Unless you have been living without access to social media (or, indeed, traditional media) over the last few weeks (and what a sunny, delightful and care-free life that must be), the chances are you’ll have seen or heard something about the movie Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (of The Hangover trilogy) and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role.
Produced by a little indie production company that has never courted controversy before (Warner Bros.), the film has already caused a backlash – and accompanying fierce online debate – with some critics saying its message is dangerous while others continue to staunchly defend it.
Now, there’s a big part of our thinking that says the world is already too full of polarised debates and seething anger, as people either spit their opinions out into communities (or audiences) of like-minds who confirm their beliefs, or else troll those who disagree with them, without really engaging with the other person’s thoughts or arguments.
There’s also a train of thought we have that says all the online controversy is nothing but clever product placement. Just like the infamous ‘Piers Morgan vs Greggs vegan sausage role’ debate (both Morgan and Greggs use the same PR company), all the pre-launch rumblings, the rants and the raves, testify to a cunning provocation which Warner Bros. has invited us to participate in. By yielding to it, this train of thought goes, we’re not joining a debate; we’re offering our services, unpaid, to the marketing department at Warner Bros.
AT THE SAME TIME. We are also big fans of both bandwagons and trends, and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t want to add our own Nothing in the Rulebook flavour to this most divisive (and topical) of movies.
In the spirit of polarised debate and arguments, therefore, we’ve set up a little bit of a movie review with a twist (or, perhaps more accurately, a FIGHT).
So, we invited two members of our NITRB community to a LIVE
BOXING MATCH ONLINE DEBATE where they could throw punches persuasive arguments and headbutts eloquent opinions at one another in a very dangerous safe setting: a pit-full of vipers emails.
IN THE RED CORNER, we have E.A Henson, a writer, podcaster, and human being who lives, laughs, and loves in southeast Michigan, in the US. He dislikes talking about himself unless it’s in the third person. He has been interviewed by the FBI twice and the Secret Service once.
IN THE BLUE CORNER, we have Jason Cobley is a teacher, writer and broadcaster living in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, in the UK with his wife, daughter, stubborn dog and two rabbits intent on escaping. He has written widely for children and adults, particularly comics adaptations of horror classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein. He now writes for the long-running Commando comic for publisher DC Thomson and is currently crowdfunding his latest novel A Hundred Years to Arras through the publisher Unbound. He also hosts a weekly radio show delving into rock, prog, jazz and blues.
In what could be billed as the greatest cross-Atlantic fight since Cooper vs Ali, read on to find out what happens when two heavyweight opinion-havers go toe-to-toe…
To say that there was a tremendous amount hype surrounding the release of Joker would be a bit of an understatement. As a fan of comic books and all the associated media that they’ve spawned (video games, TV, film), I’m always excited by a fresh take on an established character. There’s the perception of comic book fans as uber nerds, slavishly beholden to continuity and ready to nitpick any adaptation to death if it doesn’t match what was printed on the page decades prior. Thankfully, I don’t count myself as one of those type of fans and I love when adaptations depart from the source material as it gives me something fresh and exciting. (A brief aside, a rumor began circulating next month that Disney/Marvel will be looking to cast non-white actors for the roles of Professor X and Magneto which I find both fascinating and necessary).
Unfortunately, Joker was neither interesting nor surprising in its presentation and execution.
I had gone into the theater early on a Saturday morning hoping that they critical buzz behind the film was the real deal. Instead of being dazzled I was given a dull retread of “gritty” 70’s and 80’s era movies that meandered along for two hours that ultimately had nothing of note to say.
I was very wary of the whole notion of a Joker film to begin with. It seemed a bit desperate, as Warner Bros’ Justice League movie had been such a disaster and derailed their plans for a shared universe of movies just like Marvel have done. DC comics’ superheroes have always been a slightly different proposition to Marvel anyway, and the iconic proto-superheroes of Batman and Superman are so different they don’t mix well onscreen. I had enjoyed Chris Nolan’s take on Batman and the Heath Ledger Joker seemed to be unassailable, so this movie seemed to be pointless. I largely ignored the trailers and was slightly put off by some of the negative reviews, particularly those that claimed that it was inciting copycat behaviour from so-callled ‘Incels’.
