By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
I’ve steadfastly avoided watching any of the Batman and Batman-related movies after The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which was incredible, but I’d heard that there were security procedures being taken against Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in the US itself, so I simply had to go!!
Laughing at Trump’s America
I have to admit, this is a masterful movie. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s best tortured badguy performance since his role as emperor Commodus in Gladiator (2000), playing the aforementioned Joker aka comedian-clown entertainer Arthur Fleck. A deep, heartfelt and tragicomic performance but just as frightening is the extent of the physical transformation. That alone will get him an Oscar, making himself sickening thin, with slightly yellowed, crooked teeth and darkish hair. Kudos also to the very moody, subjectivist directorial style of Todd Phillips, the man originally responsible for The Hangover movies, amazingly enough.
Philips dealt with a highly complex topic in a way that was complicated enough but, at the same time, not too complicated so as to put off the audience. As a lifelong Batman fan I actually found myself rooting for the Joker by the end of it. Imagine that. And all this from a prequel!
The director seems to understand things about comic book adaptations that many pros in the field don’t catch onto. I was disappointed with Watchmen (2009), for instance, not just because they departed from the original storyline in the classic graphic novel but because of the New York cityscape on display in the movie. It wasn’t grimy enough and wasn’t true to the feel of the era the original comic was written in, the 1980s. They really should have got Stephen Norrington, the man responsible for Blade (1998), instead of Zack Snyder, the man responsible for Sin City (2005). The place was meant to have a Blade Runnerish feel to it, with the modern technologies on display in the original comic by Alan Moore, but it didn’t. In Joker you feel like you’ve walked onto the set of Being There (1979) or Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), with their grim but lovable portrayals of New York and how small the city makes you feel. The politics in the Watchmen movie was messed up too. Having Nixon as the democratically elected dictator doesn’t cut any ice with an audience who has lived through the Bush-Cheney era, which was much worse.
None of those problems pervaded Joker, I’m glad to say. The portrayal of Gotham City here is both thoroughly real, with 1980s style cars, clothes, hairstyles, TV sets and neon-lighting, while also having a comic book feel to it with an appropriate combination of dull greys and greens and the loud, fruity colours you find in superhero comics. Praise must also go for the pacing of the movie. There’s never a dull moment and you’re on the dramatic edge of your seat all the time, but the plot is haphazard enough to match the twisting trail of everyday life and disciplined enough to head in the right direction.
Not to mention that it’s all interlaced with genuine humour and really funny scenes that stop you being freaked out of your senses and going mad yourself. The music augments the movie and brings the visuals and storyline to life. It’s subjective and reflects Arthur’s mental states when it needs to and is larger than life and true to America’s razzle dazzle, bright lights of the big city history as well. The city is a place you can get lost in, after all, amidst all the noise and hustle and bustle and news coverage of big events and that’s precisely what Arthur feels like – alienated, misunderstood and alone. He doesn’t have any real friends, has a terrible employer and even his sweet mother doesn’t entirely have faith in his more humdrum ambitions to be a stand-up comic. Note that while his birth-name is Arthur his mother calls him ‘Happy’. He’s a person who always gives people the benefit of the doubt and tries to appeal to their better nature, always tries to smile in the face of adversity, and it gets him nowhere. (Recollect Al Pacino’s similarly themed character in Scarecrow , and what happens to him in the end). The opening scene of Joker very unassumingly has Arthur making funny faces in the mirror with his clown makeup on, while the news broadcast blares away in the background about how the city is falling apart with garbage pilling up and an infestation of rats breaking out, etc.
For Arthur everything is a struggle. He lives with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), assumes his father ran out on him as a kid and has a soft spot for talk show host Murray Franklin; played very adeptly by Robert De Niro, who played a struggling comedian, celebrity stalker himself in The King of Comedy (1982). He’s struggling to make a living and taking care of his ailing mother. He’s struggling with his own history of depression and mental illness, as he has repeated laughing fits where you can’t tell whether he’s happy or sad. Finally he’s struggling like everyone else in the whole Godforsaken city of Gotham, an urban morass struggling itself with economic collapse as social services are cut, denying Arthur the medication he needs to keep his mind under control. This is all lampooning modern-day America but it’s also true to America’s urban history in the Reagan era.
