Joker: The Rise of A New Kind of Comic Book Film?

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

The growing love affair between the modern viewer and the comic book film is no secret. And with superhero films like Iron Man (2008), Wonder Woman (2017), Black Panther (2018), not to mention all four Avengers movies consistently topping the box office, this trend looks set to stay. At the same time, the moral palates of modern audiences are becoming increasingly nuanced. It is no longer sufficient to throw the protagonist a cape, give him a toothpaste-commercial smile, and tell the audience, ‘Look, there’s your hero. Root for him.’ No, as the box office successes of ‘antihero’ protagonists Deadpool (2016) and Venom (2018) have proven, contemporary cinemagoers believe themselves to be more sophisticated than that. The contemporary cinemagoer craves complexity, shunning the traditional hero protagonist in favour of the more morally ambiguous, more ‘relatable’ antihero. 

Joker may only be the latest in what has been a long line of highly profitable comic book films, yet it is also the first of its kind. It is the logical conclusion of the modern cinemagoer’s twin obsessions with the comic book film genre and relatable protagonists: a comic book film featuring a villain protagonist, one who receives no redemption by the end of the film.

After the disappointment that was Suicide Squad (2016), which featured the Joker for a mere fraction of its 2h 17min runtime despite teasing otherwise in the trailer, Joker feels almost like it could be an apology letter to the fans. But is it a good one? 

WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS FOR JOKER (2019) AHEAD.

Like the quintessential comic book film, Joker uses fiction to take a stand on what is non-fiction, highlighting pertinent societal issues affecting today’s world—widening socioeconomic inequality, civil unrest, and society’s treatment of the mentally ill. 

Gotham City, plagued by problems ranging from ‘super rats’ to the shutting down of welfare services, set against a backdrop of growing public discontentment towards ivory-tower elites, feels almost like it could be any city in our world. In fact, socioeconomic inequality and the class divide featured prominently in the local headlines last year, becoming buzzwords in Singapore with the publication of This Is What Inequality Looks Like and findings from a OnePeople.sg survey which revealed that almost half of 1,036 respondents felt that income inequality was most likely to cause a social divide in Singapore, above race and religion. Back in the world of Joker, Mayor-hopeful Thomas Wayne is portrayed as a privileged, out-of-touch politician who casually dismisses the struggling citizens of Gotham as ‘clowns’. “Maybe you don’t realise it, but I’m your only hope,” he says at one point while delivering an address on television. Even knowing who he is (the father of Bruce Wayne, the eventual Batman), there is something about Wayne’s smugness that leaves a foul taste in the audience’s mouth. While the Wayne Corporation rakes in big bucks, funding is cut for social services, which is what causes Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes the Joker, to lose access to the medication he takes to manage his uncontrollable laughter. “They don’t give a sh*t about people like you, Arthur,” the social worker says. “And they really don’t give a sh*t about people like me either.” While it is the Joker’s actions which serve as a catalyst for the resulting social unrest seen later on in the film, it is hard to argue that the seeds of chaos and resentment were not already sown much earlier by Gotham’s class divide. 

Society’s mistreatment of Arthur as a mentally-ill man is also uncomfortably familiar. The opening minutes of the film set the tone for the kind of movie that this is going to be, when Arthur is harassed at work by a mob of teenage thugs who steal his sign, make him chase them down a busy street to get it back, and then corner and beat him up in an alley. On a bus, he is told off by a passenger for playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with her child. When this triggers his uncontrollable laughter and he apologetically hands her a card explaining his condition, she reads it and reacts with disgust. He gets battered on a train by three businessmen on a train when they think he is laughing at their expense, prompting him to shoot them. “Is it real, or is it some sort of clown thing?” one of the policemen who come round to investigate the shooting asks about Arthur’s laughter, echoing the kinds of remarks that people with mental illness often hear from people who believe that mental illnesses “are not real”. Arthur’s circumstances become even more heartbreakingly tragic when you realise that his condition was likely caused by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend as a child. 

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The Joker is easily one of DC’s most compelling villains, and the events of Joker spin him a believable, satisfying backstory, painting him as a sympathetic figure to be empathised with. Despite the horrific acts he commits in the later part of the film, a small part of the viewer can’t help but continue to see him as the boy whose “purpose was to bring laughter and joy into this cold, dark world”. Joker makes you question the Joker’s villain status: what makes a villain like the Joker fundamentally different from an anti-hero like Deadpool? What makes an assassin like Wade Wilson any better of a man than Arthur Fleck? Can any part of the blame for the Joker’s killing rampage be laid at the door of the society which has “treated him like trash”?

Yet, Joker also offers up clues that the film we are watching is heavily coloured by Arthur’s perspective and cannot be taken entirely at face value. Arthur is shown to be an unreliable narrator, most memorably in the scene where he shows up in the living room of the female neighbour whom he met earlier in the lift. For a large part of the film, we see Arthur having meaningful interactions with the neighbour—in his flat, at the comedy club, on the street—and are led to believe that the two are in a romantic relationship. However, the confusion and fear on the woman’s face when he shows up in her flat tells otherwise. “Your name’s Arthur, right?” she asks, sounding terrified, revealing that their interaction in the lift was the last time she saw Arthur. She has no idea who he is, and Arthur was actually alone the whole time in all the sequences featuring the two of them together. This casts doubt on Arthur’s credibility, causing the audience to wonder what else he might be hiding from us. Did the people he hurt really deserve it as much as he has led us to believe they did? How much of what we see in Joker is real and how much of it is a mere figment of Arthur’s imagination?

