By: Ian Edwards and Spring Cheng
Photo Courtesy of: Warner Bros. Entertainment/ Niko Tavernise
The theater was fairly full for the 10 p.m. showing of “Joker” on Oct. 4. Not absolutely packed, but enough that you would have to graze a few elbows to walk down the aisle. Overall, it seemed to be a relatively standard opening day for a film; a far cry from the hysteria that had been predicted by the media.
Directed by Todd Phillips, “Joker” made a staggering $96 million during its first weekend box office. This set a new record for an October release. Phillips claimed in his official interview for the Venice International Film Festival, to have sought inspiration from late 1900s cinema, drawing from films ranging from “The King of Comedy” to “Dog Day Afternoon.” Since “Joker” is set in the year 1981, he wanted it to portray a movie that could have been filmed in the same era. Another film that it takes stylistic cues from is “Taxi Driver,” which taps into the economic anxieties of that era. However, the film that can most help us understand this film is “Network.” The film centers itself around Howard Beale, a newscaster who discovers through an announcement of his suicide that he can say whatever he wants. This eventually results in him becoming an “American Prophet,” preaching polemic on late-night TV. This connection is made apparent when Fleck is watching television with his live-in mother, Penny Fleck (portrayed by impeccable Frances Conroy). He fantasizes about being in the studio audience of “Live with Murray Franklin,” a fictional late-night comedy hour hosted by rat-pack adjacent family comedian Murray Franklin (portrayed by Robert De Niro). Fleck is called up from the audience and embraced by Franklin himself as a kind of Freudian paternal fantasy.
The entire movie is open to interpretation due to the fact that the Joker is rendered delusional and therefore his narrative is unreliable. This has gifted the film a dynamic quality where the Joker’s “becoming” could be ambiguous or even retold again and again. According to the LA Times, Phillips and Scott Silver deemed the common origin story of Joker, in which he falls into a toxic tank of chemicals and was disfigured, as illogical and modified it to retain a sense of realness.
The movie starts with Joaquin Phoenix staring longingly into a mirror at a reflection of his own makeup, trying desperately to force a smile — as we all do from time to time. From there we see our Joker, who is known as Arthur Fleck, spinning a sign outside of a storefront, getting his sign stolen by some teenagers, chasing after said teens and then being beaten with that same sign. This sort of thing becomes a recurring theme throughout the film. This depiction of the Joker as a sad and downtrodden little man is honestly quite a unique one in the canon of “Batman” mythology. That inciting incident propels Fleck into a series of more and more precarious happenings. His mental illness leads him further down a troubled path in an already fractured society and he begins a chain of bloody crimes only to discover more truths that fuel his anguish. He initiates a revolution among the low-lives of the city.
Every event reflects the setting of this era in American urban-life such as the decaying social support and public infrastructure, gun violence, vast wealth inequality and general social paranoia. The parallels between the ‘70s and now are too obvious to ignore but the movie rarely makes it overtly allegorical. Newspapers sporting the headline “Kill the Rich” and mobs of clowns terrorizing the streets are situations that are reminiscent of the perceived violent tendencies attributed to movements like Occupy Wallstreet and Antifa.
The movie does a fair job of showing the Joker’s dissatisfaction as being a dissatisfaction that is shared by society at large. Some of the most intimate connections within the film are with the Joker and his social worker, such as when she explains to him that the people in charge, “don’t give a f— about you, and they really don’t give a f— about people like me either.”
Phoenix outdid himself with his take on the character. On top of losing 52 pounds in preparation for the film, he also accepted the director’s advice to be “authentic” and did not look to previous actors who played Joker for inspiration. The resulting creation was a criminal wielding a pathological laughter, a character so horrific that the audience would not be able to identify with him. Fleck has a degenerative condition that leaves him with an exaggerated laugh whenever he experiences any emotional distress. The audience soon discovers that this disorder comes from brain damage which was caused by being chained to a radiator as a child. The thin services that he receives when he was released from the Arkham asylum get cut in the middle of the film, leaving him without a job or medication.
The movie created controversy because it was seen as glorifying violence and was deemed triggering towards the mentally unstable. However, the film simply showcases the ineffable conversations that a culture as lonely as ours presents. This particular Joker has made the enduring case that DC comic adaptations can thrive on a real budget and as standalone films with no sequels. With its intrinsic uniqueness, the movie could still encompass the same charisma even without the existence of DC Comics.
Still, the film is by no means a masterpiece. It did not need to contain the violence against women that it has. Fleck murdering his mother and stalking Sophie did not give the character any depth. It was a symbolic death when he releases his connection to these women and it belies a certain masculine nihilism associating itself with mass politics in the United States.
Overall, “Joker” is a well-made film that makes parallels between the modern day and the 1970s. However, the film is not really able to tie those parallels together completely.