The current storm of controversy over Todd Philips’ Joker stems at least partially, I think, from brand confusion. The film is emotional, uncompromising, and relatively exotic in its intensity and the dark palette of references it draws from. It’s the feverish character-driven origin story of a psychotic mass murderer, delivered in queasy tones of traumatized dissociation and moral ambiguity.
Outside of the edgiest European art film circuit, they really don’t make movies like this anymore. And the last place you’d expect to find such a dark hothouse flower blooming is under the aegis of DC comics. It’s no wonder so many ordinarily astute critics and comics fans don’t know what to make of it. Major studios haven’t committed to films like this since the 70s.
In the bitter backwash of the summer of love and the Vietnam War and Watergate, the Hollywood fantasy factory was destabilized. The tastes of their audience had shifted in a way that confused the dying studio moguls. A new generation of filmmakers was infiltrating the industry for whom escapism was not enough. More than any previous wave of Hollywood filmmakers, they were steeped in film theory and the moral complexity of international cinema. They wanted to make films that were honest about the cynicism, disillusionment, and paranoia that were eating at modern men and women, under the shiny surfaces; the global chaos that seemed to be burning ever more brightly outside the frames of our celebrity talk shows and discos and key parties.
Noir cinema was back, coaxed out of its silvery 40s trappings, which had become stylized to the point of cliche, a vibe more at home in the 70s than ever, inviting us into the fractured lives of outsiders and malcontents and criminals for whom authority is inherently corrupt and every antihero’s journey leads to the abyss. The studios were ready to try anything. When the get rich quick schemes disguised as movies stop working, innovation occurs, a renaissance of fearless authenticity in the wake of all that dazzling decadence. This period generated explosive cinema like Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Diver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Clockwork Orange, The Conversation, Death Wish, Network, Serpico, and The King of Comedy all of which are employed by Todd Philips as narrative DNA in Joker’s style and structure.
That season of darkly introspective, psychologically rich American films was shot dead in its tracks by Star Wars, for all intents and purposes. Great films with that grown-up experimental spirit would come out after Star Wars changed the landscape in 1977, of course, but as the occasional aberration. The industry was becoming more corporate, its priorities were changing, and George Lucas (himself a renegade auteur for as long as it took to make THX-1138) had provided blockbuster-hungry producers with a studio accountant’s wet dream of mass appeal, superficial innovation, and multi-platform merchandising millions. These objectives fueled the demographically targeted, formulaically constructed, and economically motivated action blockbuster epidemic of the 80s. Star Wars had set the tone and made many fortunes, but the enchantments of its worldbuilding and its latent spin-off potential were inhibited for a while by the confines of its nerdy niche.
In counterpoint to the bloated, crowd-pleasing calculation of blockbuster culture, the 90s gave us an independent film insurgence that made much of its connection to the spirit of those bleak bygone classics of Scorcese, Coppola, Sidney Lumet, etc. But the “indie” vibe was easily codified and branded by corporate Hollywood, with its constant film geek pastiches and macho posturing. Great films did emerge, however. And more importantly, the idea that it was important to make great films had returned to the “arts and entertainment” conversation. But when the indie revolutionaries finally stormed the luxurious citadels of showbiz, the new and improved and yet predictably monstrous studio moguls breathed reptile sighs of relief. The barbarians at the gate turned out to be nerds in barbarian cosplay who only wanted to play with their giant toys.
Enter the super hero. After some crucial baby steps (Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman films, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man), special effects technology finally caught up with the hyperbolic positivity and wild kinetic visual inventiveness of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (after 40 years of not quite getting it), and with Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. It was the Star Wars effect to the hundredth power.
The super hero was made for merchandising. They wear their logos on their costumes. They embody principles of controversy-proof kindergarten morality in a world threatened at all times by story-generating danger, but no one really dies, nothing really changes, and if a particular trademark becomes irrelevant, look no further for rescue than to the comics themselves, where these characters get rebooted and streamlined constantly to meet the needs and cravings of changing times.
In comic book form, these archetypal cartoon characters have frequently been reimagined and invested with meaning by great writers. There have also been to make cinematic statements in the genre, as with Christopher Nolan’s grim and relatively realistic Batman trilogy. But because the genre in general asks us to accept without question the ethical correctness of whoever is wearing the “hero” suit, they exist in a realm where real world anxieties can be touched on superficially and then superficially resolved. It’s the opposite of catharsis. We experience a delusional cartoon safety, rippled entertainingly by convoluted, meaningless conflicts. We’re invited to ponder the cartoony intricacies of a world that has nothing to do with our own, except that it also confers virtue conveniently on the high-tech protectors of a capitalist utopia. All the while cultivating a cult of consumers that will worship the corporate property du jour, advertise it for free, and defend its pleasures to the death on social media.