And ultimately, that seems to be one of Arthur’s biggest problems: his inability to tell the difference between a person and a persona. Arthur is shattered when his idol, comedian Murray Franklin, mocks him on his show, when that was all Arthur ever dreamed of. But when we see Murray Franklin in the dressing room with Arthur later on in the movie, the former appears to be very down-to-earth and nothing at all like his biting on-stage persona, making it clear that his derision of Arthur was simply business, show business. Yet, Arthur seems to take this as a personal betrayal from his idol, unable to see the difference between Murray Franklin the TV host and Murray Franklin the man. Arthur’s other problem is his need for someone to love him, his desperate desire to please the people around him and endear himself to them. This might be the crux of the issue: he cares about other people too much. At first glance, that might seem to be a positive trait, but one of the hallmarks of the Greek genre of tragedy was the hamartia, or fatal flaw. The hamartia was often a positive characteristic which, when taken to the extreme, led to the hero’s downfall. The subtle nod to antiquity makes the Joker’s downward spiral even more satisfying of a tragic origin story.

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy but now I realise, it’s a f***ng comedy.”

Say what you will about Joker’s gratuitous violence and its controversially sympathetic portrayal of a conscienceless mass murderer; you can’t deny that it is a very ‘pretty’ film. In contrast to the gritty, washed-out colours of the DCEU films, Joker has opted for a vivid primary colour palette that makes the reds, blues, and yellows pop against the sea of grey and black that is Gotham City. Incidentally, these were also the colours that made up the Joker’s final costume. Colour also seemed to serve a narrative purpose here: the protagonist’s outfits started out dull and got brighter as the film progressed, moving in the opposite direction from the film’s tone, which only got bleaker and bleaker. 

While most would agree that no one could ever top Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was certainly commendable and it was clear that Phoenix took cues from Ledger’s Joker in ways beyond the stringy green hair. The Joker’s characteristic nihilism really shone through in Phoenix’s portrayal, staying true to what makes the Joker, well, the Joker. 

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“All of you, the system who knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong the same way you decide what’s funny or not.”

In classic Joker unpredictability, the film was unafraid to subvert the audience’s expectations. On the scene-level, this played out in little subversions such as Arthur unexpectedly sparing his coworker and fellow clown Gary, when the audience fully expected him to only pretend to let the dwarf go and then knife him in the back once the man thought he was safe. I will be the first to admit that I sat on the edge of my seat, heart pounding in my chest during that scene, waiting for a knife that never came. Arthur’s reasoning for the move? “You were one of the ones who was nice to me.”

On the larger film-level, the filmmakers made a bold move in presenting what was a deeply-satisfying theory of Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck being half-brothers, only to jettison it moments later with the revelation that Arthur was actually adopted and his mother was delusional. A part of me mourned the loss of that beautiful theory, which would have added a whole new level of mutual interdependence to Batman and Joker’s deeply complicated, yin-yang, ‘you complete me’ psychological relationship, previously covered in other Batman/Joker films such as The Dark Knight, as well as the more lighthearted Lego Batman Movie (2017). Of course, we don’t know for sure that Penny’s file wasn’t planted by Thomas Wayne for Arthur to find in Arkham Asylum (why did the administrator take so long to retrieve the file; was it really just because it’s been in storage for 30 years?), given his position of power and influence in Gotham City. Time to break out those tinfoil hats.

If there was one thing I didn’t enjoy about Joker, it was probably the film’s seemingly gratuitous depiction of violence, though I will admit that this served a narrative purpose to show the Joker’s villainous descent. Joker has been famously controversial for being too gory, with several graphic scenes of gunshots. There’s even a scene where Arthur’s face is disturbingly spattered with blood after shooting a former coworker in the head. Dead bodies are left on screen with visible gunshot wounds. Several times in the course of watching the film, I was extremely grateful that I had not succumbed to temptation and bought a larger box of popcorn—there was no way I would have been able to finish it with such disturbing images on screen to spoil my appetite.

But apart from the shocking visual impact of such distressing scenes, the greater concern of Joker’s critics is that life might mirror art, to tragic results. The fear is that the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker, coupled with the violence depicted in the film, might inspire copycat crimes by lone gunmen. Famously, the Aurora Cinemark theatre in Colorado, where 12 were killed and 70 injured in a devastating shooting during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, is not screening Joker. In California, a movie theatre was forced to close down temporarily and cancel a few screenings of Joker following what was deemed a ‘credible threat’ by the local police. While Phoenix has claimed in an interview on Popcorn with Peter Travers that he did not believe the film would cause “homicidal ideation” and it remains unclear if this is indeed the case, many have urged Warner Bros. to use their box-office gains for good by donating to causes supporting gun reform.

With regards to Joker’s links to other DC films, Joker is a standalone and has little to nothing to do with the DCEU. After what has personally been a series of disappointing experiences with the DCEU films, I can’t say that I’m saddened by this news. While Joker might not be set in the same universe as The Dark Knight, Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) or Suicide Squad, it was chock-full of symbolism, Easter eggs, and little nods to the other Batman films. Talk about dramatic irony, when you have the future Batman’s father airing his less-than-glowing opinions on masked vigilantes.

Overall, Joker presents a great origin story that—like the Joker’s laugh—is creepy, unsettling, and oddly intriguing. 

If you’re looking for a feel-good superhero movie, look elsewhere. Some films make you walk out of the cinema with a feeling of empowerment, your faith in humanity restored. 

This is not one of them. 

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