And then I saw it.
There’s a deliberate riffing going on in the movie in terms of paying homage to the style of 70s movies. The Scorsese influences are obvious. King of Comedy is clearly a touchstone, but it also feels like movies such as Marathon Man, The French Connection and even, by using THOSE steps in so many shots, The Exorcist. All of this is just a backdrop, though, to using the character of The Joker to do two things. Firstly, there are threads that are to do with the state of mental health care, the essential selfishness of people, and the inward-looking hostility of Trump and Brexit. Secondly, it gives a genuinely interesting new take on the Batman story.
To Jason’s point, this did seem like a desperate move by Warner Bros after nearly a decade of trying to catch up to the MCU. The obvious misstep was trying to launch a shared universe of films by pulling a reverse-Marvel (e.g. starting with the team-up movie then spinning off each character into their own movie). To remedy that they’ve released a few largely continuity-free movies and even, gasp, a rated R movie. Warner Bros. is most certainly willing to do the one thing that Disney won’t which is make an full-out “mature” film based on one of their comic book properties. I’m willing to put money on the fact that we’ll never get an Avengers movie where Captain America hangs dong to earn that “Hard R” rating.
The movie’s riffing was incredibly deliberate and heavy-handed. and I was left wondering what the point was of setting it in 1980. Is it because nostalgia flips on its head every few decades or so and the 1980’s are back in vogue? Or is it because the prevalence of cell phones and other omnipresent methods of surveillance literally allowed him to get away with murder on the subway? The setting feels largely like an means to and end since Arthur Fleck’s crimes wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in today’s world. The movie could have easily been set in modern day since, sadly, nothing has changed with regards to the state of mental heal care, the eliteness of the one percent, and how unrelenting ugly the world can be.
Nothing in this movie feels earned. The character of Arthur is largely cobbled together from a word cloud of all the metadata pulled from theist twenty years of mass murderers. Which isn’t to say that Phoenix’s performance is without nuance but the script he was working with is all about checking boxes. Mental illness? Check. Journal/manifesto? Check. Ignored by society? Check. Lack of contact with the opposite sex? Check. Abused by “Alpha Males’? Check. And for the Freudians out there: Complicated maternal relationship? Checkity-check-check.
In the pre-interview for this review-off, I put it out there that my nationality as an (apologetic) American may have largely colored (or coloured) my perception of this film. The 24-hour news cycle and the fascination with mass shooting thats borders on fetishization mean that these topics are I’m unfortunately intimately aware of because it’s something I cannot escape. It’s an odd sauce that I’m constantly being marinated in which made me care for this film even less. Why go out for mass murder when I can get it at home?
Looking at the movie on its own terms, the late 70s/ early 80s look does seem to be purely aesthetic and yes, perhaps it was done so that certain inescapable aspects of technology could be escaped. It’s an aesthetic that seemed to suit, though: one that lends itself to the character’s alienation. That aside, the Arthur Fleck character himself is not so much a hotch-potch of cliches as a symbol for the insignificant being made to feel even more insiginifant by an uncaring society. The movie is partly his quest for significance, and I would argue that very little of it takes place in ‘reality’. The imagined girlfriend, the obsession with being on the TV show, the pathetic search for a father, no matter how unsuitable he is – all of that is less a checklist of cliches and more a checklist of what makes someone a mamber of what the writer Yuval Noah Hrari calls the emerging ‘useless class’. Society can’t see a use for him, so he seeks usefulness in the only places he can think of, and comes up wanting.
In different hands, Fleck could have been a weak mash-up of American Psycho and the killer in Seven, but Phoenix does give it more nuance. His journal is hardly Rorsach’s. It’s pathetic, with simple lines that he’s heard elsewhere: he wants to write that kind of journal but can’t; he wants to be funny and admired but he’s ignored or laughed at; he wants to be a ruthless killer but he isn’t really until one crucial scene, and even that may or may not have even happened at all. I think it’s possible to empathise with him but rather more difficult to sympathise.
