"Joker" is a controversial picture, although I suspect some of the political criticisms and, more so, the fearmongering over the threat of life imitating art will die down in time, and the latter is surely fueled largely by memories of the Aurora, Colorado shooting during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) and, due to this movie's similarity to "Taxi Driver" (1976), the history of John Hinckley Jr. taking inspiration from Martin Scorsese's film in his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, the divisiveness, in a way, suits an origin story of Batman's psychopathic and sadistic arch nemesis. He's not a hero; he's the clown prince of crime. Despite the uproar, there's nothing especially groundbreaking about "Joker." It's a darker and more realistic and serious comic-book movie in the tradition of the Dark Knight trilogy, "Logan" (2017), or some of Zack Snyder's superhero adaptations (i.e. not "Justice League" (2017)). Other supervillain origin stories have followed different well-trodden paths: "Venom" (2018) is the usual mostly-bloodless and CGI-intoxicated light treatment, as most successfully branded by the MCU; "Split" (2016) and "Brightburn" (2019) are part of the horror genre; and "Suicide Squad" (2016) is garbage. It's all been done before. The novelty of "Joker," then, is that it doesn't feature the usual dual narrative (also common of musicals such as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film "Shall We Dance" (1937) that Arthur Fleck watches on TV in one scene) of superhero and supervillain, although a young Bruce Wayne is an ancillary character here, or the focus on an entire team of superheroes as in the other dark comic-book features.
While some commenters seem to forget the basis of "Joker" in that respect, every critic worth their salt has mentioned--and often denounced as derivative--the picture's debt to the films of Scorsese, namely "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" (1983). Most films are derivative, although I suppose "Joker" goes further with its mirroring those films' storylines and themes than, say, the general genre borrowings of the Dark Knight trilogy with film noir or "Logan" and the Western. As in Scorsese's films, the protagonist here is a mentally-ill loner with a precarious grip on reality. Like Travis Bickle, Fleck goes on a killing spree amid a political election (in this case, Bruce Wayne's father running for Gotham mayor on the Ayn Rand plutocracy ticket). And, like Rupert Pupkin, he's an aspiring and unsuccessful stand-up comedian and avid follower of a late-night TV talk show--including, inevitably, confronting the show's host. Much has been made, justifiably, of Joaquin Phoenix's performance, which compliments nicely as a character study to the more symbolic role, of a Joker without origins, inhabited by Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (2008). Perhaps, not enough has been said, however, of the perfect casting here of Robert De Niro. Obviously, the Joker can and has been portrayed well by different actors (and not so well by still others), but the part of Murray Franklin, the talk-show host, wouldn't work with anyone besides De Niro. The homage to the Scorsese films and De Niro's parts in them as Bickle and Pupkin would be lost otherwise.
"Joker" also reminds me a bit of "Fight Club" (1999) in its "mind-game" film-type shifts between fantasy and reality, with an inversion of the delusion over a romantic relationship. Both pictures also feature violent, populist retribution being taken upon society by mostly, if not all, white men, although "Joker," like most mainstream fare, is intentionally too ambiguous to pin down a coherent socio-political message. Is Thomas Wayne's labelling some people "clowns" reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" remarks? Does it recall fellow-proclaimed-billionaire Donald Trump's habits of name calling or his involvement in the so-called "Central Park Five" case and the term of "super-predator" employed in the 1990s? Does it matter? The Joker even insists that he has no political views--right before he begins a diatribe on those very views. He's an agent of anarchy and chaos, as was Ledger's iteration. His killing spree is born of self-defence and expands to filling the void in his life left by no romantic love, no friends, lack of social services and medical attention, professional setbacks, mommy issues and daddy issues, repeated abuses, and his socially-stigmatizing involuntary laughter.
Stylistically, "Joker" seems derivative, too, in the gritty look of a mid-budget arthouse production and shaky camera focus on the disturbed head of its protagonist. The Gotham here is decidedly a reflection of 1970s-1980s New York. I'm more interested in the cinematic self-reflexivity, though. The frequent shots of Joker looking in mirrors reinforces the character's psychology, but mirrors may also be considered as analogues to motion pictures, which likewise captures images and reflects them back to us. Ditto the fantasy-reality dichotomy in a movie that aims for realism in the superhero genre dominated by fantasy--and within an art form that already is arguably both objective recorder of reality and instrument of illusion making. The mirror motif is especially apt for a movie that conspicuously imitates other movies and which features films-within-the-film. Besides the Astaire-Rogers musical, the Joker's dancing also reflects back upon Charlie Chaplin's silent masterpiece of the Great Depression, "Modern Times" (1936)--specifically, the roller-skating sequence. It's ironic, too, that while Joker sneaks into the theatre, in the guise of an employee, the wealthy Waynes sit in prized seats for the Tramp's, the most famous clown of the silent era, comedic social commentary on economic inequality. The other apt film reference here is one that has apparently been around in Batman lore for a while now, which is to Zorro films. Douglas Fairbanks basically became the first film superhero when he put on the mask and began swashbuckling in "The Mark of Zorro" (1920). For the early '80s setting of "Joker," the showing the Wayne family exits on that fateful night this time is "Zorro, The Gay Blade" (1981).
To top if off, this is the most performative Joker yet. He's always been disguised as a clown, which suggest performance, but here he's employed as one. Moreover, he aims to be a stand-up comedian, and he appears as a talk-show guest on TV after spending most of the movie as mere spectator to the boob tube. His killing of three yuppies also inspires others to wear clown masks and, eventually, to make performance art into a riot. Sure, "Joker" is disturbingly violent art, but art nonetheless.
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