The latest in a string of hit-or-miss efforts at re-establishing the DC superhero pantheon in film, Joker forgoes the good guys in favour of an iconic villain. The film provoked its fair share of discussion and controversy in the run-up to its release – but now that Joker has been unleashed upon the public, how does it fare?
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged man who is undergoing medication and therapy after a period in a psychiatric hospital; he still lives with his mother, but has never known his father. His mother used to work for the Wayne family (here headed by Bruce’s father Thomas, Bruce himself being a child at the time the story takes place) and holds out hope that this moneyed clan will return to rescue her and her son from their reduced means. Arthur, however, is less optimistic about the future. He works as a cheap clown, but loses this job when his overcautiousness leads him to take a handgun with him to a children’s hospital. He yearns to be a stand-up comedian, but a neurological disorder that makes him spontaneously burst into laughter ensures that this career path is over before it even starts. Bit by bit, day after day, the harsh city of Gotham wears at Arthur – until he strikes back. From then on, the media unknowingly charts his progress as he gradually transforms into the Joker.
All of this plays fast and loose with DC canon, where a major part of the Joker’s appeal is that he never had a consistent backstory. But this is part of the point of Joker, which is self-consciously presented as an antidote to superhero film formula. There are few major action sequences — certainly no CGI spectacles — and the film’s many iconic moments are created through the quaintly old-fashioned combination of acting and cinematography. Even the central moment of the climax is the Joker delivering a speech.
Bits and pieces of past Batman stories can be glimpsed throughout Joker. Arthur eventually becomes something only a short distance from Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal in The Dark Knight, for example. Other aspects of the Bat-mythos are re-invented to fit the present story. The film introduces a twist relating to the Wayne family that would doubtless inspire a round of derision among readers were it ever to be used as comic canon, but which works fine as a plot point in a self-contained film. On the whole, Joker is not particularly concerned with fidelity to either the comics or past films; it aims instead to offer a fresh take on an iconic character.
But while it departs from DC continuity, Joker does have an obvious precedent — an obvious, breathing-down-your-neck-and-repeatedly-nudging-you-in-the-back, precedent: Taxi Driver. While there are many differences between the plots of the two films, these tend to be drowned out by the similarities. Each film has an isolated, psychologically-troubled protagonist, and follows their progress towards an eventual eruption into bloody violence. Joker even shares much of Taxi Driver‘s aesthetic, its ’70s New York-style setting caked in the same grime and bathed in the same sunny hues to create something a long way from the dark deco typically associated with Gotham. Really, Martin Scorcese deserved to be credited alongside Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Robert De Niro would have done, as well, had the film not cast him as a character — beloved TV comedian Murray Franklin, who serves as Arthur’s idol and inspiration in a very meta nod to Joker‘s influences.
All of this is enough to produce severe deja vu today. Moreover, though, even had Joker been released in 1976 as a double bill with Taxi Driver, it would have been recognised as the less daring of the two films. Taxi Driver told the story of an unhinged man who, for all of his obvious failings, ended up a hero; Joker is a much more straightforward and predictable narrative of an initially-sympathetic man being turned into a villain by surrounding circumstances. Taxi Driver cultivated ambiguity and tweaked audience expectations; Joker spells out the significance of every plot point, and relies on the audience to recognize the iconic character who is assembled before their eyes.
Joker can be seen as a cinematic counterpart to DC’s Vertigo or Black Label lines, which likewise focus on unorthodox, adult-oriented visions of the DC universe. But when Alan Moore established the Vertigo ethos with his Swamp Thing run, where he incorporated the influence of sophisticated horror writers like Ramsey Campbell, he was breaking ground not only for DC’s franchise characters but for comics as a whole. A 2019 film modelled on Taxi Driver is not groundbreaking, unless looked at purely in the restricted field of superhero movies — and even then, we have already seen more inventive revisionist superhero films like 2017’s Logan and this year’s Brightburn.
But is over-similarity to an earlier film a fatal flaw? Not necessarily. On a surface level Joker does a good job of replicating its inspirations, with Joaquin Phoenix’s twitchy performance, Todd Phillips’ slick direction, Lawrence Sher’s seventies-throwback cinematography and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s orchestral soundtrack all coming together to make for a polished, immersive film.
Joker also makes a few attempts to update the Taxi Driver narrative for today’s cultural landscape. A key moment in the plot involves a clip of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up routine being broadcast on local television, to his embarrassment and humiliation; this has a definite resonance in the era of YouTube and the pitfalls of viral fame. After Arthur commits his first homicides, protesters begin taking the streets with clown masks and “eat the rich” placards — creating obvious echoes of the V for Vendetta masks worn by real-life demonstrators.
A large amount of the controversy over the film associates it with the incel subculture; this is curious, as Arthur’s sexual desires play little part in the narrative. He is motivated more by the need for a surrogate father (Thomas Wayne and De Niro’s comedian character each serving this role at one point or another) than for a lover. The film does include a subplot involving Arthur’s attraction towards Sophie, an apartment neighbour played by Zazi Beetz, but this plot thread is Joker‘s biggest misstep. It leads to a revelation that is framed as a surprising twist despite being clearly foreshadowed — a sad victim of the film’s tendency to spell things out — leaving the character of Sophie underwritten and largely irrelevant to the plot.
One of the few details not spelt out by the film is the exact point of it all. Joker is content to be something of a Rorschach blot, the audience bringing their own meanings to the nihilistic mayhem occurring onscreen. What is to blame for all of the chaos surrounding Arthur Fleck? Some viewers might pin the blame on Arthur’s own insanity — a conclusion which would obviously raise questions about sensitivity in portrayal of mental health. But it would be at least as reasonable to blame the society which fails to find a place for him. Notably, Joker has what must surely be the least favourable portrayal of the Wayne family in the history of Batman films, and allows room for sympathy with the clown-masked protesters who lambast Thomas Wayne as part of an out-of-touch elite.
But above this is the role of the media: Arthur is shaped first by the press that dubs him the Killer Clown, and then by the television that dubs him Joker. It initially seems self-contradictory that the film makes a show of avoiding comic book iconography while being ultimately built upon the recognition of a comic book icon, but this fits into Joker’s wider themes. It is a story about a troubled man who finds a purpose when he is transformed into something as archetypically monstrous as a four-colour supervillain.
It all works rather well. But it would have worked better had Arthur Fleck — even before he begins his transformation — not been modeled quite so obviously on earlier cinematic icons.