Apropos of this dichotomy, Martin Scorcese has recently made some comments on Marvel movies (and one supposes, on superhero films in general) that have incensed legions of merry Marvel franchise fanatics, expressing his personal feeling, that the appeal and intentions of these films are closer to theme parks than cinema. I don’t think he’s speaking pejoratively of theme parks, just observing that a theme park provides a different kind of pleasure than a work of art that makes us ask difficult questions about ourselves, each other, and the world we live in.
Theme parks are fun! No one wants to take away your theme parks. But we used to go to the movies for something other than fun. Something more challenging, more fascinating, more substantial. That big Marvel fun and all the attempts of other franchises to replicate it (with varying degrees of success) have driven psychological complexity into television, where many of yesterdays’ chain yanking auteurs have found a new form through which to experiment and ask the big questions. It does at times seem like the cineplex is offering nothing but roller coasters. Aside from the sulky adolescent darkness dabbled in by previous DC movies (trying too hard to give an edgy sheen to awkward approximations of the Marvel formula), it would seem that Disney has driven the darkness out of our public dreamscape.
Then out of nowhere pops Joker, as if to say “F**K YOU”.
In Joker, Todd Phillips steps boldly (and ironically) out of the comedy genre to team up with fanatically committed method thespian Joaquin Phoenix, using the pop enticements and instant marketability of the comic book movie to tap those 70s neo-noir tropes, partly for period reasons (evoking the most gritty, unhinged Gotham that we’ve seen onscreen by mirroring the contemporary history of NYC, with its garbage strikes and blustering tycoons and canceled social services and increasing outbreaks of random violence), but also to tap the vein of cinematic intensity embodied by those films, the uncomfortable intimacy and empathy with characters who hide from us because they’re hiding from themselves.
By the time proto-joker Arthur Fleck discloses the real horror of his inner life, we’re already complicit with the atrocities to come. Because we came to a comic book movie looking for a hero. And we’re instead immersed in a nasty Gotham with no hint of Gothic whimsy or hi-tech majesty, trapped in a small broken life that’s about to explode. It’s not Aquaman. It’s not even Batman. Through the relentless lens of this risky film, it’s Joker’s world. All these orphaned millionaires and wannabe heroes just live in it.
This brand confusion has led to an uproar of many voices, of course. Rave reviews seem to be about evenly matched (or even slightly outnumbered) by critics that seem personally insulted by the movie’s content. Like they’ve been tricked. Peel the comic book wrapper and there seems to be a serious film, but to be a serious film it must have a “message”. Even audiences mature enough to accept and enjoy ethical ambiguity will usually insist on its resolution by the time act three breaks. So we’ll know what the film’s ideology is and how to feel about it in the finale.
Joker does not offer this luxury. In lieu of luxury, it gives us more ambiguity. A lingering unease. It’s violence deliberately and pointedly lacks the video game grandeur of the modern action movie massacre. Our uneasy intimacy with Arthur’s small world lulls us into a tense vulnerability. When the violence comes, it knocks the frame out of joint, palpably shattering the world and leaving us chilled by the desolate wind that howls in the wake of frenzy. The part of us that’s already seen five superhero movies (and therefore, all of them) notices that the first bloodbath happens at the part when the super hero finds his special purpose and the power he will use to change the world. A film about a character’s cognitive dissonance that aesthetically induces cognitive dissonance, so the style and subject and subtext reflect each other with terrifying perfection. Sounds like a work of art to me…AND a kind of ghost train ride, or a tunnel of the unloved. If you climbed in hoping for a roller coaster, you maybe should have read the poster more closely. Joker is the kind of ride that this many millions of people haven’t taken all at once since the 70s. Joker is cinema.
Joker’s relatively unknown roller coaster feeling makes me wonder what it will lead to, what forms it will engender. It feels like an actual sequel would violate the artistic purity of the gesture, this cinematic chemical accident, but despite (or because of?) the controversy around the film, it’s already incredibly successful, considering its style, subject matter, and ambiguous intentions. Maybe we’re looking at a strange reconciliation of the opposing cinematic polarities: dark renaissance and dazzling decadence. Maybe the kind of movies they don’t make anymore CAN get made and people will watch them of you give people an entry point that looks like it leads to more candy.
Could Joker trigger a wave of passionate semi-experimental films in comic book drag, splicing pop and pulp and the personal and the poetic in auteur-driven projects that riff on these archetypal trademarks to say true things, outrageous things, impossible things about identity, destiny, and the human condition? Could we maybe have our theme parks and our shadow temples too? Because mythology is something humans make to know how to live in the world. We wake every day and frolic with the gods who teach us how to hope and win. The gods who teach us how to be afraid and lose are waiting on the other side of sleep, and we won’t know how to survive them if they take us by surprise.
I hope we see more experiments in this made from Todd Phillips and other directors like him, who know their tradition and their legacy, as the lavish fashions ebb and flow, and who aren’t afraid to host a huge cartoon slumber party and serve a feast of pure anxiety because we’re all so pretty when we stay awake.