Let's Talk About... Joker

by Jane Clewett and Tom Grundy

Let’s Talk About… Joker
February 20, 2020 Jane Clewett and Tom Grundy

Released on October 4th in the United Kingdom, Todd Phillips’ Joker has grossed one billion dollars at the box office at the time of writing against a production budget of $62.5 million — making it the most profitable comic book film of all time. It’s divided audiences. Editors Tom Grundy and Jane Clewett discuss what has become a cultural phenomenon. 

Jane: 

Joker’s a game of two halves for me. I think the first hour or so is uneven, with too much fan service for my taste — as far as I’m concerned, you could lose the whole subplot about Arthur’s parentage without hurting the film at all. But I really loved the last fifty minutes. It’s worth noting up top that I mentally classified the film as an Elseworlds (what DC calls their official alternate universes). For me, Joker has no more to do with the ‘real’ character than a one-shot comic where the Joker is a pirate captain or a female mobster in the 1960s, and the film is the better for it.

Tom: 

I thought it was a surprisingly political film. The many references to social welfare being cut sharply echoes the discussion in Britain over the last ten years about austerity, debt, and social care. Thomas Wayne’s flippant comment about the unsuccessful being thought of as nothing but “clowns” echoes near-perfectly Emmanuel Macron’s imperious comments about “people succeeding” and “people who are nothing” — as well as the subsequent anger.

If the film had a message, I would interpret it as: society has an obligation to support those who need help, or bad things happen.

Jane: 

There’s also a theme about what is funny, and what’s allowed to be funny. Part of Arthur’s tragedy is that he wants so much to make people laugh, but his brain is wired so differently to the average person that he has no idea what actually makes a joke. “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t” is actually a pretty smart observation, and I’m sure a talented comedian could also make it into a funny routine — but Arthur’s not that guy. I think the scene of joyous abandon where Arthur dances down the stairs turns these questions very pointedly on the audience: ‘Is this funny? Are you enjoying it? Is it okay that you’re having fun watching this guy?’ The message gets a little muddled at the end, though, with Robert De Niro’s character scolding Arthur that “You can’t joke about that!” Judging by director Todd Phillips’ comments elsewhere, he thinks people who say that are uptight killjoys who are ruining comedy. But presumably he doesn’t want them all shot. It struck a strange false note in what was, for me, otherwise a strong finale.

Tom: 

The scene in which two of Arthur’s former colleagues turn up at his apartment is probably one of the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen for years. It is both unbearably tense and completely hilarious — I laughed out loud as much at the audacity of the scene as at the gags. The deliberately understated dialogue and the ultraviolence mesh brilliantly. If only more of the film was that good.

Jane: 

I loved that scene. What a brilliant ‘take that!’ against all those indie romantic comedies where a character goes off their meds and then tells everybody that they feel so much better now.

I think the film benefits hugely from Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, too. It’s really gutsy and all-in. You can tell he’s worked hard on the verbal tics and creating an iconic, disturbing laugh, but it’s the physical details that really stuck with me. You can tell so much about Arthur by the way he walks, the way he holds his shoulders. The silent dance sequence in the toilet I thought was genuinely eerie. I suspect the acting is actually better than the material; the script is clunky here and there, but every time the camera just sits on Phoenix and lets him work, magic happens.

Tom: 

I thought the denouement, in the TV studio, was a missed opportunity. This should have been the moment we’ve been waiting for: the moment at which Arthur Fleck becomes the Joker, and we see the first manifestation of that maniac genius. The scene was foreshadowed and built up to so much that I was practically itching for something big. But what we got was several minutes of Arthur whining pathetically, failing to make anyone laugh, and then straightforward gun murder. The Joker would have played some trick to subvert the expectations of viewers and police alike, such as perhaps the disguised hostage gambit we saw in The Dark Knight

And this, for me, illustrates perfectly the fundamental problem with Joker as an origins film — we’re not watching a man who could plausibly go on to become Batman’s greatest nemesis.

For the origin to be plausible, the character has to contain the germs of the hero or antihero we know — traits can’t come from nowhere. You see this in Batman Begins and Iron Man — Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, respectively, have everything they need to become the heroes we know them as (in the case of these two, namely: smarts and money). The films simply give them the third and final piece of the puzzle that turns them into superheroes: drive. 

