***WARNING: Contains Spoilers***
After much commotion and controversy, Todd Phillips’ Joker (starring method mystic Joaquin Phoenix) has crashed into theaters. How would I describe Joker? Well, it’s a no doubt confusing property to a comic book movie fan base that has become addicted to spectacular adventure theme parks on screen. Through some bizarre series of oversights and accidents, the DC movie machine has generated a nasty, bleak crime film about a latent serial killer who finds his niche. His schtick. His gimmick.
The outrage over the film’s alleged sympathy for the mass murdering incel narrative is not supported by the content of the actual film. Current pop culture is accustomed to fan service, to blockbuster entertainments with a sense of cheery harmlessness and civic duty to the consumer. Even when their safely abstracted alien villains have cracked the world in half, Marvel movies (and the previous DC movies that have attempted to imitate their rhythms) see to it that the gorgeous and wealthy and superficially “relatable” heroes will save us always. Or poignantly fail and then bring us back from the dead. A world like ours, but SAFE. Even the ostensibly “realistic” Christopher Nolan bat-films ask us to accept the idea that Bruce Wayne is doing the right thing, using his vast fortune and aptitudes to hit the mean streets every night with dangerous toys to “save the soul of Gotham” or “take back the night” or something to that effect.
Joker has the perverse audacity to deliver what is indicated on the label. This is a story about the bad guy. Not a scruffy roustabout or an outlaw seeking redemption. The character is, in essence, antithetical to the redemption narrative. There’s no way the Joker situation can end well. Ever. Except on Joker’s terms. People are dead. The world is on fire. Lots of laughing. The film fully commits to the worldview of a struggling, deranged individual who finds his will to power by embracing the violence of his shadow self and finds his voice as an artist in carnage. We are indeed coerced into empathy with party clown and would-be comedian Arthur Fleck, but this character is not aspirational. He never seems to be in a state that isn’t painful. Even his dark victories are fraught with hysteria or at best, a kind of dissociative ballet.
He teases us with a gentleness in the midst of his intensity. By the time we realize that tender effect is merely the exhaustion of a narcissistic sociopath who has been evading his terrible destiny, we have been immersed in his worldview, and his Gotham is a hellscape of anxiety and failure. We’re dying in it with him as he tries to dream a human life and finds he lacks the skill set. When he’s stripped of every shred of inherited self and he finds the showbiz within and gets authentic, we feel that complicated elation we feel when we are watching a story with a villain at its center. Watching a broken person get what they want, but everything they want has been twisted.
One prone to outrage could claim that to invite the public into such a narrative in these times of raging chaos is irresponsible. I might even agree. But I’m compulsively corrupted by beauty, and I would irresponsibly argue that the scrambled sympathies and moral vacuum this film conjures are irresponsible in a way that is VERY “Joker,” therefore providing yet another layer of aesthetic coherence. And beauty.
In the narrative physics of an adventure story (to which 99.9% of all superhero stories conform, with shadings into the detective story, the thriller, romance, etc.), we follow the protagonist through conflict after conflict, trusting all will be well and the grail will be seized, despite the dark nights of the soul they pass through en route. A hardboiled crime fiction narrative or a horror story takes place INSIDE that dark night of the soul and features characters who live there. It’s a poisoned grail they seize at the end of their inverted journeys. We have followed the superhero origin beats, this exhilarating acceptance of a magnificent destiny after a life of wandering the wasteland or hiding from the spotlight.
It’s the destiny of some people to be Buddha. It’s the destiny of others to be Joker. The film does not waver from that trajectory.
I felt like the film was at its weakest when it connected Arthur directly with Batman mythology, but it goes there fleetingly. We are feeling the terror of a Gotham without a Batman. Which would beautifully set up a very different dynamic for a Batman going his kind of crazy in this Gotham, evolving in response to Joker rather than in anticipation of such monsters.
Sadly, more cinemagic journeys to this grimy backwater of the DC multiverse seem unlikely, and I think that’s maybe for the best. This brutal, beautiful movie feels like a volatile chemical mixture that occurred by accident. Nothing about its success makes sense. Nothing about its backlash makes sense. All the talk is obscuring the real artistic virtues of a brutal character study, performed with harrowing commitment. This movie has more in common with Bronson or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than it does with Justice League. So if you’re not into Grand Guignol shadow work at the cinema, don’t see it. This movie will mess you up. Messing you up is what the Joker does. It says Joker right on the label.
The filmmakers sat down, looked at this character, and just like the revolutionary comic pulp writers of the 80s whose take on these characters is STILL getting milked by every big screen cape you see, they asked in all seriousness “What kind of world would make someone behave like this? And what would it feel like to be that way?” They have invited us to live in that world for a little while and watch it happen.
Care to bear witness to a monstrous metamorphosis?
Joker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, understandably, but there are millions of us who have a taste for a genre within genres that I will, for the sake of conversation, call Villainism: a film or a TV show with a villain as its central character.
In articles to come, I’ll examine the perverse but, I think, educational appeal of narrative wherein we are aesthetically seduced into sympathy with the devil. Or a cannibal psychiatrist. Or a viciously vitalized meth wizard. Or in this case, a killer clown who can only be himself in the element of apocalypse.