Every superhero movie (or supervillain movie, as the case may be) exists first and foremost as a commodity and secondarily as a film. A quick glance at lists of the most expensive films of all time and the highest grossing films reveal them as jam packed with Marvel and DC Comics characters and their cinema-born cousins (Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean). One can point to many factors to explain the rise of this specific strand of blockbuster production—streaming and other low-cost entertainment alternatives, corporate consolidation, and the rise of box-office reporting for public consumption, to name a few—but it is clear that major studios now derive an ever-increasing share of their annual revenue from superheroes and other franchises. The result has been a much decried erosion of mid-budget studio filmmaking and growing complaints that the Hollywood no longer makes movies “for adults”—implicitly a mimetic, realist film devoid of costumed crime fighters and sci-fi/fantasy conceits—and is too concerned with money and insufficiently concerned with art.
Enter Joker. From its very inception, it has been pushed as a different kind of comic book movie. It touts two big names: Joaquin Phoenix, who has long wanted to do a “character study” in the genre, and Todd Phillips, who has declined offers to direct previous comic book films because of his lack of interest in “loud” CGI spectacles. Joker was also conceived as a standalone film, free from the storytelling constraints (and commodity mindset) imposed by the need to tie in to an ever-growing number of similar films. Its budget is a modest $64 million, less than half that of the cheapest “Marvel Cinematic Universe” film and barely a sixth of that of Avengers: Endgame. It will receive a 70mm run in New York, joining a short list of the decade’s celluloid presentations of new films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and the two most recent works by both Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Everything surrounding Joker suggests the serious, intellectual movie “for adults” that critics have chided superhero movies for erasing, and it is a good enough imitation of one to have earned the Golden Lion from a Venice Film Festival jury presided over by Lucrecia Martel.
Joker is replete with the signifiers of great cinema, all dialed up so heavily that they could denote parody if the film were not so serious. Its grimy yellows and cool, distinctly digital blues call to mind art-house and festival circuit thrillers, and most close-ups are reserved for its protagonist’s most manic moments. The score, too, is full of impressive musical compositions, but it lacks cohesion. It ranges from lush, scene-setting mid-range tones to dissonant screeches and tremolos of a violin for scary moments to grand, bombastic numbers with a full orchestra during the riots. To these it mixes in a range of on-the-nose pop songs, including The Guess Who’s “Laughing,” Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” Tony Bennett’s “Put on a Happy Face,” and “That’s Life,” each one an excruciating wink to the audience, and none as bold or brilliant or brazen as Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” would have been.
As for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, known through most of the film as Arthur Fleck, it is a far cry from Heath Ledger’s. Ledger’s Joker is a sadist; we are introduced to him as he convinces four men to kill one another, and he forces Batman to pick between the lives of the two people he cares about most. As played by Ledger, Joker is always unhinged, licking his lips when looking straight on or otherwise glancing upward at you from his downcast head. He flips from conversant to violent on a dime, as when he unexpectedly slams a man’s eye through the end of a pencil, as if something as simple as a conversation is too civilized an action to take. He is the personification of evil, and that he tells multiple stories about the source of his scars, thereby denying origin or motivation, elevates him to the level of the symbolic. Phoenix’s Joker, by contrast, speaks in a low, earnest voice, and he reveres his mother. Where Ledger’s Joker wants to reveal the potential for psychopathy latent in every Gothamite (most especially Batman), Phoenix’s Joker has the opposite goal: to gain recognition and acceptance for the downtrodden, the ill, the “crazy,” and the misfits, to reveal their normalcy. More similar are Phoenix’s own performances as Freddie Quell in The Master (2012), who Arthur might have become if he found a charismatic cult leader like Lancaster Dodd in Gotham, or Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2017), another abused loner who takes care of his mother, instead of only finding ridicule. This time, however, Phoenix’s performance is calculated, even strained. His laughing fits all adhere to a mocking cadence, as if the goal is to foreshadow and provide simple characterizations—that Joker, he’s crazy! Even the solemn, nervous speaking he does steers the film toward its predetermined destination rather than complicating or mystifying it.