Happ…, er, Arthur, is meant to be the American public, ever trusting in the American dream, and the politicians and the celebrities. But even naïve Americans can be pushed too far. Only his mother never loses faith in those above her, and that’s what helps drive Arthur over the edge. America is a country of drive-by shootings and rampage shooters and high school massacres, more so in the current period, and you figure out exactly why here.
Whites and Blacks on Patrol
The story then is only nominally about the aforementioned Arthur Fleck, let alone Donald Trump. It’s more about his generation of people, kids that grew up without fathers because so many American men don’t want to take responsibility for their actions anymore. This is a generation that take celebrities as father-figures. You see this clearly in a scene where Arthur imagines himself on the Murray Franklin show and he talks to Arthur as if he’s his son.
Murray, moreover, is portrayed as being very much like a politician or public figure, with his staff always trying to keep him away from normal people. Enter the arch villain of Arthur, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of the future Batman. Arthur’s mother used to work for him and keeps sending letters to him as her former employer, thinking he’ll help them out because he sees all of his employees as family. Arthur, at this point, has no qualms with Thomas Wayne but things take a turn for a worse when he has to get a gun to protect himself on the mean streets of Gotham City. When he has one of his laughing fits, onboard a subway train, three drunks get offended and begin to beat him up, so he guns them down. Turns out they were young stockbrokers, yuppies (another 1980s era term), and the outrage this foments in the upper class prompts Thomas Wayne to run for mayor, badmouthing the envious have-nots as a bunch of ‘clowns’. This in turn angers the public, the suffering common man, and people begin donning clown masks in solidarity with this mystery vigilante who killed the abusive, arrogant rich.
The director is getting this imagery from the Guy Fawkes V for Vendetta masks popping up in real world protests everywhere, including Egypt and even Israel, but it doesn’t feel out of place here at all. It’s true to Trump-era America but also thoroughly believable for the 1980s too. (One scene I especially liked was in a grandiose movie theatre with the balcony seats, something I experienced myself in my youth, and sorely miss in this bloody impersonal world of multiplexes).
I’d also wager this is a more accurately plausible picture of Thomas Wayne than the one we’re usually fed in the Batman movies and comics, a fresh reminder to keep business out of politics. That being said, the oppressed aren’t all that innocent themselves and you do feel that envy enters into the picture, even with someone as tormented as Arthur. Gotham is portrayed as a city where everyone’s got a chip on his or her shoulder. It’s not all black and white and frankly shouldn’t be. Hence, the ubiquitous presence of African Americans. Arthur’s social worker is black. His nextdoor neighbour, whom he falls in love with – the confidently sexy Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) – is black, as is the obnoxious lady on the bus that picks on him, and the worker at the mental hospital who consoles him at one point in the story. All of this is meant to highlight the plight of the minority, the ‘little’ man, and the fact that anyone can be a minority in this country regardless of the colour of their skin.
That explains the curious case of Arthur’s mother and how in love she was with the success story that is Thomas Wayne. She’s a minority herself but doesn’t know it, trusting blindly in the system, whether it be the incompetent mayor or the upper class, represented by Thomas Wayne. I’d even wager she’s a stand-in for America, the ever trusting country enamoured by the success and power of others. That also explains the midget at the clown company Arthur works at, the only person who sympathises with him, and so the only person Arthur spares. Not to forget what minorities can do when pushed too far, which explains the black kids that beat up Arthur in his clown outfit early on in the movies. Arthur’s endless staring into the mirror is a wakeup call for Americans to take a long, hard look in the mirror too, to see what’s become of their country and themselves.
You can see this even in the young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson). You feel he is isolated himself. He doesn’t seem to have any friends apart from the butler and the boy never smiles and doesn’t even emotionally react when he sees his parents being murdered.
Wealth doesn’t buy happiness or peace of mind, let alone security in a world of have-nots that you made into have-nots!!