DC Comics + Warner Bros. Pictures stint with the comic book movie has soured somewhat, dare we say, drastically since the last outing – Justice League – graced our screens. And whilst many who have long abandoned the integrity of the narrative to harp on about releasing the ‘Snyder Cut’ as if it were some one-code-fixes-all DLC, many have despaired.
Despaired for what reason I hear you ask. For one, DC’s constant neighbour-lawn-watching and shorthand formulaic approaches to crafting their comic book movie universes. A ‘technique’ that will continue to bring ruin, or at the very least, mediocrity to the cherished IP under the Distinguished Competitors. It is disheartening.
Alas, a silver lining was given to fans in the form of a new movie and approach. Not one tied to extended universes with the added weight and responsibility of forbearing oversight. A film that boasted seeing the comic film through a ‘realistic lens’, but permeated and channeled a certain energy that made films like Clockwork Orange a visually jarring and impactful moment in cinematic history. DC’s Joker.
And with caliber actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Robert DeNiro involved, it felt apparent WB understood it needed to shake things up to rise above and distance themselves from the current comic-book movie status quo. That was the perception, in any case.
However, does Joker deliver? Or is it a poor punchline in a bad, long-winded joke? Here we begin our descent into the heart of madness.
⚠ SPOILERS AHEAD ⚠
Comedy and Tragedy Wear the Same Face
It is frightening to think that many of us are just one, bad tragic day away from breaking mentally. Working for a crappy job with conspiring colleagues. Being the butt of a relentless joke that is your life. Arthur Fleck, the tragic hero of this new DC tale, is no stranger to failure and despair. However, the events leading up to him becoming the infamous Clown Prince of Crime bring about a transformation that hurtles him towards insanity and infamy.
Plateau into Madness
Each life-altering event leads to another, from the loss of his job, to his being picked for casual assault and social care program that barely kept the man on the straight and narrow deciding to abandon his care. Everything leads to Fleck’s descent into madness. There is no one breaking point, which would suggest the erosion of his mind was a slow, steady build of events happening to Fleck.
However, Fleck does not appear combatant to his more violent tendencies, which would have given more cadence to his transformation. And the events were more quick and violent, which may just be a byproduct of his weapon of choice, the revolver. Now a knife or a melee weapon, that would connote a more deliberate action and choice. An action that would involve wading through the chaos and blood rather than making a hasty retreat from being caught. Something far more disturbing than the reactionary pull of a trigger.
I say all that to say this – with the Joker being presented to us as a character study as to how a man could become so twisted and violent – does little to show a transformation, but more of a worsening of tendencies that were already there from the very start.
Unfollowing the Pattern
Power lies in the motif. And it is something I felt Joker could have played on more. Being a psychological drama, hints at what lied under Fleck’s psyche could have made it a more engrossing experience. So when tidbits like Fleck’s sexual abuse by a man via his mother’s complicity come to light, it should feel more like a “oh that’s why” rather than a “oh, another bad thing happened to him some time ago”.
Imagine being chained to a radiator and abused repeatedly. Now imagine if throughout the film Fleck felt repulsively ill, every time he saw the sleek contours of a radiator or heard the sound of its mechanical glugging. Assault victims and people that suffer from PTSD often can fixate on a minor thing that can send them back to a very dark place. Viewers would be like “why” then the reveal would bring everything to an impasse. Little markers like this would help to create a more cohesive, connected narrative as opposed to bad things happen and a guy loses his shit.
And with little motifs like this, one can then introduce a variable that changes the dynamism of a scene, just to see how a Fleck-turning-Joker would react.
The introduction of the Joker’s compulsive laugh was also something new. Joker’s laugh is presented to us as being a mental tick like a form of turrets as opposed to a sinister, maniacal outburst. It is an interesting addition that made him stand out from other iterations of the prolific DC villain. There were moments that felt excruciatingly painful to watch, where even Phoenix looked pained by it. Then there were instances where it felt unnecessary for the progression of story and scene. Ultimately it did help massively to frame this Joker through Todd Phillips ‘realistic lens’.
The Joker’s most occurring them is surely one of transformation. And here is where most of the awesome elements in the film occurred. Ultimately giving Joker more of a feeling of the indie, cinematic quality. Fleck riding the elevator with a stark raving madman strapped to a gurney. Fleck stare down, as if in an effort to not stare into the darkness of his own fate. The nihilistic, Sisyphus-like milieu created by Fleck having to traverse the longest flight of steps daily.