“Predetermined” and “calculated” apply also to the film’s political commentary. We are quickly told early that Arthur works as a clown and lives in poverty with his mother. Despite the repeated dialogue, however, we never see anything, such as struggles to pay bills, that actually indicates poverty. Arthur also suffers from an unspecified mental illness and, like Rupert Pupkin before him in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), dreams of making it big as a comedian like his idol, TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, finally in Jerry Langford’s place). The Scorsese influence doesn’t end there, however; Phillips’ Gotham is clearly modeled on the crime-ridden New York of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, which made Travis Bickle’s gradual undoing in Taxi Driver (1976) and the paranoia of Paul Hackett in After Hours (1985) both believable and resonant. After being attacked by a group of teens, Arthur finds himself in possession of a gun, which he subsequently uses to kill three would-be assailants with Wall Street ties on the subway. When mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce) condemns the killings by calling all of Gotham’s less fortunate residents “clowns,” he inadvertently sparks a wave of protests. “Kill the Rich: A New Movement?” the newspapers ask. “Resist!” the protest signs proclaim.
Every story development in Joker evokes another hot button issue. The anti-capitalist and mental health themes pile up as Arthur is forced off his meds when the Department of Health undergoes budget cuts. Arthur also finds himself in the crosshairs of his idol when a tape of his bombed set at a comedy club makes it onto the talk show. No more significant within the context of the film (but the lightning rod for the discourse that has surrounded it since its premiere), Arthur tries unsuccessfully to woo an attractive neighbor; it's a subplot that, along with a scene where Arthur is berated by a woman for attempting to make her kid laugh, has cultivated fear that the film sympathizes with an “incel” point of view. When Arthur initiates his killing spree, finds his way onto Franklin's show and outs himself as the subway killer on air, then receives nonstop media coverage, tensions in Gotham boil over with riots and several copycat crimes (including one against Thomas Wayne, thus providing Batman’s origin story). People could, and likely will, argue in circles as to whether Arthur’s easy access to a gun is more or less of a problem than his mental illness, about Arthur’s mistreatment and the justifiability of his responses, about the perils of going “viral” and of media saturation and the ethics of coverage, and about the relationship between poverty, crime, and the rich.
Yet underneath all this is a profoundly unrewarding film. Its primary advancement to the commercially protective Hollywood tendency of crafting a film with ambiguous politics—able to be read as either left or right depending on the proclivities of the viewer—is by making both readings, and the stakes, extremely obvious. Either killing the rich is correct because we see the squalor of Arthur’s environs, or it is wrong because, after all, the most iconic villain in comic book history supports it. Either the problem is the “other,” like the African-Americans who do not listen to Arthur, or they, as Arthur’s African-American state psychologist suggests when her department’s funding is cut, are just as disposable in the eyes of the state as he is. Either Joker is a hero to the incel Nazi right or an indictment of it, depending on whether the viewer wants to like the movie or not and which viewpoint will best support that decision. Paper-thin political metaphor has replaced genuine social commentary.
We have seen this song-and-dance before. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy brought a grim tone and shadowy, greyscale look to a genre that had generally embraced the candy colors of their source material, and outrage over The Dark Knight (2008) missing out on awards nominations led to an expansion of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture category from five nominees to ten. Later superhero films were self-consciously positioned as respectable, whether it was Captain America (2011) as a ‘70s paranoia thriller, Deadpool (2016) as an intelligent “deconstruction,” or Logan (2017) as a western. Joker is simply the next step in the battle to gain credibility among the intelligentsia for films devoid of personality or originality. It pulls heavily from The King of Comedy in its narrative and from Taxi Driver (1976) for its protagonist’s modus operandi, and it seeks out a lineage not of other superhero movies, but of the great works of cinema: Fleck watches the Fred Astaire vehicle Shall We Dance (1937) on TV and Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) in a cinema, and the marquee of a theater showing Blow Out is featured prominently. None of this intertextuality enhances the movie, but they all enhance the perception of it. They won’t make the movie better, but they might convert some of the few remaining comic book movie skeptics into obliging ticket buyers—and isn’t that what this is all about?
After watching Joker, I found myself rereading Manny Farber’s landmark 1962 essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” the entirety of which could have substituted for this piece. Farber argued that low-budget films and low-brow art with modest aims were often more substantial, both artistically and in the expression of big ideas, than the higher budget films with clear ambitions and high production values. When considering the comic book origins of the figures that rule today’s screens, it is clear that the termites of yesteryear have become today’s white elephants, but the economics of Hollywood have made those white elephants bigger, whiter, and more bloated than ever. Joker is purportedly the first installment of the DC Black line for standalone DC Comic films, meaning we can expect many more white elephants to fill the screen in the coming years. Until something is done to the profitable but soul-sucking production and distribution models that dominate Hollywood today, the only thing we can do is simply not watch them.