Joker Is Odd! But Is It Art?

by Koom Kankesan

[**Spoilers below for Joker! Proceed with caution.]

I don’t know if Todd PhillipsJoker was a good film, but it was an interesting experience to sit through as a moviegoer. It seems to have divided people and Oscar Wilde marked that as an indicator of true art. Could Wilde’s dictum apply to the notoriety of Joker? Those that like the film praise the repositioning of Batman’s arch nemesis as a disaffected anti-hero of sorts, a downtrodden spokesman for the masses – those that suffer due to poverty, mental illness, bullying, and stigma of various kinds. And Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck (our pre-Joker?) does suffer, both intensely and frequently, at the hands and boots of various people in the movie: his employer and co-workers, street hoodlums, the broken social services system that has allowed him release from the mental hospital, an audience at a comedy nightclub, an obnoxious talk show host played by Robert De Niro, Arthur’s mom?, threatening yuppies that work for Thomas Wayne (Batman’s dad), and Thomas Wayne himself. I hope I haven’t left anybody out.

The repositioning of Thomas Wayne is an interesting detail. Though the film does not go so far as to reposition Bruce Wayne (and consequently Batman) himself as a figure of contempt, it certainly has no problem doing that to Bruce’s dad. Is this the first time we’ve seen Thomas Wayne as a completely unsympathetic character? I can’t think of another time but then again, I’ve grown proportionately averse to reading Batman stories as his position in pop culture grows stronger. Batman used to be the neater, more interesting superhero, calm headed and reliant on wits and determination. Now, he’s become some sort of testosterone fueled, dark and deranged pituitary symbol of vengeance and power – not unlike a wrestler who wears dark shorts. If we routinely filled space shuttles with Batman related merchandise and sent them out to space on a weekly basis, I’d bet that ten years of doing this would hardly deplete the stockpile. It’s clear that Thomas Wayne, in televised interviews in the movie (he’s running for mayor), has no sympathy or empathy for the downtrodden people of Gotham whom he sees as shiftless and lazy – he’s an arch conservative who believes that the successful earn their wealth and power – and as for the rest of us? We get what we deserve.

Since the Gotham of the movie is really the New York of Bernard Goetz, I can’t help but wonder if Thomas Wayne is a proto-Rudy Giuliani – the mayor largely responsible for cleaning up New York’s crime reputation, and much in the news today in relation to Trump’s troubles. Towards the end of the film, Wayne and his wife Martha are killed in front of the young Bruce’s eyes not by a petty criminal but by one of the people who have become acolytes of the Joker’s ‘revolution’ – during riots which are clearly intended to reference the Occupy movement. In the film, the Joker does not commit any crimes simply for the sake of committing them. Whatever he does is a result of being pushed by the forces around him. They’re not crimes of larceny – they’re crimes of despair and vengeance. So, except for the clown paint (once again, the green hair and white face are not the result of falling into a vat of chemicals) and the weak attempt at stand-up comedy, there really is no connection between this Joker and any Joker we’ve seen before, either in comics or film/TV. This Joker is neither a criminal genius dressing up his crimes in colourful conceit or an anarchic force without explanation. He’s an inadvertent revolutionary that supposedly speaks to our disaffected times.

The big question I was left with is: can a comics symbol completely be turned around on its head like this one? Can a symbol of malevolent and wanton evil be turned into one of indignation and righteousness? I can’t pretend to guess what Phillips was thinking but for the first time since The Hangover, he’s got an unexpected mega-hit on his hands so… good for him, I guess? There is some slight precedent for what he’s doing. A couple of things spring to mind. One is the third Christopher Nolan Batman movie where Bane and the Scarecrow institute a reign of terror that also references the Occupy movement, by way of the French Revolution. However, Bane was clearly a terrorist who had no interest at all in the people of Gotham city and although Catwoman archly purred things like “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne” that suggested societal upheaval, nothing really changed by the end of the film. It was all about preserving the status quo.

