Ellements of Film: Joker

Now before I get started, I should admit that I am not the target audience of this film for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m not a white male who feels disenfranchised. Not to say that only white males with a sense of disenfranchisement are the only ones who could enjoy the film, but that is definitely who it was meant for. The second is that I thought this movie was pointless when it was announced.

For me, The Joker is basically an embodiment of chaos. He is the id of Gotham City. My favorite versions of Joker (namely, Mark Hamill in the animated series and Heath Ledger in the Nolan films) go out of their way to avoid letting us know what Joker’s background is. Ledger’s Joker tells different stories of how he got his scars, and in the animated series, Batman challenges Harley’s belief that she has a connection to the Joker by pointing out that he knows all of the multiple backstories that Joker likes to tell people. One of the more “authoritative” backstories of Joker (and one that obviously influenced this film) is found in The Killing Joke, where Joker was a failed stand-up comedian who ended up turning to crime. But even within that text, Joker tells Batman he remembers different versions of his own backstory, making the entire story unreliable. Pretty much the only origin story I find passable is the Batman movie where Jack Nicholson is Joker, and even then…. I’d kind of prefer it didn’t exist? Like, cool twist bro, Joker is the gangster who killed your parents, but it also makes his character arc harder to track. Like he goes from a slightly unhinged but overall serious gangster to a prank and joke loving supervillain because… falling into a vat of chemicals apparently makes you like jokes, and his calling card was a Joker? It’s not my favorite interpretation of the character, even though I like Nicholson’s performance. And in general, I go with the Patton Oswalt view on prequels that explain villains—I don’t care what they were like when they were kids, or before they were cool. I usually don’t even care when they are explaining the background of heroes. The Song of Susannah is the worst book in the Dark Tower series. Hannibal Rising tells us that Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people because… Nazis. I just… don’t want the Joker explained. I want to see Batman and Joker going against each other, because that is the cool part.

So I admittedly went into this film already not sure it needed to exist. Add to that the mixed reviews, and the fact that the director seems to be completely unaware/uncaring that the way he has presented Joker might encourage ideological violence (and the fact that he’s apparently one of those people who thinks “woke culture” killed comedy) and I was pretty sure that I was not going to enjoy myself.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would hate it.

Before we start, let’s go through a brief summary of the film (partially stolen from Wikipedia, augmented by me.) If you don’t want the summary, skip down to the section titled “The Good,” but know that my actual critiques will probably reference multiple plot points from the movie and basically also be a spoiler. I have given up on spoiler-free reviews.

Summary

In 1981, party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck lives with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. Arthur is presumably a felon (since he isn’t supposed to have guns) and was recently hospitalized for unspecified mental health issues. He takes multiple medications for these unspecified problems as well as the fact that he suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. He goes to a city-provided social worker for therapy and medication. He’s beaten by a gang of teens in an alley, leading his co-worker, Randall, to lend him a gun. Arthur invites his neighbor, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. (Note: I learned Sophie’s name from the internet. NO ONE EVER SAYS HER NAME IN THE MOVIE.)

While entertaining at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s gun falls out of his pocket. Randall lies and says that Arthur bought the gun himself and Arthur is fired. On the subway, still in his clown makeup, Arthur is beaten by three drunken Wayne Enterprises businessmen; he shoots two in self-defense and executes the third. The murders are condemned by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, who labels those envious of more successful people as “clowns.” Demonstrations against Gotham’s rich begin, with protesters donning clown masks in Arthur’s image. Funding cuts shutter the social service program, leaving Arthur without medication.

Arthur’s comedy show goes poorly; he laughs uncontrollably and has difficulty delivering his jokes. Talk show host Murray Franklin mocks Arthur by showing clips from the routine on his show. Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Thomas, alleging that he is Thomas’ illegitimate son, and berates his mother for hiding the truth. At Wayne Manor, Arthur talks to Thomas’ young son, Bruce, but flees after a scuffle with butler Alfred Pennyworth. (Note: This is the worst Alfred I’ve ever seen. Seriously, The Worst.) Following a visit from two Gotham City Police Department detectives investigating Arthur’s involvement in the train murders, Penny suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.

At a public event, Arthur confronts Thomas, who tells him that Penny is delusional and not his biological mother. In denial, Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital and steals Penny’s case file; the file says Penny adopted Arthur as a baby and allowed her abusive boyfriend to harm them both. Penny alleged that Thomas used his influence to fabricate the adoption and commit her to the asylum to hide their affair. Distraught, Arthur goes to the hospital and kills Penny. He returns home and enters Sophie’s apartment unannounced. Frightened, Sophie tells him to leave; their previous encounters were Arthur’s delusions. (One of my friends said that the movie would have been better if Sophie had actually been dating him and had been evidence that “the love of a good woman” is still not enough to “cure” a mentally ill or otherwise unstable/incel-y person, and I’m inclined to agree.)