It does raise some questions though: in some ways, Fleck is the kind of poor soul that voted for Brexit or Trump because he’s allowed himself to become convinced that his real oppressors aren’t his real oppressors at all. As a Brit, living in a time of rising far-right nationalism, I can see Flecks all around me, parroting soundbites that make them feel more significant than others, or drowning in a sea of anxiety and depression because they can’t relate to any of that at all. There have been times in my life when I’ve felt like the clown being kicked in the head on the pavement.
And the Geek in me thrilled to the twist that this gave to the Batman story. In this version – or at least, in the way that Fleck sees it – Thomas Wayne isn’t the philanthropist that Bruce has to live up to: he’s a selfish bastard. In this reality, the orphaned Bruce is more likely to fall into despair and depression and emerge just like his father than he is to don a black mask and fight crime. From The Joker’s point of view, if he did become Batman, he’d be no different to the assholes on the subway or the thugs who stole Fleck’s sign and beat him in an alleyway.
The film is really a warning against austerity. It’s there all the way through.
Unfortunately, I believe any warnings against austerity are entirely coincidental. I don’t for a second imagine that during the initial pitch for the film, Todd Phillips sat in a sunny Warner Bros. conference room in front of a panel of studio executives and said, “This movie will be a cautionary tale against the dangers of austerity.” When met with blank stares he added “…and it’s got the Joker in it?” Then they presented him with a blank check. I know there have been varying reports and out of context quotes regarding the production of the movie and that they weren’t making a comic book movie but WB wouldn’t have taken a multi-million dollar gamble and given out the keys to one of their only golden geese on a movie with a message.
Since Joker is both technically a comic book movie and a major studio release, there’s very little left to chance. By and large, most casino slot machines produce a tone of C major during play, a sound that it’s considered to be universally pleasing to the human ear and I promise I’m going somewhere with this. Disney/Marvel have done the same thing with their releases…movies made by committee and assembly line designed to be pleasing to the average moviegoer. Warner Bros. didn’t just suddenly discover the “Devil’s Interval” in response to Disney’s happy time calliope movies. It’s all the same song just played in a minor key.
The comic book elements to the film seem to be almost tacked-on to the story and ultimately predictable. The unspoken rule of having Batman’s parents in the movie is that they are fated to die, you can’t show a Thomas Wayne in the first act and not expect him to catch a bullet by the end of the third. Similarly, the reveal of Arthur’s potential parentage was horribly telegraphed from the beginning of the movie and came as no surprise when brought to light…only to be walked back shortly thereafter. Maybe I would have been more onboard with the movie had they been allowed to make Arthur and Bruce half brothers. The only thing that’s changed from this and Batman ’89 is that the Joker doesn’t actually pull the trigger and murder the Waynes which is just another instance of this movie riffing on another, better, piece of cinema.
I find myself wanting to see the movie that Jason saw and the movie I hoped this would be. I wasn’t able to draw any greater meaning from the relentless bleakness of the movie and instead felt like the movie should have had a small countdown timer in the lower corner of the screen signaling when the first/next murder would occur or when he would finally put on the clown makeup. To clarify, I’m not rallying against bleakness when done well. It’s just that the bleakness of Joker is there only for the sake of being bleak.
You might be right with regard to austerity. But, then again, I wonder how many film-makers sit down with the money men and say “The message of my film is this…”. Not many, I bet. The conversation was more likely along the lines of “Know what’d be cool? A Joker movie!” and, looking for a way to reinvigorate interest after Batfleck, they seized on that. Interesting that The Joker is Arthur Fleck in this one after we had Ben AfFLECK as Batman. Probably coincidence.
But then, there’s always the argument that what we take from a work of art is what we bring to it. Austerity fuelled by a right-wing government rolling back the involvement of the state in healthcare is a thing we’ve experienced for a decade in the UK. Some of the most biting of cuts have been in mental health provision. With the world piled against him, ‘The Joker’ is almost an ‘I, Daniel Blake’ for the Batman universe. In fact, he begins with a ‘message’, if we can call it that, of kindness. He tries to understand the thugs who beat him up, he tries to be kind to children and neighbours, but his kindness is viewed with suspicion and hostility. He’s even set up by a work colleague who gives him a gun. We’ve all met people who will wind others up only to step back and claim no responsibility when everything unwinds.
