Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is an example of how a movie can be highly flawed and highly derivative in some ways and still be significant. Though the story is uneven and ambiguous and the Joker himself (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t a very coherently constructed character, the film manages to tap into the nihilistic zeitgeist of contemporary life. The strong reactions it provoked are proof of this.
A more “serious” filmmaker than Phillips, best known for popular comedies such as The Hangover (parts one, two, and three, sigh), might have created a more fully developed joker -perhaps one who was more politically correct and sympathetic or, conversely, one who was a pure villain. Phillips was content to let the character stray all over the map and leave us with a perplexing, ambiguous character and film that may be, after all, appropriate for the Joker.
The Joker’s Heavy-handed “Influences”
I was never a huge fan of Batman (or any comic/superhero franchise) and missed most of the movies. I do have childhood recollections of the original TV series, though, so references such as Gotham City and Bruce Wayne are familiar enough to me. That said, Phillips’ Joker borrows (or outright steals) more from 70s Scorcese films than from the Batman universe.
Set approximately in a gritty 1970s Gotham City, which is essentially New York, many scenes depict a Times Square-like neighborhood that immediately evokes Taxi Driver. The Joker, née Arthur Fleck, does have similarities with Travis Bickle after he transforms from an anonymous misfit loner to a violent vigilante. Yet he’s equally Rupert Pupkin, from The King of Comedy, another entry in the Scorcese-DeNiro partnership, the character who becomes obsessed with and eventually kidnaps a TV host played by Jerry Lewis.
In Joker, Robert DeNiro is the one playing the TV host, Murray Franklin (who evokes a TV radio host named Joe Franklin). Fleck, like Pupkin, has imaginary conversations with the TV host and visualizes himself as a star.
There’s a dubious assumption that if you blatantly refer to other works while winking at the audience, you’re doing a high-minded tribute rather than simply copying. The fact that DeNiro gave his blessing to the project with his participation doesn’t say much, as many of his later roles can be seen as essentially cashing out on his earlier, far greater roles.
Joker, of course, “borrows” from other films as well, especially A Clockwork Orange, which gave us one of the first truly disturbing depictions of modern society collapsing into violent chaos.
The Joker as Trickster
The Joker is part of an archetype that transcends modern cinema, comic books, and Batman. As a playing card, the Joker is wild, a close relation to The Fool in the tarot, also known as the Jester, a character who dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages in Western culture, and quite a bit further in others. Tricksters such as Loki in Northern Europe, Hermes in Greece, and Coyote in North America have always played an important role in mythology and storytelling.
Tricksters are, by nature, morally ambiguous. They can be fun and playful, but also deceptive and self-serving. It’s revealing just how dark so many tricksters have become in our modern myths. Aside from the Joker, the evil clown, a staple of so many horror movies, is probably the best example.
Modern audiences are split on how they respond to these dark tricksters. In an age when faith in traditional institutions such as government, religion, and even science is collapsing, the anarchic spirit of the trickster is appealing. Yet an amoral clown like the Joker can easily lead to random violence and total societal collapse.
Joker Triggers Many Critics
Joker triggered strong responses from many critics, well beyond the usual elitist vitriol often unleashed on popular movies. For example, the New Yorker published a near-hysterical review that missed the mark in multiple ways, choosing to fixate on racial issues.
Somehow Fleck being assaulted by a multiethnic group of kids while waving a store’s sale sign equates to the infamous Central Park Five case and his being assaulted by a group of wealthy white guys on the subway makes him Bernie Goetz.
I can almost suspect that Phillips put in a few racially charged scenes to provoke such oversimplified reactions from old-school liberals. It’s easy enough to shove the Joker into the neat category of an angry white male, along the lines of Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. But Joker is considerably more complex. In a tense urban environment, it’s not shocking that an unstable person such as Fleck would be triggered by racially charged incidents. But the film is clearly dealing with wider issues concerning society, mental illness, anomie, and violence.
Does Joker Celebrate Nihilism?
“I don’t believe in anything.” -Arthur Fleck in Joker.
Perhaps the central question about Joker is whether the film is a celebration of Fleck’s nihilism or a cautionary tale. It can be interpreted either way. Fleck is portrayed as a troubled man suffering from mental health issues. The system clearly lets him down when the program that provides him with medication is shut down. This, indeed, is when he starts to unravel. On the other hand, Fleck can just as easily be seen as a sociopath who doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions.
The final scenes, showing mobs of rioters celebrating the Joker as their antihero reminded me of another 70s movie, the cult classic The Warriors, in which street gangs took over the city.
While Joker is by no means a great film, it’s worth seeing and discussing because it portrays a character who is, unfortunately, relatable in a society where alienation and mental illness run rampant (as Taxi Driver was 50 years earlier).
Joker is also a kind of Rorschach test, revealing your attitudes towards complex issues like social unrest, race, anarchy, freedom, and creative expression. Your reactions may very well change over time and even through different scenes of the film. This makes Joker a film that’s always interesting despite its flaws.