Arthur is invited to appear on Murray’s show due to the unexpected popularity of his routine clips. As he prepares, Arthur is visited by Randall and fellow ex-colleague Gary. Arthur murders Randall, but leaves Gary unharmed for treating him well in the past. En route to the studio, Arthur is pursued by the two detectives onto a train filled with clown protesters. One detective accidentally shoots a protester and incites a riot, allowing Arthur to escape.

Before the show goes live, Arthur requests that Murray introduce him as Joker, a reference to Murray’s previous mockery. Arthur walks out to a warm reception, but tells morbid jokes, admits he killed the men on the train, and rants about how society abandons the disenfranchised. After calling out Murray for mocking him, Arthur kills him, and is arrested as riots break out across Gotham. One rioter corners the Wayne family in an alley and murders Thomas and his wife Martha, sparing a traumatized Bruce. Rioters in an ambulance crash into the police car carrying Arthur and free him. He dances to the cheers of the crowd.

At Arkham, Arthur laughs to himself and tells his psychiatrist she would not understand the joke. He runs from orderlies, leaving a trail of bloodied footprints.

The Good

So I try to be fair to everything I watch, and acknowledge the good parts. So I tried hard.

There are Super Rats. I freaking love the idea of Super Rats. They have basically no impact on the film, except kinda skittering in the background during the death of the Waynes, but I love them.

Joaquin Phoenix has some moments where he’s actually a very good proto-Joker. His manic laugh is pretty great, and he has amazing facial control—you can tell how much he hates the laughter even as he’s laughing, and can switch instantly between the laughter and being stone-faced. His habit of dancing when he is alone is basically the only sign of the “joie de vivre” that I associate with the Joker.

Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz are both treasures, and they both deserved much more to do in this film.

I had a fun time going, “Is that… .is that Gary Gulman? Wait a second, is that Chris Redd? That can’t be Marc Maron, can it?” I was right every time.

I actually like the super-clown face makeup style of the Joker look. It’s a lot more “classic clown” than we have gotten used to with Joker designs, and plays well to the moniker of the “Clown Prince of Crime.” It also helps distinguish him from the character design of the Riddler, which some artists make too similar.

I like the reframing of Thomas Wayne as a kind of dickish billionaire who thinks the rest of the world should thank him for being so good to them and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I can better believe that the kind of man who would dress up like a bat and decide he needed to save his city with his fists would come from this kind of father than a doting, “I built this train to save the city” kind of father.

Now is an excellent time for an “eat the rich, let’s revolt” message. I think emphasizing this class divide between the “villains” and the wealthy like the Wayne family is really good, and I wish like hell the message had been done better.

The Bad

Well… where do we start.

I think the biggest, and most overarching problem with the film, is that it is joyless. Almost literally. There was one joke I actually found funny, and it was about how Arthur Fleck isn’t funny. When Arthur tells his mother that he is becoming a standup comedian, she responds, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Because Arthur isn’t funny. At all. The closest he gets is slapstick. The fact that he’s a terrible standup comedian is a main plotline. His life is miserable, and the point of the film is to show us Joker’s “one bad day” from the comics only it’s “one bad week.” Though his mother calls him “Happy” as a nickname, he responds that he has never been happy a moment in his life. He seems briefly joyful in the end of the movie, when he’s lording over an adoring crowd or dancing down a mental asylum hallway, but it is way too late, and way too subdued. Joker’s manic joy, his sheer pleasure in destruction and plotting and screwing with things, is one of the core components of the character for me. He’s the antithesis of Batman, and that includes Batman’s broodiness. His sense of humor may be twisted, but he has it.

I’ve heard this film be called both racist and sexist, and I can see where those readings came from. There are actually a number of Black actors in this film, but they mostly stand as either accessories or impediments to Arthur. His social worker, who doesn’t have enough time or patience to be a good therapist, is Black. His love interest, who turns out to have mostly been a delusion in his own head, is Black, as is her child. The mother on the bus who reprimands Arthur for interacting with her child is Black. The MC who lightly mocks Arthur as he introduces him is Black. The nurse who reports him from bringing a gun into a children’s ward is Black. The Arkham worker who tries to keep Arthur from seeing his mother’s full file is Black. The protestor who sums up the ethos of the protest as “fuck the rich, fuck Thomas Wayne, fuck the whole system” is Black. And the Arkham social worker who is recording his final actions (and ends up implicitly murdered) is Black. None of them are fully fledged characters, and I’m pretty sure the child is the only one whose name you learn during the course of the actual movie. (Again, the love interest doesn’t get a name FOR THE ENTIRE MOVIE.) So while they are a presence quantitatively, qualitatively they aren’t shown in the best light.

