off.

[Some spoilers for Joker below.]

The film focuses on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a rent-a-clown living in poverty with mental illness, a sick mother, and a childhood head injury that causes him to laugh at moments that society would deem “inappropriate”. As he learns more about his own past and tries to assert himself in a world that ignores him, he becomes an improbable and unintended figurehead in the brewing upheaval between the elite and lower classes of his city. Set in 1981 Gotham (which is very clearly just New York, as it often is) and re-rendered in certain screenings to appear as though it was shot in 70mm film, the movie makes no bones about its influences, primarily Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, as well as a hodgepodge of 70s auteur films. But while the look of the movie is frequently stunning, Joker makes a mistake that many nostalgic films suffer from—the belief that aping a lauded visual style and a few narrative cues somehow compensates for a lack of clarity in storytelling.

Joker, for all that it tries to pack in themes on isolation, mental illness, societal unrest, domestic abuse, class division, and the effects of generational violence, doesn’t seem to have any idea what it’s about. It is a very sad film where terrible things happen to people who deserve better, there’s a basic progression of events, but if you were to ask what sort of messages or ideas the film intended to impart—even a half-assed, deliberately vague “all life is chaos, there’s no meaning”—you’d be hard-pressed to find it. Ambiguity, be it moral or otherwise, can serve stories well in many cases, as Scorsese’s body of work has proven again and again. But that ambiguity still requires that someone framing the story have an opinion about what’s on screen, which Joker fails to communicate at every turn. Is the titular character meant to impart our own failings to us? To make us feel bad for the people who society fails? To make us less surprised at the violence we encounter every day by attempting to explain how the world can radicalize the suffering and downtrodden? These are all (trite) possibilities, yet Joker is reticent to elicit emotions from its audience, to engage them with its point of view.

Phoenix’s performance as Fleck, while haunting, seems to have no purpose beyond watching him act. Director Todd Phillips made mention of wanting to do a “character study” film on a comic book villain before taking on the project, but character studies are not the sum of whole narratives. Character studies are for cinema verité, for student short films, for actors looking to beef up their audition reels with more material. Building a whole film around a character study can only give you a performance, and no matter how skilled that performance is, it cannot be a substitute for everything else a fully realized story deserves. Many of the narrative beats are lifted wholesale by screenwriters Phillips and Scott Silver from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, but with no intention toward altering or reconsidering the statements of their predecessors. Setting the film in 1981 further shackles Joker to those specters of the past, making the time period choice an affectation rather than meaningful decision.

But the real question is, why bother letting directors and writers create these odes to films of a bygone era when they have nothing to add to the conversation—thereby suggesting that odes themselves constitute High Art? Some have praised Joker for existing firmly outside the superhero studio mill that we’re now subjected to several times a year, but replicating films of the past is hardly an innovative improvement on that model, and pretending that the superhero genre has little to offer artistically is plain lazy. At least James Manigold’s Logan, while closely following the narrative of Western classic Shane, cared about placing the events of that film into an X-Men narrative. Joker doesn’t care to consider the potential of the superhero (or supervillain) narrative, and its realism comes off hollow as a result. The irony of this choice is that for all the film wants to eschew these tropes, it commits the greatest cardinal sin of all: showing the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne on film, something that only the Adam West Batman and Batman: The Animated Series have somehow been smart enough to avoid among countless iterations of the Caped Crusader.

There are occasional moments of accidental brilliance in Joker that give us glimpses of the film that might have been. At one point the Joker dances on an outdoor staircase in full regalia while Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” plays in the background, hinting at an alternate reality where this film took its pedigree less seriously, one where the Joker was—Batman forbid—permitted to have some fun. Occasionally, Phoenix reaches deep down and harnesses his own charisma, giving Fleck the ability to channel that glimmer of megalomania that makes the character both exciting and terrifying. But those moments vanish too quickly, and we’re left with more perspectiveless commentary on societal decay, mob violence, and the desperation of those living in poverty. Despite any seeming attempts to consider the plight of lower classes, Joker frequently paints these rioting mobs with as little nuance as figures in a board game: One sign during Gotham’s protests literally says “Kill the Rich”, which reads as though some studio exec saw a sign on set with the current popular slogan “Eat the Rich” and said, Nah, you know, it’s not clear to me. How would they eat us? Is it literal, I can’t tell. Maybe just simplify the message there.

The fact that the film cannot decide how to depict the denizens of Gotham is a large part of what keeps the whole exercise directionless. Fleck is frequently abused by his fellow citizens, but they come from all walks of life—aggravated parents, punk kid gangs, wealthy finance bros, Thomas Wayne himself. There’s a class war narrative built into Joker, but it’s missing any sympathetic undertones needed to offer perspective. Are we meant to care about the people rioting against the elites of Gotham? Should we be frightened of them? Should we feel the way Arthur Fleck feels in their presence? If your entire narrative centers around visible violent class warfare, some strong opinions are required on the subject. The fact that there are none makes it seem as though everyone responsible in making Joker wanted to shock their audience, but not risk offending them. Which is pretty much the opposite of the point of that entire 70s auteur film movement that Joker is desperate to inhabit.

The film insists frequently that the Joker doesn’t see himself or his actions as a political statement. He is asked more than once and always demurs, yet his clarifying act in the film follows a tirade in which he acknowledges that he is what comes of society’s neglect and abuse. It’s unclear if the movie thinks that the Joker doesn’t know that his statement is political, or the film itself doesn’t understand it’s own political nature, which makes the poor handling of Gotham City’s unrest and riots even more baffling. In the sharpest of ironies, Joker’s determination to build on Scorsese’s milieu while neglecting pop culture markers means the film ignores the sources that might have been the most helpful to it—V For Vendetta had no trouble building on this exact premise, but its politics were clear, deftly executed, and far more moving than anything Joker is willing to hand its viewers.

But what’s perhaps more disturbing is the fact that Joker ignores the most important lesson of the character’s wooly origins. While the film takes some clear inspiration from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, it refuses to take the moral with it—the Joker’s insistence that Batman is just “one bad day” away from being as awful as him is met with rejection in that story. Instead this film seems to posit “But what if your whole life was one bad day?” as some bizarre justification for treading deeper into the Joker’s psyche. As though that question is unique. But it’s not, really. It’s a thought exercise that anyone could do in their head with very little prompting. Riffing on Scorsese’s greatest hits doesn’t make the thought exercise more poignant. It just gives another filmmaker a poor excuse to cue up Cream’s “White Room” when bad things happen.

Emily Asher-Perrin begs you to not even get them started on the far worse use of “Send in the Clowns”. You can bug him on Twitter, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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