We Need To Talk About Joker
Despite the film’s social acclaim, there isn’t much beneath the surface.
I’ve been sitting on this topic for a few months. I wrote a brief review of Joker on Letterboxd in January, but beyond that I haven’t delved into the film. Part of the reason for that is because the film has far exceeded the amount of discussion it deserves. It took off in an unprecedented way. Folks on Twitter — both regular moviegoers and critics — named it one of the best films of 2019. Others have called it one of the best films of all time.
Most of the time, I ignore such hyperbole. We’ve all seen a film that absolutely blows us away, to such a degree that we feel the need to tell everyone about it. For me, that film is currently Portrait of a Lady On Fire, but that’s for another day.
The other reason I’ve avoided doing a deep-dive into Joker is because, quite frankly, there’s not much there to dive into. Despite being billed as a serious comic book film, one that wears its influences on its sleeve and tackles everything from mental health to societal rage, Joker felt more like an amalgamation of clichés thrown into the early Scorsese aesthetic.
But I think enough time has passed that I can look at this film as objectively as possible. While there isn’t much beneath the surface, we still need to talk about Joker.
For me, there are three main complaints that can be levied at Joker (at least): its lack of subtlety, its shallowness, and its lack of originality.
There haven’t been any statistical tests to prove this claim, but Joker might be one of the most blunt films of all time. The Sophie subplot is a perfect example of this, but it goes beyond plot. The imagery is guilty, too. Arthur Fleck crossing off a couple words on a sign so that it says “Don’t Smile”, and the film treating that as a profound character moment, is what I’m talking about. Even Phoenix’s final monologue, while well acted, is full of vague platitudes. He rants about “society” and “civility” to critique, well, society. It doesn’t get much more vague and on-the-nose than that.
The thing is, being blunt and to the point is not inherently a bad thing. For some films, presenting your message in its rawest form can be effective (just watch Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s film The Platform on Netflix and you’ll see what I mean). For Joker though, a film which presents itself as a serious meditation on how the flaws in our world can help create a monster, this final monologue, and the preceding imagery, is shockingly shallow. It’s the kind of vapidity I expect to see in 90s Batman film, not a Best Picture nominee.
Pushing past its lack of subtlety, we find another mortal flaw: its shallowness. I don’t just mean in terms of characterization (though that is certainly a part of it). What I’m really driving at is how mild its actual critiques of “society” (to borrow from Fleck’s final monologue) actually are. As I’ve mentioned before, the film presents itself as a serious discussion about mental health — particularly how our mental health system is underfunded. This is a very real issue, one that barely gets the attention it deserves outside of specific political discussions. Yet, we get less than a handful of scenes of Arthur with his therapist. In fact, if you go back and count, I’m sure you will find more scenes of Arthur being mercilessly beat up by random citizens in Gotham City than him spending time with his therapist.
Now, of course one could say “well, less is more”, but in this instance less is less. We never feel that Arthur has any connection to his therapist. In fact, we get the opposite feeling, as he’s combative and clearly doesn’t find therapy helpful. If anything, Arthur’s life without his therapist really isn’t that different than his life with his therapist. And again, while one could argue that the events that follow him losing the one possible buoy of his mental health are especially traumatizing, I would argue that the events which follow are so ludicrous they’re unbelievable.
See, Joker is trying to walk a tightrope. It so desperately wants to be profound, to be among the elite status of Logan and The Dark Knight — comic book films that transcended that label and became cinema — but it also doesn’t want to put in the work required to achieve that distinction. It also wants to be a film about the Joker: perhaps the most famous comic book villain in history. He’s a character who has little depth and even less nuance. His defining feature is chaos. I’m not saying it’s impossible to create a story about such a character in a way that makes him appear sympathetic (or, at the very least, understandable) After all, there absolutely could be profundity to mine in a story about a man who loses his therapist and spirals into violence and depravity. But the way Phillips approaches this story doesn’t indicate that he really cares about Arthur Fleck or his situation. As a friend of mine put it, Phillips seems more interested in shocking his audience above all else.
There is also the issue of characterization, which I led this section with. Arthur Fleck and the entire supporting cast lack real depth. Fleck’s entire backstory is crafted to elicit sympathy: he has an uncontrollable disease that makes him laugh, even when he doesn’t want to. He has a sick mother who he’s taking care of. He has a therapist who doesn’t care about him and a job he despises. Oh, and he gets assaulted by the teenagers and rich businessmen in Gotham City on a seemingly routine basis. Frankly, Fleck’s life is a comedy of errors. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be beneath him on the social ladder, barring being homeless or dead.
It’s this kind of blatant audience manipulation that makes me dislike a character (I can’t speak for anyone else). It’s so obvious that it’s almost insulting as a viewer.
Lastly, there is the issue of the film’s aesthetic. Some folks have praised the way Joker evokes early Scorsese — particularly two films: The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver.
The problem here is that the film doesn’t offer homages as much as it rips out entire characters, plot points, and scenes and thrusts them blindly into Gotham City. Arthur Fleck feels like a mad scientist melded Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin together. As a fan of Scorsese, I can understand to a certain degree wanting to attach the personality of this disaffected loner, who becomes a surprising symbol to a city, to a Scorsese character. After all, his films are well-known for mastering the art of the anti-hero, exploring their darkest depths while somehow finding bits of light within their souls. When you just rip entire characters from those films though, you lose all originality. If we wanted to watch Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy (and I recommend you do; they’re both masterpieces), we would.
This insinuates a lack of trust in the viewer, as does the Sophie subplot, the blunt delivery, and the shallowness of the themes. Joker wants to appear complex while spoon-feeding you its themes like cold porridge. It wants to embrace the distinction of profundity without actually being profound.
At the end of the day, I think that’s the thing that bothers me most about Joker. In a year when we had multiple masterpieces (including one from Scorsese himself), it seems obvious to me what is and isn’t profound. What is and isn’t original. What is and isn’t subtle.
There are parts of Joker which do work, to be fair. I think Phoenix is solid in his role, though I wouldn’t rate it among his best performances — The Master, this isn’t. The cinematography is solid and the sound design is crisp. On a technical level this film is fine (except for that jarring music change when Arthur descends the stairs; I don’t find it deep, but unnecessary). But the script has some clear, jarring issues and that is part of the reason why so many viewers, like myself, had problems with it.