Meanwhile, women in the film are…. scarce. Off the top of my head, I can think of the two social workers (both unnamed) Arthur’s mother, Penny, his love interest (whom the internet informs me is named Sophie) and her daughter, Gigi, the lady on the bus, the woman who is being harassed by the Wall Street bros before Arthur kills them, the nurse in the children’s ward, the woman who is Murray Franklin’s booking agent (I think she gets a name, but I don’t remember it), Martha Wayne (who gets no lines) and… I think that’s it. I don’t even know if this movie cares enough about women to bother being sexist. The women barely get enough lines for us to have any sense of them, and the two women who talk the most are his delusional mother and a girlfriend who turns out to be a delusion itself, so it’s not like either of them are really representative. I feel like you maybe have to acknowledge women exist to be thoroughly sexist towards them? Like ignoring them entirely is also sexist, but I’d somewhat prefer that if creators don’t care enough about women to give them names, they just leave off writing women altogether rather than muck it up.

I think the second biggest problem with the film is that it isn’t totally sure what it is trying to say (or if it is sure, it has shitty execution). There are two messages that I think the movie attempts to engage with, with pretty mixed results. One is the marginalization of the mentally ill. Arthur is definitely discriminated against, and sometimes even met with violence, due to his tic of uncontrollable laughter. And he presumably has other mental illnesses for which he is taking up to seven medications, leading him to be committed at one point and also leading him to imagine a relationship with Sophie that doesn’t exist. After you find out that he’s been hallucinating a relationship with Sophie, it makes all the rest of the movie also have an unreliable sense of reality. How much of what we just saw was objective fact, and how much was filtered through Arthur’s mental illness? Arthur has a “cog in the system” therapist who doesn’t truly listen to him, merely going through the motions of asking him the questions that she needs to ask based on his release conditions. His journal shows evidence of some sort of learning disability or at least lack of education, given the poor spelling and handwriting. He also seems to have some sort of psychosexual fixation, given that many of the pages have cutouts of women’s bodies from magazines. (I think. That one was harder to tell). One of the more poignant messages he writes is, “The worst part about having mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” As someone with mental illness, that one hit me right in the feels.

There have been pro and con debates going on about presenting Arthur as mentally ill. One of my friends made a compelling argument for including the mental illness, as it can certainly be a contributing factor to someone’s negative behavior and their feelings of isolation. There are also compelling arguments that say that this is further demonizing the mentally ill and associating them with the “school shooter” mentality and making it seem as if the root of violence is mental illness rather than say, hatred of others (when actually, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators). I’m kind of in the middle. I don’t think you can make a serious argument for any version of the Joker doesn’t have at least something different going on in his brain—that’s kind of his thing. But I also feel like the deliberate vagueness of his mental illness makes it harder to empathize with and harder to differentiate “problems Arthur has as a result of his mental illness” and “problems Arthur has as a result of his own shitty personality.” Even early on in the film, we see evidence of Arthur having problems with anger and violence, kicking dumpsters and destroying a punch-in machine at his job. Is this related to his mental illness, or is he just your average white dude with anger issues? He gets upset and defensive when the Black woman on the bus tells him not to bother her child (in my opinion, a pretty reasonable thing for a Black woman to ask the random white dude on the bus, even if he has “good intentions”). How much is him truly not understanding social boundaries, and how much of him is feeling like he deserves to set his own for other people? How much of his imagined relationship with Sophie is due to his mental illness, and how much is pretty typical male entitlement about “deserving” relationships with women just because the guy wants them? It’s even further muddied when we learn that Arthur was abused as a child, including head trauma. So now we have a third question, how much of this is due to something like CTE? Obviously mental illness and personality issues can intertwine, but it makes it difficult to understand if this movie is trying to say, “We should be kinder to the mentally ill” or “If disenfranchised white men don’t get what they want, they will kill us and they deserve to do so.”

