Warner Bros. Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (who co-wrote with Scott Silver) and starring Joaquin Phoenix, has arrived in theaters and scored the best October opening weekend of all time. Did all the controversy help boost those numbers? Perhaps. The movie also divided critics despite the early and near universal acclaim for Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, who eventually devolves (for lack of a better word because the guy does grow repeatedly homicidal and follows through on those urges) into an early incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime. Well, it’s time to discuss some of the things that couldn’t be mentioned in our two reviews of the movie.
IN CASE THAT WASN’T WARNING ENOUGH, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.
Did Todd Phillips Give The Middle-Finger To Comic Book Movies?
The first big obvious joke about Joker is that it’s helmed by the director of Old School and The Hangover trilogy. It’s been a hell of a year for The Hangover filmmakers, given that Craig Mazin won a writing Emmy, long after he penned multiple madcap adventures for Bradley Cooper (who’s producing on Joker) and pals. These guys are really stepping out, doing their thing, and in Phillips’ case, Joker functions as many things. First and foremost, it’s his twisted love-letter to Martin Scorsese, who recently described Marvel Studios movies as “not cinema” and like “theme parks.” Fortunately for Phillips, this is not a Marvel film but a Warner Bros. one, and a stripped-down one at that. Joker is gritty but in a Taxi Driver-esque, not a Zack Snyder, way. The movie is also, as Phillips suggested, pretty much a “heist” movie — in the sense that he nabbed a relatively small $55 million budget (by comic book movie standards) from Warner Bros., so that he and Phoenix could “do whatever the hell we want.”
Did Phillips actually make a comic book movie, though? Yes and no. Joker doesn’t rely upon special effects or the wildly enormous ensemble casts so popular today with both Marvel and D.C. Instead, this is a character-driven movie and a tale that (successfully) aspires to be examined for its nuance. At different points, it’s both self-loathing and gleefully nihilistic and strives to not fall into comic-book movie conventions. Phillips even bragged about how the movie “didn’t follow anything from the comic books, which people are gonna be mad about.” Yes, Joker contains an original plot that’s not based on any D.C. comic in particular, and Phillips wanted to tell an origin story not about Joker but how Arthur Fleck became Joker, who — as we all know — then went on to become the greatest supervillain of Gotham.
The general air that Phillips presented was that this movie was the story of some guy and what transpired to turn him into the Joker (without any mention of subsequent toxic waste from the Killing Joke comic). And that’s alright as a goal. Something strange happened along the way, though. This movie ends up being not only a Joker origin story but — surprise — a Batman origin story. And that’s where things start to feel strange: Joker sits outside the DCEU (at least, according to remarks made by Phillips at TIFF). So it’s not meant to be canon, and by design, we may never know what happens next with Fleck. It could be a one-off movie from Phillips and Phoenix, and that’s also okay. However, the Batman aspect of the third act feels inconsistent to what Phillips described as a non-connected (to the DCEU) standalone flick. It was narratively compelling to see what happened to the Waynes, but, arguably, the Batman origin-story aspect ran contrary to Phillips’ stated purpose and those two-hours invested in Fleck.
How About Those Joker-Incel Worries?
There’s plenty of criticism that holds water against this movie, including the ickiness of watching a man dance to a Gary Glitter tune (also frequently used for celebratory reasons during various other films and sporting events) after going off his meds and committing a few homicides that can’t be justified as self-defense. That dance further hyped him up to kill Murray Franklin, and part of the big worry over Joker was that it would incite violence, which is a weak argument, considering that the U.S. already suffers from regular high-profile mass shootings. Joker probably won’t inspire more violent acts in a culture that’s already plagued by them, although it’s understandable that theaters (including the one in Aurora, CO, where filmgoers were slaughtered during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight) took precautionary measures.
What of the arguments that the movie lends sympathy for the “incel” — so named for the online subculture of “involuntary celibates” who blame women for said celibacy? That subculture has been linked to multiple mass killings, but does it describe Arthur Fleck?
