Todd Phillips, 2019, USA-Canada
Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
I was just at the right age when the Eighties’ comics revolution happened. I mean, I already loved Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’ – I was already a horror fan, after all – but I was deeply into Batman too. Then there was Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Killing Joke’ and Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ … all that legendary stuff. I was just the right age for all that to be poignant and formative. The very first comic I ever bought myself was on a camping trip with my Dad (was this 1981?) and it was a copy of ‘The Justice League’ where The Starfish Conqueror took over a city: this edition ended on the cliff-hanger of a lot of city people with starfish over their faces, the Starfish Conqueror possessing them, and I was introduced to the idea of an apocalypse. I mean, I had been reading ‘Star Wars’ comics ever since the film came out and that and the support stories had apocalypse in abundance, but there was something about this ‘Justice League’ edition that struck a chord. Even if I had every ‘Star Wars’ comic ever released (and how much money that collection would that fetch now if I still had them?), it was from this edition of ‘JLA’ that I seemed to buy every comic on the shelf. I am a lifelong comics fan.
Despite what the adults may have thought, comics have long beenthe introduction to The Big Themes for kids. And anyone keeping up with the litany of contemporary animated films knows that they have been growing up in full view and yet never noticed in the mainstream even as animation is bigger and more diverse than ever – and then ‘Spider-man: into the Spider-verse’ made people sit up and notice. But Batman has been long trading in seriousness. It may be the kind of earnestness that Lego Batman parodies, but it’s why I have always found the character reliably entertaining. Batman is a “super-hero” (yes yes, I know he doesn’t have super powers, but he’s still thought of in that way; plus he had bottomless wealth and he’s a superfighter and thinker, a real Übermensch) – it’s true that he always seemed to have a hotline to cool: ‘Beware the Batman’ animated series had a theme by The Dum Dum Girls, for instance.
Although Batman draws heavily from noir and crime fiction, he is also close to the horror genre. Surely more than others (discounting the supernaturally derived heroes) his gallery of villains hue closest to horror. There was even an Andy Warhol Batman/Dracula film apparently. But whilst he was out fighting horror monsters, I would also hazard that ‘Batman’ fiction is many reader’s introduction to mental illness as a dramatic device: split personalities, obsessives, narcissists, serial killers, etc. And so: Joker is a horrific psychopath.
In ‘Batman: Hush’, Joker has one of the best moments, heckling asBatman and Clayface fight. But there’s never the sense that Joker is genuinely comedic: that’s not the point. ‘Hush’ continues the high standard of Batman animations that have been quietly turning out quality work since ‘Sub-Zero’ and ‘Mask of the Phantasm’. ‘Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse’ was dazzling, but there had been a lot of solid and interesting superhero animation output beneath the radar for a long time, but suddenly people took notice. It was no surprise to anyone that had been following the ‘LEGO’ and ‘Teen Titans GO!’ cartoons that they were so well written, meta and entertaining. And of course almost all screen superheroes owes a debt to the seminal ‘Batman: the animated series’: I used to video Saturday morning kids’ TV whilst I was working just to catch this. It was a perfect balance of cartoon – the style harking back to the 1940s’ Fleischer Studio ‘Superman’ cartoons – and more mature allusions: the dialogue was as sharp as the mood was shadowy; here was Batman fighting with hints of martial arts and I felt it the first time his fighting skills rendered convincingly on screen.
If Tim Burton kept an agreeable amount of the camp surrounding Batman, it was the Chris Nolan films that really went into the Bruce Wayne drop-dead serious perspective. If you preferred the camp of Batman – and perhaps never could get beyond Adam West – then there was always the agreeable ‘Batman: The Brave and the Bold’ cartoon; but even these were knowing and not condescending with the final Bat-Mite episode berating those critics that only wanted their Batman relentlessly serious. The ‘Batman’ animated films were happily continuing the dark hues from the comics even as ‘LEGO Batman: Family Matters’ made a mockery of the idea that Bruce Wayne was a loner. Entries such as ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Hush’ carried on with the unhinged edges, with the latter this time giving The Riddler a little Joker madness and a make-over.
The adaptation of ‘The Killing Joke’ came in for a lot of backlash for having Joker rape Barbara Gordon. However, in terms of the character it made sense: he will do anything to upset, provoke, troll and drive people mad. That was his whole agenda: to finally give Batman one bad day that would drive the Dark Knight over the edge. In the comics, Joker had long lost the ‘60s campness that went towards neutering his insanity. Mark Hamill had done definitive voicework for Joker in the seminal ‘Batman: the animated series’ and here he toned down some of his hysterics to maybe create one of the most convincingly credible evocations of the character. In their final conversation, Joker even seems to drop the pretence of mania for a more-or-less serious but brief consideration of his nosediving relationship with Batman. And note he kinda fluffs that punchline. In both ‘The Killing Joke’ and ‘Joker’, Joker is called out for a self-serving nihilistic philosophy and being whiny.
