Joker (2019) lashes out against the ruling elite

Does Joaquin Pheonix’s Joker live up to expectations?

5 stars

JOKER – final trailer

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 4

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’.

Joker clown costume
Arthur at work

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.

Joker without makeup
Arthur Fleck, sans mask

 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.

Cult Classics: Donnie Darko (2002)

’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That… is when the world… will end.’

What makes Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ a cult classic?

A Times article stated that: ‘”Cult” used to indicate a secret pleasure, a film you and a select band crept out late at night to see at the scuzziest cinema in town.’ Fatima Fernandez suggests a ‘more including definition‘ in which cult ‘movies were box office-bombs that were rejected by the mainstream media but ultimately embraced by a more obscure audience.’

‘Donnie Darko’  depicts a ‘tangent universe’ (bear with me), a world which is created when the fabric of the fourth dimension becomes corrupt. This new ‘tangent universe’ can only survive for so many weeks on its own before it collapses in on itself under the pressure of the audience’s incredulity.

The seasoned cult fanatic who has read all the information on the (extensive) Donnie Darko website might describe the plot as follows: the majority of Donnie Darko is set in an alternative reality that has been created by a corruption in the fabric of the fourth dimension. In this tangent universe the protagonist (Donnie) is visited by a man in a rabbit costume (Frank) who tells him ’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That… is when the world… will end.’ Frank guides him on his journey to send the artifact (the jet engine that falls into Donnie’s bedroom) back to the present universe to stop the corrupt fabric of time destroying the real (present) universe.

donnie darko frank

Frank, an individual who has died in the tangent universe while at a costume party, is one of the ‘Manipulated dead,’ someone who understands that they are operating in an alternative reality. Frank, along with the ‘Manipulated Living,’ further Donnie on his journey to fixing the deteriorating fabric of reality. It should be noted that the ‘Manipulated Dead’ have a greater impact upon Donnie’s journey than the ‘Manipulated Living,’ as the former group have a better understanding of what steps need to be taken to repair the reality vortex.

And breathe.

To add another layer to the Richard Kelly’s narrative, at first Donnie does not understand that he is in an alternative reality. It is only with the aid of Frank and the others that he begins to understand that he alone can stop the world ending in ’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes’ and ‘…12 seconds.’ No one could understand such a complicated movie on the first viewing: I only understand it (partially) because Kelly created ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel,‘ a book which one of the characters wrote that is only available on the Donnie Darko website. So what drove the first time audience of Donnie Darko to watch it a second, third, or even fourth time?

Donnie Darko was not well received. The Domestic Total Gross was $517,375, nothing compared to Pulp Fiction’s $107,928,762 gross. Both are cult classic films, so what made Donnie Darko’s reception so poor?

The film was released not long after the September 11th attacks, which meant that there was little advertising by the production company and little desire to see the movie for the American public. It only grossed $110,494 on its opening weekend, and all signs pointed to writer and director Richard Kelly’s second film being a ‘box office-bomb.’

Luckily for Kelly, VHS and DVD saved ‘Donnie Darko.’ In New York the Pioneer Theatre held night time screenings of the film for over two years. Peter Bradshaw attributes the renewed interest in the film to its re-release, stating that ‘Donnie Darko has a political and satirical flavour that wasn’t as strong at the time: it is set in 1988, the chastened end of Ronald Reagan’s comforting reign.’ He does not specify what this political undertone is.

donnie darko halloween

‘Donnie Darko’ seems to more accurately fit in with Fernandez’s suggestion that cult classics do poorly at the box office and are then rejuvenated, although the film has too broad an audience to be considered an ‘obscure’ audience. Maybe ‘Donnie Darko’ would have been an immediate hit if the timing had been better, if the advertising had been stronger. Maybe, as Richard Kelly said about his 2002 science fiction, reality bending story about a 16-year-old boy entrusted with saving reality as we know it, ‘Sometimes films need time to marinate.’