Not really. Let’s talk about his attractive neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). She’s a love interest, yes, but she’s more of a device used to show, in Arthur’s imagination, that he’s two things: (1) Capable of making people laugh; (2) A “hero” for shooting those three privileged “pricks” on the subway. Further, Arthur’s not angry and killing people because (as he realizes after he goes off his meds) she’s not attracted to him and is clearly terrified by him. Rather, Arthur deeply suffers from mental illness and has been left twisting in the wind by society. Not just society at large but by the system, for Gotham City has cut off his access to both therapy and psychiatric medication. That mental illness, as this origin story tells us, largely sources from childhood abuse, and yes, he kills his mother (also a female but whom he loved dearly), but only after he learned that she permitted that abuse to happen.
So really, any attempt to frame Arthur as an “incel” misses the point. He’s incensed at humanity and especially at the upper crust represented by the Waynes. He’s not angry at women as a group. Arthur’s mother was a source of what led to his mental illness — she suffered from her own ailments and didn’t stop what happened to him — and Sophie was used as a device to show us the depths of Arthur’s delusions. Multiple characters (female and male) are shown being horrified at Arthur’s actions after he goes off his meds, and anyone would be scared if a stranger simply showed up in their living room and started brooding on the couch. That was Todd Phillips, presumably, showing us what was real and not real about this story, which brings me to the next point.
How Much Of What We See Onscreen Actually Happened?
Joker obviously lends itself to viewing through a nuanced lens on several levels. The movie wants us to think about the effects of marginalization and alienation and untreated mental illness, and for all its middle-finger pointing, it doesn’t appear that Todd Phillips sympathizes with his main character. What does mess things up, quite a bit, from an interpretation standpoint, is that Arthur Fleck might be the ultimate unreliable narrator. We don’t know how much of this movie happened, and it’s actually possible that all of it took place in his head while he sat in Arkham Asylum,
Unreliable narrators frankly fascinate me. I frequently enjoy them quite a bit, especially when there’s a big Keyser Söze “aha!” moment and other characters react, but Joker never delivers that moment. We learn close to the beginning of the movie that Arthur is capable of imagining an entire scene while we watch him “visit” Murray Franklin’s show as a guest. However, that scene was very obviously fake as it happened. It felt surreal and dreamlike, unlike other scenes that we learned were not real, just “off” in retrospect, like Arthur’s interactions with Sophie. So what can we trust to be real at all in Joker?
The aforementioned dreamlike quality returned when we see Fleck in a white room at Arkham Asylum. He’s presumably medicated, since his “awkward” version of the laugh is intact again, and he’s telling his therapist that he was thinking about a joke, but she simply wouldn’t get it. Was the whole story the “joke”? Is he actually even “real” while (presumably) killing his therapist and then engaging in a dream-like chase with hospital staff? Did he, as Frank Sinatra’s song dictates, roll himself up in a big ball and fly? We really don’t know, but he appears ghostlike, and the scene casts doubt on the whole movie for me, as far as whether it was “real.”
Look, we’re talking about a movie that sold itself on the promise of “grittiness,” which also carries the implicit promise of authenticity. So all of this real-or-not-realness, well, it’s a little discombobulating. Perhaps that’s what Phillips intended all along, and that’s alright, if he was simply telling the origin story of Arthur Fleck. Where it all starts to feel inauthentic is when Phillips decided to remember, very close to the end, that he was helming a comic-book movie and pulled in his Batman origin story, too. Bruce Wayne is left literally standing above his slain parents, so he might as well already may as well be wearing a child-sized cowl. His future vigilante aims are already clear. Granted, Joker didn’t physically murder the Waynes as he did in Tim Burton’s movies, but Bruce Wayne knows — after meeting Fleck earlier in the film — enough to connect the dots here.
That’s where things feel weird for me. Arthur Fleck’s fate is left very open-ended, and that’s fine, but why does this movie take such a strong, unambiguous stance on what happened to Bruce Wayne? That feels like a canonical statement in a movie that never meant to be canon, according to the director and co-writer himself. Maybe I’m taking all of this too seriously and need to lighten up on the real-or-not-real aspect. After all, this movie is not called The Joker, it’s called Joker. So it’s a Joker, not necessarily the one who we’ve known for all these years.
After all, the “the”s are important, just ask James Gunn, who’s apparently telling the story of The Suicide Squad, rather than whatever happened with blob people a few years ago from director David Ayer. In the end, Joker might one day be considered a nihilistic masterpiece, but in the end, it’s only a movie — a comic book movie — and one meant to make us fret. And yeah, here we are are, fretting over Joker.
Well played, Todd Phillips.