The comic book picture has conquered American movies. Nine of the top twenty box office hits this decade were superhero films; the rest are either remakes of or sequels to already existing titles. Dozens more movies, made by Marvel (owned by Disney), DC, and Fox are planned for the coming decade. No genre has ever dominated the box office so thoroughly.
Which is why Todd Phillips’s “Joker” is not quite a superhero, or rather supervillain, or really just villain, movie — the titular character has no superpowers beyond managing to wear a purple and yellow suit and still look menacing. There are no flashy special effects, no spandex costumes, not even a hero. Really, the only things that tie it to the genre are references to the Batman mythos and the fact that it is an origin story, which make up the majority of comic book movies.
What Phillips has done is make the 21st-century version of Martin Scorcese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver.” This isn’t to say “Joker” is as good a film — it’s not. It also isn’t to say that it updates Scorcese’s movie for our time. “Joker” is very self-consciously an homage to gritty 70s movies, set in an urban America that seemed to be spiraling out of control. It’s a far cry from the relatively safe and clean New York of today.
“Joker,” then, is emblematic of how comic books have taken over the movies; it superimposes DC’s intellectual property onto the kind of genre film that wouldn’t be made otherwise (in that vein, “Logan” was a classic western and “Ant-Man” was a Golden Age caper film). In this case, it’s a dark, character-driven story of urban decay.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a party clown, living with his elderly and infirm mother, trying to make it as a stand-up comedian. The problem is, he isn’t funny at all. His life hasn’t provided him with many opportunities for laughter; he has a condition that induces uncontrollable laughter and intense revulsion of bystanders. He is friendless, lonely, and deeply depressed, confessing to his overburdened social worker, “I haven’t felt happy for a damn day of my life.”
Then one day, after Fleck is beaten on the street by a group of teenagers — no one comes to his aid — a sympathetic coworker hands him a gun. He starts carrying it around, even dancing with it in his apartment, in another 70’s movie reference, this time to “Apocalypse Now.” Fleck likes the feeling of power the gun gives him — even after he’s fired for carrying it into a gig at a children’s hospital. That same night, he uses the gun for the first time. I won’t give away spoilers, but the murder he commits tips a city that was swaying from inequality, crime, and moral rot, over into outright rebellion. Gangs of protestors angry at the uncaring rich protest, riot, and loot — an allusion to Antifa, but on a far larger scale, murderous instead of sometimes violent, and in clown makeup. Here, Phillips repeats, without adding anything particularly new or interesting, the Dark Knight trilogy’s preoccupation with the ways that breakdowns in governance and order lead to revolutionary chaos. Among this chaos and reeling from revelations about his childhood, Fleck snaps, and the “Clown Prince of Crime” is born.
The plot, however, takes a backseat to Phoenix’s virtuoso performance. His face, contorting and stretching into nightmarish expressions of rage and mirth, fills the screen for long chunks of the movie. He lost dozens of pounds for the role, and his bones seem to swell under his skin, pushing outward. Something monstrous inside him is struggling to break out of his fragile shell.
The film also fails, thankfully, to be as controversial as the national media wanted it to be. There’s no kind of apology for the alt-right or alienated, radicalized young men. The “discourse” around the film before its release was exhausting and repetitive: we have had this debate over and over again, and there is simply no evidence to support the claim that movies cause violence. Tipper Gore is still wrong.
For all the scenery-chewing in “Joker,” there’s a kind of emptiness to the movie. It’s certainly well-directed — Phillips’ Gotham is both realistic and evocative; you feel its decay and despair — and at least aspires to seriousness, with an orchestral soundtrack and the aforementioned references to 70s auteur cinema. At the end of the day, the Joker is shown committing violent crimes (boy, does this movie earn the R rating) and spiraling in the same way his city does, which is an effective but not particularly deep metaphor.
Christophr Nolan recognized this problem in his far superior “Dark Knight” trilogy, pinning the moral arc of the second movie on the rise and fall of Harvey Dent, not Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s and Phoenix’s character is really more a symbol than a person. There’s never really a chance that he’ll change his ways or come up with some complex justification for his actions. The Joker is empty, wild malevolence — he is more of an icon than a full personality with depth.
But icons can be compelling, and while by no means a pleasant watch, “Joker” is a perfectly good, if not great, film — Phoenix’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. It is, however, a reminder that references to other works and “grittiness” are not substitutes for real depth.
Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org