And as for Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’… wouldn’t the character find it hilarious that his origin story has been seen as a powderkeg in the zeitgeist? Wouldn’t he just. The ultimate troll upsetting the establishment: exactly as it should be. Despite Phillips reported daft comments on contemporary comedy, with his ‘The Hangover’ films backing up his argument (and Marc Maron’s retort to this is correct https://heroichollywood.com/joker-marc-maron-todd-phillips/), the film is remarkably astute, the detail coherent, and hence the wealth of analysis it has provoked. I am going to be pro-‘Joker’.
It’s consistent and convincing enough that I have seen social media threads discussing the symbolism of black characters in the film: the care staff and the woman down the hall. It’s a film where discussions of its workings evolve into long discussions of its detail. On Kermode and Mayo’s BBC film podcast, the most enthusiastic, lucid and effected viewers that write in seem to be those that work in mental health care. It arguably contains enough artistic merit, social awareness, empathy, ambiguity and notable aesthetic to make it cinema beyond the confines of its ostensible and much maligned genre. And where it lucks subtlety, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack keep things grounded and shaded.
Of course, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is exceptional, somewhere between the all-elbows physicality of his performance in ‘The Master’ and the more seething threat he evokes in ‘You Were Never Really Here’. It’s in the quiet hint of a Joker-style reaction when he is given a gun in the locker-room that hints at the unreliable narrator. It’s in the moment when, after his apparent first kill, he goes to the bathroom and seems to be working out his response through interpretive dance. Later, this escalates to a glam showstopper on a long staircase. Never once does Phoenix’s hold on the character wavers as he descends further into delusion psychopathy.
And surely by the end, for a variety of reasons, we learn to distrust everything from his perspective. One minute his mother seems bedridden; the next he is dancing with her, for example. Was he really given that gun? And then: was he really jumped by kids (doesn’t his boss say it’s the second time)? Are we just witnessing not only his delusion, but his persecution complex that he uses to validate his violence?
It seems one of the critical narratives being given is that Arthur Fleck is an incel, but I see little evidence of Arthur Fleck’s misogyny in the film. He thinks he can’t get a girlfriend, but we don’t see him try and although he is creepy, it doesn’t seem that he’s a true danger to the woman down the hall. Not that he isn’t, but we don’t see him cross that line, so the incel narrative seems imposed on the storyline to fit the narrative of mass-shooters that we know give incel grievances as motivation. In this sense, it’s a film that tells an incendiary truth and captures some of the zeitgeist where a viewer can impose their own agenda. But it’s not even subtext that it bears criticism of health care resources being cut so much that people like Arthur Fleck are left unattended and free to go off the rails – and this is the core.
Martin Scorsese may have berated superhero films as “not cinema”, but ‘Joker’ is fair example of what a Scorsese comic book film might be: after all, it owes so much to ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘King of Comedy’. Look: there’s even Robert De Niro. Arthur Fleck sees urban life as a homage to Seventies cinema. Or maybe, focusing on its broad social criticism of cutting health care, it’s something like a comic book film by Mike Leigh. And Francis Ford Coppola joined in the superhero megafilm bashing. All esteemed directors that are not above using broad strokes and caricatures (isn’t there an argument that Scorsese doesn’t exactly depict a positive vision of Italian-Americans?) and if comic book films aren’t these iconic directors’ thing, the genre is still wading in humanism (superheroes promote doing good and empathy and existential angst, for example).
Batman vs Joker is that old tale of Light vs Dark, etc, and ‘Joker’ gives the latter some attention to colour-in an origin with some credibility. It does some justice to a foremost fictional troll hellbent on psychopathy. It’s always been this way: comics were blamed for all kinds of delinquency, then superhero publications for being childish, etc.; comics have somewhat more credibility now but a certainly cultural inability to take them seriously had moved on to the films – at least for some. It’s certainly more mature than the revenge porn of ‘Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood’, or titles that aim to subvert the genre like ‘Kick-Ass’ or ‘Brightburn’. Kick-back and deconstruction of the genre has always been a thing: take Moore’s ‘Watchmen’, and then you have shows like ‘The Umbrella Academy’ and ‘The Boys’. But smaller genre titles have been doing this for a while: ‘Super’ and ‘Defendor’ for example, and best of all ‘Chronicle’.
‘Joker’ is a natural progression of themes that have always been inherent in the character and the genre, if you were a fan and paying attention. Comics have always been mixing seriousness and clown colours.