The second message is, “the wealthy have let us down and deserve our anger.” But again, this message ends up very muddled. One of the first things that we learn in the film is that there is a garbage strike going on. Then in some of the most forced and non-necessary exposition I’ve ever seen, Arthur’s therapist draws a connection between the garbage strike and the tough times that are happening outside. (Because we didn’t get that from the literal piles of garbage and the 70’s NYC vibe). Presumably the city government is not responding well to the strike demands, as the strike continues throughout the film. At a later point, the city has cut funding for social services, meaning that both Arthur’s therapy and his medication will be cut off. (I honestly don’t know why it means that his medication will be cut off, as presumably he should still be able to get a prescription filled even if he’s not seeing the same therapist, but apparently in this world only this one therapist gets to give him meds.) Again, The Very Obvious Exposition Therapist comes through, telling him about the higher powers in the city government, “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a shit about people like me.” We get this message again when Arthur goes to Arkham and asks the clerk what it takes to get sent there. The clerk tells him that in some cases it is the performance of crimes, sometimes it is if someone is a threat to themselves or others, and sometimes when someone just has no where else to go. Those who are left in desperate straits are kept side-by-side with the criminally insane, because there are not better mechanisms for social services.

Meanwhile, the uber-wealthy, here presented in the figurehead of Thomas Wayne, seem pretty oblivious to the conditions of class inequality. The three Wall Street bros that Arthur killed were employees of Wayne enterprises, and their death somehow sets off the anger of the citizens towards the rich. This time, Exposition the Newscaster tells us, “There’s a groundswell of anti-rich activity. It is almost like the less fortunate are taking the side of the killer.” (What gave you that sense, Exposition Newscaster? Was it all the people rioting in clown masks talking about “fuck the rich” and reveling in the death of these people?)  Thomas Wayne goes on TV to make things worse, deriding people who hide behind a mask (Get it? It’s irony. Or something. Cuz his son is gonna be Batman.) and says that, “Those of us who made something of ourselves will always look at those who haven’t as clowns.” Because obviously the reason poor people are poor is that they just didn’t try hard enough to make something of themselves. Wayne later says that there is something wrong with all of the protestors, and that he is their only hope. He doesn’t really explain… why. Like, is he going to help fund the government, so that things like the garbage strike and social services cuts don’t happen? Signs are unclear. In probably one of the better shots and moments of the film, protestors gather around the building where a bunch of the uber-wealthy gather to watch a special showing of Modern Times, a Chaplin film that centers around a hapless industry worker who is the victim of modernization, and includes the main character showing sympathy towards other industry workers who are starving and desperate and taking part in a strike. Self-awareness level of the Gotham wealthy = zero.

When Arthur admits on television that he was the one to kill the Wall Street bros, he makes some pretty good points about the way that the system around us assigns value—he says the system decides what is right or wrong the same way the decide what is funny or not. It’s easy to read into this something like, “The system thinks it’s right to make people go to Arkham when they have no other options to take care of themselves, but think it is wrong to riot or revolt against oppression.” He also says that the world is bad enough to drive anyone crazy, and is upset that people care so much about these three deaths but most people would “step over him if he died on the street. He says the rich think that “everyone else will sit and take it.”

But overall, I feel like this message is pretty hollow when applied to Joker himself. He doesn’t kill the rich dudes because they are rich dudes—he kills them because they are drunk assholes who were harassing a girl and then start harassing him. While their actions and sense of entitlement are perhaps enhanced by their wealth, I can speak from personal experience to say that both blue collar and middle class men will ALSO harass women who clearly don’t want to talk to them on a subway, or turn their attention to random loners that they decide to harass as well. Being a dick on public transportation doesn’t really seem confined to class. Arthur even says that when he killed the men he wasn’t trying to start a movement, “they were just awful.” The interpretation of Joker as a “fuck the rich” avenging vigilante is a message that is put on him. And in occasions where Arthur is given a chance to take credit for the riots that build in the wake of the deaths, or even align himself with the message of the rioters, he vehemently denies any participation. When someone asks him if he is part of the protest, he says, “No, I don’t believe in that, I don’t believe in anything.” His anger doesn’t seem to be directed at systems, even though most of his problems are the result of systems. His killings are all personally motivated—he kills the three men on the train because they harassed him. He kills his mother because she lied to him and allowed people to abuse him. He kills his former coworker because the coworker lied about the gun he’d given Arthur and led Arthur to get fired. He kills Murray Franklin because Franklin mocked his standup and crushed his dreams. He kills the social worker at Arkham because… they needed a reason to film him dancing down the hallways while leaving bloody footprints?

