[Note: This essay contains many spoilers for the Joker movie.]
Anyone can make a comic book but most of the space on retail shelves is already spoken for by one of two companies: Marvel or DC. DC is owned by Warner Bros., which was recently swallowed up by AT&T. Movie adaptations have been an important part of how DC does business at least since Christopher Reeve’s first flight as Superman in 1978. However, over the last decade and change, Marvel (bought by Disney in 2009) has shown up DC with its Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. One movie built on the next for a string of about 20 box office wallet busters.
The MCU was so successful that DC attempted to do something similar, a DC Extended Universe. Then the live action Justice League movie opened. It was a commercial and critical flop that was made worse by its late-in-the-game development hell. Director Zack Snyder left the movie, citing the suicide of his daughter Autumn, and Avengers director Joss Whedon was brought in to do an expensive salvage job. Yet Whedon was hamstrung by all kinds of things, including a mustachioed Superman who wasn’t allowed to shave.
After the Justice League debacle, word went out from Warner Bros. that the DCEU wasn’t a concern anymore. They would just go back to making regular old movies. That decision made director Todd Phillips’ Joker possible, and it’s making AT&T a lot of money. The $96 million opening weekend at the domestic box office was “the largest October domestic opening weekend of all-time and the fourth largest opening ever for an R-rated feature,” reports BoxOfficeMojo.com. Joker beat Justice League’s opening weekend haul and set a new bar for Tuesday box office in October, the night I saw it.
Joker is a period film (set in the 1970s or early ‘80s) starring the character actor Joaquin Phoenix. “Phoenix is a fucking beast,” effused Spanish comic book artist Ibai Canales about the actor’s turn in Joker, and he’s not wrong. There are long stretches without dialogue, where we see Phoenix walking, riding public transportation, or just sitting at home alone. It sounds boring, but the actor’s ridiculously large presence had viewers (including this one) glued to the screen.
The story: Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man pushing middle age who lives with his aged mother in Gotham City’s projects. He scratches up money as a clown-for-hire, dancing and waving a sign to get folks into your business or dancing for the kids at the children’s hospital. In his spare time, he writes out jokes in a notebook and tries them out in stand-up sets at a comedy club. And he’s usually the only person laughing.
In fact, Arthur bombs at all the normal things he tries. Part of his failure is dumb luck, part stems from a truly horrific childhood, and part comes from his volatile constitution. Arthur is on seven different medications. He laughs uncontrollably in response to stresses, which Phoenix turns into moments that elicit deep pity from the audience. We all understand what it’s like when our bodies decide to take us for a ride.
Arthur discovers his true self in violence. Three well-to-do thugs viciously beat him on a Gotham subway train, but this time a colleague has given him Chekhov’s gun. In a scene that has echoes of the Bernie Goetz case, Arthur shoots them all down, first for self-defense and then for sport. Because he is in full clown regalia, he accidentally prompts a painted protest movement against Gotham’s rich and powerful. Think Juggalos meet Antifa.
Except that Antifa is out of place here. This is very much a throwback movie, recycling themes that were popular in 1970s cinema: alienation, near total skepticism of authorities, public neglect, and, of course, nihilism. Just in case we missed that last part, Arthur helpfully reminds a live studio audience, “I don’t believe in anything,” before putting a bullet into his former hero’s head.
Most criticisms of Joker misfire badly, and show just how dumb current day, intersectional obsessions with victimology have made us. The movie is “problematic,” claimed many brain-dead critics, principally because Arthur is a white male who metes out violence. Except: most of his victims are white males, and privileged ones to boot. He is said to be racist, even though his interactions with African Americans simply do not bear that out. And even if they did, so what? This is the story of the rise of a great villain. Arthur becomes Joker, the “clown prince of crime.” He can’t be guilty of thoughtcrimes too?
The movie is said to be a rallying cry for Trumpian “incels,” which seems a huge stretch. The audience I saw it with skewed young but was quite mixed, at least set against the local population of Bellingham, Washington. Many women watched and didn’t seem put off. There were no obvious huffy walkouts. It seems the film’s real sin is that director Phillips doesn’t care for most modern political obsessions, right or left, and is vocal about it. He didn’t want our temporary concerns to drag this timeless story down. This may make the Oscar gods angry, but future cinephiles should be glad that he resisted.
Finally, for the diehard comic book fan, Joker offers, withdraws, and offers again the best possible explanation for why Batman doesn’t ever kill his nemesis. Arthur briefly comes to believe that he is the bastard son of Thomas Wayne, father of a young Bruce Wayne. Thomas denies this and punches Arthur in the nose for the suggestion (and for meeting his legitimate son). What records exist are seemingly on the elder Wayne’s side. But again, this is a very ‘70s movie and authorities are not to be trusted. We see a note on a photo of his mother that reopens the question.
One serious ethical dilemma many critics have faulted Batman for not facing head on is: why do you keep returning the Joker to Arkham Asylum if you know from experience that he is going to escape again to terrorize and kill more people? The inference isn’t necessarily that Batman must kill Joker, yet he has saved Joker from death many times. Why do that, if saving him will doom innocent people? The comics don’t offer a good answer, but this movie suggests one. What if Batman tolerates Joker because he suspects he really is his older half-brother who was badly done by their father? After all, familial guilt makes people do all kinds of crazy things—in real life and in the funny books.
Jeremy Lott is creator of the comic book Movie Men.