‘Joker’ isn’t a dangerous right-wing film, but it’s not great either
Jacksonville, FL – It’s tempting to say the outrageous moral panic and woke-scolding over Joker made it a less effective movie. Tempting but wrong. What really undid this Scorsese-esque ‘supervillain’ film was the rampant over-production of comic book movies (and television shows) in the last three decades.
Put it another way, how many times have we seen the Bruce Wayne origin story? The five corporations that own almost all media – and creative intellectual properties – in the United States have run dry on ideas, content instead to retool stories from the past with proven records as cash cows. Batman and its associated universe are just among the most heavily exploited.
The problem with over-mining intellectual properties and franchises is that, like real mines, eventually there’s nothing left to dig up. We’ve seen it all before, especially after Fox’s ‘Blue Lives Matter’ Gotham series, which ran for five seasons.
Joker had liberal commentators and Twitter personalities in an uproar months before its release. A full-blown moral panic ensued, with many warning that the film catered to right-wing misogynists and mass shooters in-the-making. Some predicted violence at movie theaters. It’s worth noting that the Republican Party made the same type of argument – that violent movies, video games and music cause mass shootings – after the El Paso massacre this summer by a Trump-inspired white supremacist.
As it turns out, Joker isn’t a right-wing mass shooter manifesto at all. Its class politics are remarkably left-wing, especially when compared to the dozen or so Batman movies over the last 30 years. The problem with Joker is that for all its build up, it’s just not a very compelling film.
Batman has always existed as a comic book character for the right wing. Bruce Wayne, a billionaire industrialist, vows to avenge his parents’ murder by a ‘street thug’ by donning a spandex bat-suit and waging a ‘war on crime’ as a vigilante. His only superpower is his outrageous wealth, which allows him to build a veritable arsenal and conceal his identity.
Even the framing is right wing: Gotham – a composite of New York City and Chicago invented by D.C. Comics – is full of costumed criminals, freaks and weirdos, all with fantastical motives and vague backstories. These ‘supervillains’ see their plans foiled by the billionaire vigilante Batman, acting in alliance with ‘good cops’ in the city’s otherwise corrupt police force, like Commissioner Jim Gordon.
Here’s what Joker gets right: In 30 years of Batman on screen, this is the sole movie to portray Gotham as a real city divided into classes – not just caricatures of ‘good heroes’ and ‘bad criminals.’
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a severely disturbed man working as a clown-for-hire, bringing in just enough money to take care of his aging mother. Emaciated and mentally ill, he makes it through the week thanks to a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs and counseling sessions at a publicly funded clinic. He’s no working class hero, but it’s stunning to see a Batman movie center on someone who isn’t obscenely wealthy.
Joker’s class politics don’t start or end with Fleck. Immediately we’re shown a Gotham quite different from Tim Burton’s gothic playground or Christopher Nolan’s gritty war-zone. It’s 1980. The sanitation workers are on strike. Unemployment and poverty run high. Right-wing billionaire Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce/Batman and a stand-in for Ed Koch, is running for mayor on a platform of tax breaks for the rich and austerity for the working class.
Life takes a rough turn for Fleck. In about 20 minutes of film, he gets mugged, loses his job, and bombs his first night doing stand-up at a comedy club. When Gotham’s right-wing city officials cut funding for public health care, Fleck can no longer afford his medication or counseling sessions. The inciting incident for his transformation into the titular Joker happens on a subway. Three drunk Wall Street bankers are harassing a woman. When they turn their aggression on Fleck, clad in clown makeup, he shoots and kills all three.
Joker makes an interesting point on class perspectives for anyone familiar with earlier Batman films. The corporate-owned media brings on Wayne and other spokesmen, to denounce the violence committed against their fellow one-percenters. Wayne takes the opportunity to ridicule poor people as “clowns,” too lazy to make something of themselves. His comments incite anger across Gotham’s working class, who see no great tragedy in the bankers’ deaths at all. They pour onto the streets in protest, with some ironically donning clown masks.
Fleck’s Joker may be the focus of this movie, but you don’t come away from it calling him a hero, as many pre-game detractors claimed. He’s quite clearly insane and dangerous, at one point breaking into the apartment of a Black single mother based on a hallucinated relationship between the two. The movement we see on the streets of Gotham didn’t start with Fleck’s Joker, nor does he lead it in any discernible way.
Instead, Joker does what every other Batman movie in the last 30 years has miserably failed at doing. It shows us characters whose actions are shaped by larger social and economic conditions; not stereotypes who do things “just because.”
But old habits die hard. After the Joker is arrested on live TV, a riot ensues. We already know what’s coming next long before Thomas and Martha Wayne, with their little son Bruce in tow, step into that fateful alley where they will be murdered. Yes, for the 11th time across films and TV episodes in the last 30 years, we get treated to yet another re-enactment of Batman’s origin story. This time, it’s carried out by a protester seemingly unleashed by the Joker.
Time is a flat circle for Batman movies. For all the ways Joker breaks the stale formula in character development and indicting Gotham’s billionaire class, we end up right back at the same place Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises took us. The masses are once again an anarchic force prone to criminality. Thomas Wayne is no hero, but neither is the Joker. Offering no other solution, Joker leaves us with a sense that it will take some third force – a more just, more compassionate billionaire, perhaps young Bruce – to set all this madness straight.
Joaquin Phoenix is now the fifth actor to portray the Joker in a theatrically released film over the last 30 years. When Heath Ledger did the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), it was a sharp contrast from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal 19 years earlier. Nicholson’s Joker was a 1930s chain-smoking mobster. Ledger’s Joker, by contrast, was a deranged product of the War on Terror: an insurgency commander, badly scarred from combat and intimately familiar with explosives, who waged warfare on Gotham’s authorities, both militarily and through symbols.
Phoenix draws his character from the headlines too – now mass shooters instead of terrorists – and has all the unsettling twitches and laughter we expect. It just feels played out at this point. We’ve had Al Capone-Joker (Nicholson), clown-prince Joker (Mark Hamil), terrorist-Joker (Ledger), theatrical-Joker (Cameron Monaghan), laughable white rapper Joker (Jared Leto) and more.
Just before the film’s third act, there’s a scene where Phoenix, clad in clown makeup and the iconic purple suit, dances on a set of stairs while Gary Glitter’s Rock n Roll Part 2 plays. For a second, you can see the glimmer of a genuine ‘moment’ of cinema genius... but all too appropriately, a bumbling set of cops interrupt the scene and it’s gone. This movie wants so badly to be game-changing, edgy and provocative, but it’s trafficking on dog-eared imagery and unclear messaging.
I don’t think Joker glorifies its main character the way some allege, nor do I think the movie is dangerous. But we’re also too far through the looking glass in capitalist America to have a compelling story told about the ‘clown prince of crime’. Phoenix is a fine actor, but nothing in Joker remotely compares to the real larger-than-life supervillains on TV every night in the age of Trump.