TIFF ’19: ‘Joker’ Tries and Fails to Hide Its Clownery With a Political Message

With superhero movies raking in the cash despite how much they’ve saturated the market, studios are looking for new and creative ways to tap into their passionate fanbase. One of these ideas includes standalone movies that address individual characters, both heroes and villains. Enter Todd Phillips’ Joker, an attempt to give depth and ethos to a psychopathic killer in a time where that kind of behavior is the last thing that needs to be glorified.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is sad, poor, and lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dilapidated apartment in the city of Gotham, famed home of Bruce Wayne. Gotham is falling apart, with bags of garbage piling up on the street due to a strike and super rats taking over the city. Fleck works as a party clown, dressing up to spin signs and entertain sick kids at the hospital. But when he’s suddenly fired—for bringing a gun to a children’s hospital—he commits an act of violence that changes his world view. With his new found power, he begins working on his comedy and wooing his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). He resorts to more violence as he tries to prove some kind of point about society, taking revenge on those that have wronged him. This is when he begins his transformation into the iconic Joker.

The Joker has been a supervillain in the Batman comics since 1940. He has appeared in several Batman films, with actors such as Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger, portraying the evil character. What has worked with the Joker is that no explanation is really ever given for why he is the way he is, with the exception of the graphic novel, The Killing Joke. He is simply a bad guy who does terrible things to people who Batman must constantly try and defeat. He does not earn or even deserve sympathy from readers. But Joker decides to shift that narrative, showing the Joker’s origins as an incel-type character who believes he deserves the world. 

Phillips said that this film is making fun of incels, but those moments are few and far between. Instead, Joker becomes a movie about a sad man being beaten to his limits and what he does to secure some kind of agency in his life. Incels, or involuntary celibate, are a group of predominantly men who believe they don’t have sex because of women and “Chads” (other men). They believe the world is against them, so they are constantly on the defensive, blaming everyone but themselves for their situation. While Fleck is obviously a victim of poor mental health care and a lack of government support, he often declares that society doesn’t care about him specifically and that everyone is mean to him. This echoes incel rhetoric and as such is extremely harmful. 

With its poor writing, Phoenix delivers an impressive performance as the downtrodden Fleck. His quiet delivery makes him seem meek at first, but he builds and builds an arrogant confidence that suits the character. He wiggles across the frame like an al-dente noodle, flopping his legs and arms in a strange dance that never makes sense, but adds to the theatrics of the Joker. Phoenix embodies the emotional transformation from sad man to psychopath, which is both fascinating and disturbing to watch. 

One of the saving graces of the film is Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Arrival) score. Her use of strings instruments pack most the film’s emotional punches and supports the film’s most important moments. The production and costume design is also impeccable. The city of Gotham is dilapidated and grimy, buildings are lit in shades of fluorescent green, and every wall is covered in graffiti. It is a beautiful film to look at it if you ignore the actions of Fleck. 

We could all use a hero in 2019. But suffice to say the Joker should not be that hero, especially in a film that feels like it was written by the pseudo-anarchist fanboys that went to my liberal arts college. Joker is a politically irresponsible film that glorifies the actions of sad men who feel they deserve the world. It attempts to make a political statement about the treatment of the poor, how they are treated by the rich, the lack of access to healthcare, and more. But these important statements are clouded by focusing on a white man; yes, he is poor and experiences violence. But he also believes he deserves the attention of a woman and adopts the attitude of “a nice guy.”  It is less a film about a supervillain, but more of a film about a regular guy who can rise up and take what he wants whenever he wants it. Joker will continue to feed harmful ideologies held by those who idolize the villain and see him as some kind of symbol of resistance.

You can check out the rest of our TIFF ’19 coverage here

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