Editor’s note: We will run multiple Joker reviews with an eye on unique interpretations and angles. Today’s is the first of multiple entries.
Joker is a great troll. Director Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have played the studio system before—Phillips with his bilious Hangover sequels and Phoenix with his bizarre I’m Not There— and this time they have turned their sights on superhero hackery. As Phillips recently told the Wrap:
“I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film’. … It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f–ing Joker’.
The film makes it very clear that it is not interested in superhero tripe. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck has an IQ of maybe 80, making any notion he could serve as the foil for Batman absolutely ludicrous. The movie itself is so brooding and grotesque that I wonder what the 12-year-old who snuck in next to me made of it. (Back in my day, sneaking into R-rated movies got you some womanly nudity and action; this kid got Joaquin Phoenix dancing around like the transvestite Goddess Bunny and some long meetings with a social worker.) Though the ending leaves the door open for sequels, it is hard to believe either Phoenix or Phillips would agree to do them. Audiences went in hoping to get a criminal genius, and got a crazy retard off his meds. It’s a perfect troll.
But the trolling seems to have extended beyond fanboys and execs. Like the mob that rallies around Fleck’s supposed vigilantism, a sizeable number of young people have adopted the Joker as a kind of champion for underrepresented young males. This is a very strange and sad reaction to the film. As well-made as it is, there is no real reason why Fleck/Joker should be a hero to anyone. To quote Heath Ledger’s Joker, incels deserve a better class of criminal.
Have these people never seen Taxi Driver? Unlike Fleck, who is too far gone even to be the subject of female disdain, Travis Bickle actually is toyed with and dropped by the Golden Retriever Girl Cybil Shepherd. Bickle’s war service and empathy for Jodie Foster lend him a blue-collar pathos, and his deterioration is narrated to us so that his final vendetta almost seems sympathetic. All of Fleck’s deterioration is driven by going off his meds, and his murders are simple and selfish.
Besides one self-serving monologue about being beaten down by society, there’s nothing in Joker to even cling on to. Fleck is not an “anti-hero” or a flawed character, so common in our age of nihilism. Fleck is barely a character at all. The movie’s defenders point out the effective portrayal of Fleck’s psychological anguish. Psychology is not in itself interesting. I am reminded of Henry James’s late novels, which spent hundreds and hundreds of pages delving into the psychology of his characters. Maybe some people enjoy this, but if I wanted pure psychology, I’d read a case study. The narrative form depends on character and action. A movie about a retarded man getting his meds taken away isn’t anything to work with.
The moral in the end is that a good social worker and a progressive income tax could do more than Batman. This makes for a good troll, of course—funnier than anything in the movie. It’s pretty weak fare for the mass of people who think Joker is revolutionary or subversive. Its only social “statement” is that people are bad to each other, and getting worse. A better film would follow this up with the question: why is this happening? Of course, no amount of superhero gloss would allow that kind of film to be made. We can have our dystopias, but we aren’t allowed to see outside them.
Stephan Molyneaux and E. Michael Jones have decried the especial nihilism of the film. I don’t think this is fair. Blockbuster nihilism sailed long ago with the Nolan Batman movies. Joker isn’t so nihilistic as it is nothing. The filmmakers have broken Fleck down to his chem levels, and like a physicist dissecting matter down to atoms, they have lost any definite characteristic of what they were dissecting. The film says nothing interesting about good-and-evil or rich-and-poor. It doesn’t say anything interesting at all.
Despite all of this, it is a legitimate hit. If the filmmakers are lacking as storytellers, they are still great artists of trolling. They have proven that the booboisie will see anything with a comic book label on it. Even sadder, they have proven that dispossessed young men will latch themselves onto any corporate output that might treat them in a marginally sympathetic light. I don’t know if this latter troll was intentional. I do know it is a pretty sick joke.