Is kindness rewarded in our society? This movie’s answer is that no, it isn’t. Some have interpreted the uprising at the end as the rise of the right wing or, conversely, an anti-capitalist protest. I think it’s neither. The clown ‘movement’ at the end of the movie is a bunch of freeloaders using what may have started as a genuine protest to wreak havoc. In our final scenes, Fleck is either held up as the instigator and idolised after he murders, and he decides to go along with it because kindness failed him. He wears the Joker persona like a protection. OR… It’s all in his head. He may still be sitting in his apartment fantasising, or he did kill the De Niro character and is fantasising in his cell that he’s more significant than he is. Eithr way, he’s a symbol of the Useless Class.
We would probably have been better off with no reference to the Waynes, because the son of this Thomas Wayne could only grow up to be a heartless bastard. Or maybe his parents’ murder turns out to be the saving of his moral character. Hopefully, we won’t find out because this should be a standalone movie. Any attempt to follow it up would lessen its impact and make it into the movie that Eric sees it as.
I’m not sure how bleak it actually is at the end. Maybe Fleck is a martyr for kindness. Be more kind, that’s its message.
I’ve made the joke among my friends that rather than being titled Joker it should have instead been called Edgelord: The Movie for the way the movie deliberately courts controversy. In response to WB/DC going from Batflck to Arthur Fleck coincidence or not, they’ve definitely swung the pendulum all the way in the opposite direction and I’m wondering what lessons the higher ups will learn from this. DC’s recent outings like Shazam! and Aquaman are proof that they are capable of doing lighter fare and I hope that Joker doesn’t dash my hopes of getting a brightly colored, aspirational Superman movie sometime in the near future. Is Joker a sign of the times? Unfortunately, yes.
As far as what the legacy of Joker is going to be, I sincerely hope that people embrace the message of “be more kind” that Jason took from the movie…it’s something we would all do well to remember. From a purely pragmatic perspective, Joker is a highly divisive movie and I feel like the vast majority of people that are currently ditching their V For Vendetta masks in favor of Joker‘s clown masks won’t exactly be keen on any of the film’s subtext. The movie audaciously ends with Arthur telling his Arkham doctor, “You wouldn’t get it” with regards to joke that he was laughing at. For a brief moment I felt that I was being talked down to by the filmmakers for not being completely onboard with their attempt at a movie with a message.
I’m glad that people enjoyed this movie and even though I think it’s a misfire, it could be an important step in the evolution of comic book movies. Once the haze of hype surrounding this movie clears I think it will be remembered as bold but ultimately hollow.
Being in my fifties, I don’t even know what Edgelord is. I probably don’t even want to know. Mentioning Superman, I’m guessing that’s something we’d be completely on the same page with. There’s lots about the current big screen Superman that I really, really don’t like. It should absolutely be primary colours, sunshine, giant robots, carrying a message of hope. Batman, on the other hand, does belong in the darkness and I think that’s probably where it’ll stay, along with The Joker.
The way that V masks have been misappropriated by a movement has always disturbed me and I fear you’re right that Joker masks will likely take over now, as they do in the film.
I liked The Joker but perhaps I’m now wondering why I liked it. I haven’t seen Shazam yet. Maybe I should. What The Joker does succeed with, I think, is as a proof of concept. If Warner Bros are true to their word and keep it as a standalone film, it does show that these characters can withstand all kinds of different treatments, so hopefully we will see a bright and breezy Superman set in the 1940s. I hope it doesn’t mean the next one up is Lex Luthor: The Movie or Gorilla Grodd: The Movie. I could do without that.
DING DING DING
That’s it, folks! The greatest online argument about the 2019 movie Joker that there ever has been (or ever will be). Tears have been shed. Opinions have been shared. Arguments have been had, and you the audience have read it all. In many ways; that makes YOU the real winners.
PLUS: if you’ve enjoyed this debate, please do support our wonderful participants, Jason and Eric. Links to their social media and creative projects are here below:
Jason Cobley –
- Twitter: @JasonMCobley
- Blogs: http://writingcobblers.blogspot.com/
E.A. Henson –
- Twitter & Instagram @eahenson
- Blog https://biffbampop.com/author/eahenson/