Yet he confusingly turns back to society as a cause for his problems before he kills Franklin. The “joke” he tells him before his death is, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve.” (We’ll come back to this line in a minute.) This language is echoed when the Wayne murder is reframed as an issue of class anger and not a random robbery. After making the super fabulous decision to take his family to a movie on the night of a major riot, Wayne is cornered by one of the mask-wearing rioters who says “Hey Wayne, you get what you fucking deserve” before shooting him. But besides being a bit of a dick on television, Wayne doesn’t really… seem to have done anything worth shooting him over? Like at no point does anyone say, “All of the garbage strike and social service cut problems are attributable to Thomas Wayne not paying his taxes.” The worst thing he clearly does is punch Arthur, and Arthur is the only one who knows that. There’s a possible reading of this that says that Arthur really is his love child and he manipulated things so that Penny was seen as crazy, but most of Penny’s Arkham file doesn’t really support that reading. He just seems to be a rich asshole. Which is cause for a revolution and redistribution of wealth, but not necessarily execution. And despite asserting that he has no connection to the rioters, Arthur is perfectly happy to jump on top of a car and be adored by a crowd of them after he is rescued from his original arrest. So… is he accepting his role as an icon of class unrest? Is he exploiting the message that got built around him for his own gain? Is he just a lonely guy who is glad that he finally sees seen? I have no idea.

The movie also ends up saying things about class revolt that are… not great? I’m not inherently down on violent protest—I think many protests require violence in self defense, and the number of grand social changes that have come about without some amount of violence on the part of the oppressed against the oppressors is… not large. I also don’t necessarily disagree with protests that are somewhat unfocused—sometimes you are just angry, and you don’t have to have an exact solution to your problem (Occupy Wall Street didn’t usually have a cohesive list of demands, but their action was a necessary outpouring of class frustration with the fallout of the 2008 recession.) But this movie combines an unfocused protest with violence in a way that somewhat poses the rioters as the bad guys. Like ok, they are prompted by a violent attack by a crazed clown on some Wall Street Bros—so are they only inspired by the violence? By continuing to hold Joker up as a figure of reverence despite his admission that his act was non-political and non-ideologically motivated, are they showing that they are more concerned with performing violence than enacting ideology? Also, by using this riot as a reason to kill Thomas Wayne… Bruce, the billionaire who decides to grow up and fight crime (often against the lower classes) now has “class-motivated protestor” as his number 1 hated person/cause of all of his nightmares and trauma. But Batman is supposed to be the good guy. So doesn’t that make the people who killed his parents… the bad guy? So the people who are upset about class inequality are the initial bad guys of the Batman mythos. Ok, cool. Cool. That’s great.

Then you get what I call the “edgelord elements.” These are the elements of the film that make you go, “Oh yeah, this was definitely made by someone who thinks that you can’t make comedies anymore because of ‘PC culture.’ That totally scans.” The character of Gary, played by Leigh Gill, seems to exist primarily so that other characters can make little people jokes and call him a midget. Because apparently the last movie anyone involved with this film saw was the second Austin Powers, and they thought it was timely and hilarious. A joke comparing having sex with women to parking spaces includes a comparison between parking in a handicapped space and having sex with a handicapped person, and having the thought, “I hope no one sees this.” …hilarious. And then there is the thing that Joker says to Murray Franklin: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve.” Honestly, overall this film was less pandering to incels than I’d been led to believe by some reviews. But holy shit, if this isn’t a call to arms for lonely incels who think that no one likes them because they are misunderstood loners and not because they are goddamn asshole incels, I don’t know what is. Again, I’m not necessarily against violent protests. But when the violent protestors are incel assholes who are taking out their entitlement and anger on others, a la Elliot Rodgers… yeah, I have a problem with that. And this scene basically screams, “Hey, are you a Misunderstood Genius? Have people never given you the respect you deserve? Will women not fuck you? You know what they all deserve? A bullet to the head.” And the most upsetting thing is that this line, in the context of the film, is not necessary. Again, while his mental illness and social standing are probably contributing factors to Arthurs state, his killing of Murray Franklin is deeply personal. It could have been a short, brutal “joke”: “Knock knock,” “who’s there?” *shoots him in the head*.  I dunno, I’m not an artiste. But I feel like they could have made this film without making it appeal so strongly to the “mass shooter” demographic.

This movie wanted to be Taxi Driver, The Purge, and Gotham in a world where Taxi Driver, The Purge, and Gotham all already exist and are doing their thing better than this film. It’s a film that didn’t need to exist, because nothing it does is new, or coherent, or even really entertaining. The end.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a still of the Joker from the film with the words “Ellements of Film” superimposed.

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