The other precedent comes in the form of academic criticisms of Batman and his m.o. Simply put, he’s a rich guy with limitless resources that uses those resources to go around beating up people much poorer than himself. Much of the time, this results from a psychological hurt that Batman, despite his superior intellect, is incapable of grasping nor controlling. Criminals have long been the target of superheroes and though the criminals loosely reflected the times in which they were depicted (remember all those Hispanic and black drug-criminals toting Uzis in the eighties and early nineties?), comics was never concerned with digging too deeply into the causes of the crime in question. We live in an age now where poverty and iniquity are much more pressing (the middle class in America is being eradicated) and the businessmen and leaders of industry who once were touted as model citizens are being scrutinized for their unfair ethical and business practices. We’ve got a prime example sitting in the White House right now.

So to come back to my question: can we take a comics symbol – and symbols are by and large two dimensional; that is their broad power – as potent and powerful as The Joker and completely reinvent it/him? I’m not sure we can. This is what’s led to the fair amount of criticism that’s been leveled at the movie, saying that it’s an empty confection and so forth. It’s one thing to take a story like The Wizard of Oz with established solid characters and then do a revisionist take like Wicked but The Joker isn’t really an established character per se – he’s sort of one of these two dimensional comics personas/symbols who can take on the sensibility of whatever period he exists in or whomever’s writing him or whomever’s playing him. That’s why the Caesar Romero Joker and the Heath Ledger Joker can both be popular and both be thought of as versions of the same character. I don’t know if you can call the Phillips/Phoenix version just another iteration of the same character. Has this become the comics movie version of jumping the shark?

Talking about jumping the shark, Martin Scorsese’s comments about the superhero movies not really being films rubbed a lot of comics fans the wrong way. Scorsese was pretty much correct but comics fans weren’t interested in the distinction between films and blockbusters/mass entertainment vehicles. This is a pity as the more thoughtful comics creators were influenced by all kinds of great art from various media and genres – they weren’t people who existed in self-serving comics loops – but I digress. Scorsese’s comments were probably directed at the Avengers movies or something like that but his comments came out just before the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker.

I doubt that either he or anyone else could have guessed just how much the Joker movie would try to pay homage to Scorsese. Phillips’ movie owes multiple allegiances to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy (both by Scorsese and starring De Niro) and tries very hard to recreate the ambiance of those seventies gritty naturalistic dramas during which Scorsese came to prominence. However, as other people have noted, Joker does this through the superficialities of setting and environs. The pacing, the studio backing, and ultimately the message (or lack of it) of Joker make it at odds with those earlier anti-establishment films which were auteur driven and railed against the values of the studio films that came before them. Now, we’re back to an era of big budget studio films. CGI has replaced Hollywood sound stages but otherwise, things aren’t really all that different. That’s all to say that Joker sort of looks like Taxi Driver and features a virtuoso Travis Bickle-like performance but doesn’t manage to capture its cinematic style or truly punk ethos.

So what would Scorsese say if he saw Joker? He’d probably be flummoxed, but more likely, he wouldn’t watch the movie in the first place. Scorsese famously did not watch The Sopranos, probably because it was so painfully obvious that David Chase loved Goodfellas and Casino so much that he poached a bunch of their actors and then tried to do his own Jersey interpretation of Scorsese’s nineties style. Thankfully, The Sopranos quickly became its own thing and was quite excellent at what it did, especially the absurd anticlimactic character humour which kept me coming back as a loyal fan.

But Scorsese refused to watch it. He’d earned the right, as a filmmaker who’d more than paid his dues to make the kinds of movies he wanted, to not have to watch people rip him off incessantly. Quentin Tarantino ripped him off. Guy Ritchie followed suit. David Chase did it. And now Todd Phillips is doing it. I guess it’s a sincere form of flattery, but is it art? Will it inspire other major deviations from the standard superhero genre? Does it herald a new mutated genre that somehow crosses the auteur style of a Scorsese with the studio backed mass appeal of a Nolan? I guess we’ll see how the crowd reacts in a month or so when Scorsese’s own mega-blockbuster a long time in the making, The Irishman, which makes liberal use of a relatively new kind of CGI, comes out.

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