Debated Films: Joker (2019)

This is not a review. The intention of “Debated Films” is to shed light on different perspectives over contentious movies to determine if it deserves praise or criticism. These will be previously released films, so be aware there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen this film, you may want to before reading this piece.

Some critics say that audiences watch films and replicate what they see. There are compelling explanations for this, but some go to an extreme and say problematic films are directly harmful. The contention is that violent films can influence audiences to be violent. Even though this theory has been disproven many times, every now and then a provocative film comes along which attracts this attention. Director Todd Phillips’ DC Comics adaptation Joker (2019), is the most recent example. Many outlets claimed it’s a dangerous film. The irony is the controversy contributed to its $1 billion box office. Overall, Joker is a good film, but its unclear if the film’s point is what Phillips intended. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck.

Set in 1980s Gotham City, a garbage strike has turned the town into a slum. Our “protagonist” is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled, disturbed and socially awkward loner working as a clown. His dream is to be a stand-up comedian on Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a popular late night talk show. Arthur’s life is complicated by a condition in which he bursts into laughter when in confronting situations. After a series of demoralising events, Arthur murders three young stock brokers who accosted him, all while wearing his clown make-up. This incites an anti-rich protest movement, as the citizens of Gotham interpret the murders as a call to arms. This inspires Arthur to take up the mantle of his killer-clown persona, adopting the name ‘Joker’.

Parallels were drawn between Arthur Fleck and a subculture known as ‘incels’. This refers to people who are resentful and misanthropic. It was interpreted that Arthur’s struggles and actions would speak to incel culture, validating violent behaviour. After all, the character has always inspired admiration despite being an evil and psychotic mass-murderer. This is the main reason people were afraid the film would condone incels. When looking at the story, the film seems self-aware about the Joker’s rampant fandom, building to a climax which highlights that admiring this maniac is creepy. This is Joker’s main narrative strength and confirms the film doesn’t support incels. However, it’s questionable if the filmmakers realised that’s the movie they made.  

Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin.

How can a filmmaker not know the point of his or her own film? Essentially, it comes down to intent and execution. Director Todd Phillips has said Joker is a commentary about ‘society lacking kindness and empathy’. This is evident in the climax when Joker says it’s “society’s” fault for creating him due to their lack of decency. Frustratingly, the preceding events didn’t completely build to this conclusion. It’s explained that Arthur’s social and mental scars were caused by his neglectful (and crazy) mother and her abusive partners. ‘Society’ didn’t make him the Joker, as he was broken from the start. The film wants us to empathise with his worldview, but the misalignment of story and theme make his diatribe hollow. There are mentions of a need for better mental health care, but it’s a storytelling band aid instead of a story element.

Happily, this mistake does create a subversive and (almost) brilliant layer of nuance. Essentially, it makes Arthur’s ramblings completely misinformed and inane. This is a film about a psychotic murderer, so his perspective should be incorrect even when it’s compelling. As Arthur laughs to himself, a psychiatrist asks him ‘what’s so funny’? Arthur replies to the psychiatrist, ‘you wouldn’t get the joke’. This reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t be agreeing with him. No good person should empathise with his point of view. This isn’t a criticism, as villainous protagonists make for engaging cinema. The character the filmmakers created is an interesting commentary on himself, but the narrative pieces show that’s not what they were going for. The final message is a fantastic condemnation of the character, so it’s odd that the story elements say we should be on Arthur’s side.

Joker and his followers.

The ‘rich versus poor’ subplot is key to the confusion. It was intended as an analysis of lower classes rising against oppression. This is evident as the three stock brokers Arthur kills are portrayed as completely vile. Thus, the call to arms against the rich is meant to feel justified. Honestly, it’s highly unlikely a brutal triple murder would incite the slogan “they got what they deserve”. In reality, people would be afraid of the clown-faced murderer. It’s supposed to evoke the Bernhard Goetz murders, but the circumstances around that fiasco aren’t replicated here. The reasons why people see Arthur’s actions as heroic isn’t fully explained, therefore the subplot just shows how easily the masses are seduced by evil. That’s not exactly what the filmmakers wanted to say, despite being a perfectly appropriate idea for this story.

Phillips has made Joker feel like an ‘important’ dramatic film. There’s motivated direction, serious performances, haunting cinematography and a grim score. It’s no secret the film is inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King Of Comedy (1982). Entire plots, motivations and motifs are replicated. American Psycho (2000), Nightcrawler (2014) and every other film about a disturbed loner takes after Scorsese, but Joker borders on plagiarism. For instance, there’s no point made by setting the film in the 1980s, as it’s merely a Scorsese reference. The Scorsese connection is definitely a positive for many (it was for me) and was even the reason the film was made, but it robs Joker from having identity. It’s an imitation of more unique films, meaning it makes less of an impression. Even so, It’s perfectly understandable that audiences who haven’t seen those earlier films would view Joker as revolutionary.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a haunting performance as Arthur.

Joker wasn’t made cynically, as it clearly has artfully genuine intentions and is delivered with quality craftsmanship. The frustrating thing is this isn’t the first time a comic book film tried to transcend its genre, even though it’s treated as such. Road to Perdition (2002), V For Vendetta (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Watchmen (2009), Dredd (2012), Snowpiercer (2013), Logan (2017) and Black Panther (2018) already did so and weren’t as thematically confused. It’s not the harbinger of doom some claimed it was, but it doesn’t fully develop it’s own complexity. It’s a well made and entertaining supervillain origin story, yet it wanted to be more and say important things. The strongest point it made was a self-aware acknowledgement of its own existence. However, it’s nearly a year old and people are still talking about it, so it did something right and has earned its place as a cultural fixture. 

Best way to watch it: Marathon Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, American Psycho and Nightcrawler. See where Joker got its tricks from.

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Robert Fantozzi

Passionate filmmaker. Proud Italian-South African. Total Nerd.

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