In Joker, Arthur simply doesn’t have the components in place. He’s a clown, yes; and he’s insane, yes. But there is more to the Joker than insanity, a clown mask, and being very pissed off. There’s menace. The Joker is an incredibly menacing, unpredictable figure — he’s smart, violent, anarchic, and dangerous. Joker’s Arthur Fleck not only lacks most of these traits, but doesn’t seem to contain anything that could turn into them. 

The main facet that Joker’s Fleck lacks is intelligence. You can give a character a fortune, or a bat suit, or a superpower — but a villain known for his insane genius has to have at least some canniness to begin with, before he puts on the facepaint. Joker’s Fleck is many things: pathetic, victimised, unhinged, occasionally violent; but never do you see flashes of that fiendish brain that will go on to become Batman’s greatest threat.

Jane:

And here is where we’re in total disagreement! I think the whole point of the film is that what you’re expecting to happen at the climax, just doesn’t. The makers of Joker were clear from the outset that their plan was to make a one-off movie that explored the character from a different angle. (Since the film took a billion dollars at the box office they may have changed their tune on the possibility of a sequel, but that wasn’t the original intention!) Joker is a lousy origin movie, but that’s because it was never intended to be an origin movie. Instead, it’s a relatively low-key crime drama that just happens to revolve around a take on a comic book villain. It has way more in common with Taxi Driver and especially The King of Comedy than it does with Batman Begins.

The sad fact is, we have plenty of models in real life for the kind of people responsible for unprovoked, shocking crimes. Committing or inspiring acts of terrible violence is not a superpower, and it doesn’t require a genius intellect. Arthur Fleck perfectly fits the profile of the average mass shooter: an unstable, tragically-mediocre white man with anger management issues, who maybe could have been saved if he got help early enough, but who by the time of his crime should really have already been arrested for something else. If the question of the film is not ‘where did the Joker come from?’ but ‘what would the Joker look like in the real world?’, I think that’s a smart and believable answer. I really love that all the chaos and upheaval the Joker inspires in this world is essentially accidental, a product of larger social forces more than his own actions.

Tom:

You make good points. Perhaps attitudes turn upon the question: is this an origin movie? If the answer is ‘yes’ — and it certainly has all the trappings of one — it’s lousy, as you say. If it’s a meditation on where murderers come from, we’re in weedier ground. 

Fleck’s mental illness is poorly-defined; he exhibits symptoms seemingly plucked from a smorgasbord of recognised conditions, most of which are not associated with violence. The film is therefore not much more helpful a depiction of mental illness than Jane Eyre’s Mrs Rochester, locked in her attic. 

Should we take Arthur’s mental illness seriously, or not? Is this a comic book villain, or isn’t it? The film seems to equivocate, and so doesn’t convince at either.

Jane:

Oh, I’d certainly never argue that this was a good or nuanced portrait of mental illness! At best I’d call it slightly better than average, but only because the general filmic treatment of the issue is awful, not because Joker does it well.

For me, though, most of the film’s problems are in the first half. It takes too long to get going, and as I said earlier, the whole Thomas Wayne subplot was one complication too many for me — it felt like a nod to the lore for the benefit of those who ‘get it’ rather than something integral to how the film works. I also thought it went too far in heaping unremitting misery on Arthur’s head; sure, he gets beaten up by teenagers and bankers and fired from his job, but a woman nearly takes his head off for smiling at her child on the bus? Really? A bright spot here and there would have made the whole thing feel more realistic to me without disrupting the atmosphere of hopelessness.

Tom:

This is the reason I really enjoyed the hallucinated sequences. That was a brilliant twist: guessable, but while it lasted, it added rays of sunshine to punctuate the misery. And then the emergence of the truth compounds the hopelessness at a key moment. 

Jane: 

On the whole, I’m in the ‘pro’ Joker camp rather than the ‘anti’. But it does strike me as slightly ridiculous that there are camps around this movie at all. I think it’s an interesting film with some good cinematography and a script that asks some hard questions, although it doesn’t necessarily know what it thinks the answers are. I think it’s elevated enormously by a great leading performance. But I’ve seen at least half a dozen films in the last year that I thought were better made, more thought-provoking, and had a clearer idea of what they were trying to say. For me it’s good but not great, and I’m surprised by just how much attention and debate it’s attracted.

However, I do think the fact that no two people I’ve talked to had the same opinion about Joker is a significant achievement, like the film or not. (Also, anyone who loves Joaquin Phoenix in this movie should seek out Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, in which Phoenix plays a similar character who is more successful in his quest for human connection.)