Joker, the recent stand-alone origin story for Batman’s erratic arch-nemesis, has become the catalyst for a new moral civil war. Though professional critics and social media concern-trolls slammed the film as “toxic”, “cynical”, “irresponsible” and a “dangerous manifesto” to incite terrorism — forcing a recent increase in police patrols outside movie theatres awaiting foretold copycats — it’s this underbelly of cultural cold war that makes the film a modern masterpiece.
To give the killjoys their due, we should acknowledge that yes, the film is fundamentally rooted in toxicity, cynicism, irresponsibility, and a dangerous nihilism playing with the subject of terrorist violence. Director Todd Phillips, drawing inspiration from psycho-satires of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy and original source material in Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, uses these societal poisons as his winning ace, allowing acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix to be the embodiment of self-pity, civic rage, and unearned self-gratification that makes for a destructive ride.
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” said Moore and Bolland’s Joker. “That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” This should be expected of a film about the clown prince of crime, the iconic anarchist who simply “wants to watch the world burn”, however, some audiences remain on the critical offense. For months, bloggers have raised their (hyperbolic) concerns that Phillips, a classical dude-bro known for his unsubtle comedies in Old School and The Hangover franchise, would simply use the film as a platform for “reactionary politics” and fetishism of “reckless incel murder-porn”. In fairness, the filmmaker has done very little to convince even me, a defender of this film, from such intent being there. You need only roll your eyes at his comments that “woke culture killed comedy” when it's his own angry, bitter, punching-down schtick that’s left red-handed with the smoking gun.
Nevertheless, to loosely quote The Guardian’s Mark Kermode: “A filmmaker’s intent doesn’t actually matter — we have to sit there and watch the bloody thing”. Even if we grant that Phillips is actually this devilish scoundrel of the media’s hysteria, it’s this approach of brash, cringey, and bitter resentment of society that captures the essence of its central character in all honesty. Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, beyond just his skeletal physical transformation akin to a Christian Bale’s in The Machinist, allows for a psychologically gripping tale of misguided, child-like contradiction. If the film was meant to be the worst-case scenario, a rage-filled and surface-level manifesto of ‘woe is me, the sad murdering clown’, the ironic meta behind it should give viewers an understanding of how cruelty is a mindset misguided from the jump.
Throughout the film, we’re privy to Fleck’s oxymoronic life of tragic comedy. Joker shows the man’s loving protection for his mother Penny (played by Frances Conroy), the very woman who abused him into mental trauma and was used as a practice board for her vicious sexual desires. He longs to be a famous comedian, yet has no idea what other people actually find “funny”, patrolling underground comedy scenes where he laughs at the set-up and remains silent at the punchlines. He claims to be a non-political actor, yet accidentally cultivates and revels in an anti-elitist movement of “killing the rich” and recognizing the little guy, even though his murderous actions were the result of his own selfish desires. Again, intent doesn’t matter, we live with the consequences.
Joker, however, seeks to liberate himself from such a responsible life. By the film’s close, we’re given a truly stand-out rant from Phoenix, his character begging for undeserved kindness and societal recognition, all the while smearing his ugly face in the blood of society’s murdered victims. Symbolically, this makes Joker both the face of a society ready to turn cruel and the messenger of how society must empathize with the downtrodden. These competing worldviews necessitate the elimination of the other, yet perfectly coexist in a barely living, mouth-breathing and horribly scribbled manifesto that is no intelligent political dogma set to convince anybody. If anything, we’re given muddled messages which amount to bad jokes, sadistic vices, and casual negative thoughts working back from Fleck’s two truths and a lie: I believe I am the victim, I believe society is my abuser, my vengeful warpath is only retribution.
While there is glory present in Joker, it’s always laced with a bitterly predatory tone. Phillips wonderfully blends the work of cinematographer Lawrence Sher and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir into a 1970s-era grunge aesthetic, creeping its visuals and harrowing score into a style that isn’t just the meme of being ‘dark and gritty’, but rather reflective of its toxic subject matter. It draws specific parallels with Bernhard Goetz, 1984’s assaulter of four black men on a subway car who, upon being acquitted for everything except his possession of an illegal firearm, was characterized as a folk hero standing his ground in a dangerous city like New York. At the time, the press dubbed him “the Subway Avenger”, almost exactly like Fleck’s brutal murder of three drunk Wayne executives and later being dubbed a Clown crusader who simply protected himself — and little people actually question it.
The fact the film “doesn’t say anything” as a moral matter of fact is key — it allows us as a society to see what we want to see, making a meta-case for how the media props up these killer icons for their own ends without actual critique beyond “violence bad”. The film makes nods to the loneliness of inceldom, the austerity of the mental healthcare system, the abuse of trusted relatives, the trauma of the mind, the scorn of a once-famed idol, the class struggle of collective anti-fascist action, any of which could be legitimate explanations for violence. There’s no sympathy for Fleck, but rather a pity for a monster required to expose other monsters.
Given the film also relies on an unreliable narrator, blending fiction and fact into his twisted tale of power bordering on cliche, this allows for truly independent character and social study beyond just the literal scope. “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” Fleck ponders, coated in cheap booze and nicotine as Gotham rots away from economic collapse and literal “super rats”. Who answers the call? Well, it’s the fat cat billionaires like Thomas Wayne who, through out-of-context comments, is found chastising the average people for being cowardly “clowns”.
Phillips then sets the stage for what’s a chilling perceptual war of class representatives, pitting Fleck’s own Travis Bickle-esque little guy and Robert De Niro’s own Murray Franklin, the smarmy talkshow host who smeared his former admirer for a botched comedy routine, against one another as we build to the grand punchline — nobody can believe Joker, a man who lost everything, believes in nothing. Behind the suit and make-up is an agent of chaos who simply works for himself and does what feels the most delightful for his toxic black heart. When Joker introduces this little bit of edgelord anarchy, it’s a true moment of rubber meeting glue where — no different than Fleck —the joke leaves everyone silent.