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.

Spoilers: Interactive Movie Bandersnatch Breaks the Fourth Wall

Interactive movie Bandersnatch boasts five different endings

 

Bandersnatch     def

/ˈbandəsnatʃ/

noun

a fierce mythical creature immune to bribery and capable of moving very fast

Meta isn’t the word for Charlie Brooker’s newest Black Mirror creation: Bandersnatch is the interactive story of Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a coder who attempts to adapt his favourite book (also Bandersnatch) into a game. Set in the 1980s, this nostalgia filled flick is a collision of flashbacks and turning points, all of which we see in quick succession when it is revealed we have picked the wrong option, and have to go back to point A, or B, or C.

Bandersnatch Book

Until Brooker releases a tell all interview about Bandersnatch, there is really no way of telling how many twists and turns there are. In the beginning Brooker lulls us into a false sense of security by asking us to choose between two cereals. The difficulty increases from there on out.

At first the nail-biting wait to see what effect my choices would have on Stefan’s life added some tension to Bandersnatch, but the resulting brutal violence wore away at the suspense. The audience can only watch Stefan beat his father (Craig Parkinson) to death so many times before a sense of deja vu sets in.

The consensus appears to be that there are five alternate endings, which range from prison for Stefan to tekkenesque fight scenes. The ending does not mean you are finished. When you have reached an ending or chosen the ‘wrong’ choice you can circle back and discover a new ending. Bandersnatch is about the illusion of freewill, both for Stefan and the viewer.

Bandersnatch Metal Head Easter Egg
Metal Head Easter Egg

Bandersnatch cannot be compared to any of Brooker’s other Black Mirror creations. Unlike the vibrant colours in the U. S. S. Callister, Bandersnatch paints a pallid picture. Far from the undeserved sympathy that the murderer Mia evokes in Crocodile, in Bandersnatch we see Stefan under a microscope, which means we cannot step back and see the bigger picture. Bandersnatch is a bit too much of everything at once. How can we sympathise with Stefan when we have seen it all played out before? And unlike the protagonist in Crocodile, whose motivations are laid bare, the Bandersnatch book that began Stefan’s decent into insanity is hovering somewhere off in our peripheral vision, a bit too blurry to make out.

The Bandersnatch book separates this movie from the Black Mirror theme: while Stefan’s deterioration is linked to the stress of creating his multi-choice game, Bandersnatch is much more widely linked to mental health, trauma, and obsession than it is tech. The latter is incidental to the overwhelming idea that free will is just that, an idea.

Bandersnatch

Blink and you might miss it, but Bandersnatch is also about legacy. After we have experienced each ending, we watch a game reviewer gives his verdict on Stefan’s creation. In one variation he gives it 0/5. For me, the reviewer only gave Bandersnatch 5/5 when Stefan murdered his father and chopped him into little pieces. In this timeline Stefan later told his therapist that his father was away visiting friends, and that with the house to himself he finally feels free to focus on coding. Like the murderers who want to make their mark, we go back in time and find the ending that makes Bandersnatch a critical success.

Bandersnatch breaks the fourth wall for me a bit too much. One option is to tell Stefan we are watching him on Netflix and admit that we are choosing his next move. Although this was no doubt a tongue in cheek choice meant to stir up conversation more than anything else, I still find it unnerving.

With Netflix being the perfect medium for your average couch potato, hopefully the interactive format will stay within the realm of subversive programmes like Black Mirror, and will not be rolled out across whole genres.While Bandersnatch is a masterpiece of planning and editing, I do not want to interact with the characters, and I am looking forward to the next season of Black Mirror, which I will have absolutely no input in.