Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) is the story of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Pheonix), his mental decline, and his underdog rise as an anarchist-extremist.
No doubt fans of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s long-standing antagonist went into a screening of Joker prepared to compare the two portrayals. Even I, despite not being a massive fan of the character or even the franchise, bought into the idea that Pheonix’s Joker must somehow pale in comparison. I assumed that Phillips would take some cues from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in creating his new version of The Joker, but he surprised me by how absolutely he managed to transform the character and my perception of him.
In outlining Joker’s past, his motivations, and his desires, Phillips succeeds in creating a realistic backstory that portrays Arthur as a vulnerable man who, as the rising action mounts, becomes more and more disillusioned by a society that has rejected him every step of the way. In the beginning, it is hard not to see Arthur’s outbursts as him simply standing up for himself against the elitist bullies that dominate Gotham City and who see a disabled, unprotected man like Arthur as an easy target.
Having found his defence in the cold grip of a gun, Arthur’s newfound confidence creates previously unimaginable opportunities to extend his social reach and express his rage against the capitalist machine in Gotham
Joker is the proletariat uprising that Marx always dreamed of. The archetypal bourgeoise/proletariat narrative is blindingly obvious within the film, which, I think, does not detract from the narrative at all. The characters that represent the bourgeoisie, such as Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen) are somewhat two-dimensional in that they do not stray far from their purpose of spurring Arthur’s evolution on; in one memorable scene, memorable because it was almost laughable in that the opposition could not have been any clearer, Arthur asks Thomas for ‘a bit of warmth’ and Thomas, brace yourself, punches him in the face.
Then again, Joker is told from Arthur’s unreliable perspective. Perhaps extremists, or those with extremist beginnings, are apt to only see the bad. Maybe it is a given that Arthur would turn the TV on just as Thomas who, at this time, declares his intention to run for Major, calls the working class people of Gotham City ‘clowns’.
Critical reception to Joker is split, with half of the reviewers labelling the film as a disappointing flop. I wonder whether this is because the film focusses much more on the underbelly of sensationalism, the step-by-step disenchantment Arthur experiences, rather than rash actions with no reason attached that TV News plasters across every platform.
I think that some people do not want to see Joker as just a man, or, more specifically, a man with a disability, and would instead prefer to believe that extremism grows from something us normal people cannot understand or counteract. Whilst Arthur’s triumph at the end of the film does not make me want to cheer for him, I do see the ending as the beginning of a revolution which, however needlessly violent and incendiary, is a reaction to poor living conditions and the desire for a more level playing field.
My heart ached for Arthur. Joker is so compelling because the audience is welcomed, for what feels like the first time in the history of mainstream box office action films, into the world of the mentally ill. Pheonix and Phillips take the vaudeville-esque mask away from the previous, more cartoonish depictions of The Joker, and align him more with the superhero; in movies like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Iron Man (2008), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) the audience sees the loses, the betrayals, and the ultimate rise to power as the protagonists evolve and become more self-assured. This is all paralleled within Joker, and serves to show the fine-line balance between good and evil, especially when we see how mistreated Arthur is.
Much critical debate has surrounded what the film could cause. Could it cause extremism in young men? Could we see a rise in gun violence? Critical thought about Joker seems to forget that Arthur was lashing out against the system; cuts in mental health funding, long hours for low wages, abuse, to name just a few among a long list of other inequalities between the rich and the poor. Instead of rejecting art that clearly displays the ways in which these inequalities can create rebellious movements, perhaps critics should take a look at their own government and how it works to help the poor and vulnerable.