Moreover, how does the Joker best accentuate the nuances of a Shakespearean tragedy? Or bolster the brash, bold and defiant stance Joker’s very existence flaunts in the face of society? The answer is simple. Fleck’s impromptu dances and posturing. I know somewhere Toby Macguire is annoyed, but if anyone that deserves to dance it’s the Joker. And Joaquin Phoenix pulls it off beautifully every time. His mannerisms, his slapstick, near Charlie Chaplin run to his balls-to-the-ground, braggadocious swagger – this was a Joker that felt ‘Joker’, but not like the predecessors before him. For the most part, that is a win for any actor taking on the role of such a prolific villain. The brassy notes went some ways into helping with his peacock strut as well, for sure.
It’s the dance-troupe-esque renditions that mirror a great majesty in his movements. Ultimately giving insight into his psyche. The calming, melancholic solo dance after killing the three Wall Street attackers on the subway. The carnivalesque clown stomping on the long stairway. To the un-cocooning contortion just before the curtains rise on his late-night TV debut. Can we just add, these were the best scenes; the way Joker contorts and flexes his back and shoulder muscles create a deformed human form and the feeling of metamorphosis taking place right in front of our eyes. These were some of the more powerful scenes.
Whoa is me
Nothing that happens to Joker registers as even a remotely viable excuse for a killing rampage. And it is not to difficult to pinpoint the similarities between his rise to notoriety and that of a Trump-like figure and white supremacist street violence.
That is partly why I felt the sexual abuse angle was odd coming in in final place as to say ‘hey, if losing your job and getting assaulted on a train wasn’t enough to make society bleed, maybe child sex abuse will tickle your fancy’… you know what I mean.
Much of the scenes, for this reason, felt slightly disjointed. Whether you consider the run-on ‘boo hoo, whoa is me’ run on of events that is not presented as a new occurrence to kickstart the Joker transformation. There is no one key plot point that hooks and turns Fleck onto the path of becoming the Joker. And the smaller moments are not as impactful to warrant it. Maybe the child abuse, but Fleck already had a body count and was well on his way to psycho land by then.
Also, the symmetry that the film tried to create with the descent of Fleck into madness alongside society on the fringes of civil unrest also fell short of promise. It missed an opportunity that the likes of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen captured so beautifully in their comic book narratives. Granted the medium is different, but still.
Joker faced controversy (whatever that means in these days) over the idea that the film emboldened incel culture. A world that when first heard, I thought had to do with terrorism. But apparently, on the back pages of Reddit and the interweb are men who hate and objectify women and are angry and (mostly) white and hate the progressive cotton-candy world we now live in. I honestly tried to push this out of my periphery when analysing Joker, but in all fairness, there were instances I did feel Joker spoke about, not necessarily to a subculture.
The idea of faceless rioters donning the clown mask championing the Joker, who felt angry at the world and found there were people like him – that’s a pretty average day on Twitter. Can you think of one example of
45 a clown rallying the support of violent men in the streets of Charleston Gotham because society has ‘wronged’ them so?
Good film is often rooted in a reality that is tangible. So indeed, the Joker is speaking to how dangerous marginalisation of people, especially if they continually fall through society’s cracks. And we see in different junctions of the movie where rehabilitation, which was already a bureaucratic mess, is taken off the table. A cautionary tale. Not a call to loser arms. Again, people will interpret things how they will.
The Joker as a character piece was good. Phoenix, despite however Jared Leto feels, did a good job of things. It did not feel like he was pressured to do a Heath Ledger rendition of the Joker, but a unique interpretation of the DC Villain. The narrative, however, feels like a long-winding road of physical abuse and embarrassment to push him towards madness. The emotional variables and drain that sadness and loss would have helped to create a more powerful character-driven cocktail.
It is also interesting that the need to distance themselves from the Batman comic book movie angle leads straight back to it. Director Todd Phillips made a very concrete effort to say that his Joker would take no direction from the comics. However, he found it integral to show how Thomas dying in yet another alleyway with the pearls and the Bruce standing over his dead parents. I suppose the twist was the Joker created the Batman, which is contrapuntal to the themes of the Dark Knight and the more infamous comic titles that argue it is Batman who creates his own enemies as far as mirroring and the tacit of dichotomy goes. Nevertheless, these are heavily explored in the comics. And the twists as such do not hit with the same impetus for people familiar with a Batman comic narrative arc or two.
Joker’s monologue before his intended public suicide became a nationwide assassination of a beloved late-night show host also failed to feel either as impactful or natural as it could have been. Ultimately I do feel Joker is in the right direction for DC movies. Our hope is they will build on it without the Marvel itch to interconnect multiple movies without a clear course ahead.
And for those making Heath Ledger comparisons… stop. This is a new Joker. Nevertheless, Ledger’s Joker still remains king.
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