Sunday, October 27, 2019

No, Really, Why So Serious? Or, Why JOKER Doesn't Work.

There are lots of times when my opinions on pop culture don’t line up with the mainstream. That’s been the case my entire life. But there are also times when I find myself at odds with people of usually like-minded opinions. Such is the case with a movie most of my fanboy friends are rallying behind, one that left such a bad taste in my mouth I had to take to these here Internets to get some things off my chest about JOKER.

SPOILER ALERT! Many spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.

From the initial announcement, I was not really jazzed about this movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Batman mythos, and think the Joker is perhaps the greatest supervillain of them all. But one of the things that makes the Joker so great is that, since his introduction in Batman #1 in 1940, he’s remained a mystery. In eight decades of Joker stories in the comics, he’s never had a real name or a full backstory (aside from a 1951 explanation of how he got his distinctive appearance). Sure, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke gave him an ostensible origin, but that tale was (a) not supposed to be considered in-continuity (despite becoming so retroactively) and (b) acknowledged in-story as perhaps being an unreliable memory of the Joker (“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”). Gee, that sounds familiar, no? 

We know that the Joker is nuts. We know that he’s dangerous. That’s really all we need to know. As such, the prospect of a full-length motion picture origin for this character wasn’t something that held any interest for me.

Also, I rankled at the idea of making Joker the protagonist of a film. True, he’s popular enough to warrant it, but that doesn’t matter. The Joker without Batman is like doing a Professor Moriarty film without Sherlock Holmes. What is the point? In the 1970s, DC Comics gave the Joker his own solo series, one that lasted only nine issues. One of the reasons for the title’s failure was that DC found it difficult to make the “Clown Prince of Crime” function as the lead. He worked best… worked only, in fact… as the villain, as the antagonist, preferably towards the Batman. Numerous “solo” Joker graphic novels in the decades since almost (if not) always included the Caped Crusader as a nemesis.

The view from my apartment
But I decided to go see JOKER for two main reasons: First, parts of the movie were filmed in the towns where I live (Newark, NJ) and work (Jersey City), and I was curious to see them onscreen. The entire opening scene of the movie takes place on the very block on which I live (I could see the set from my window), and some friends and I dumpster dived for set memorabilia after Market Street had been returned from its faux 1980s Gotham City dilapidation to its current actual dilapidation. 

The other, primary reason I had to see JOKER is that once it came out, practically every person I’ve ever met in my life was asking what I thought.

So I went (by myself, hoping not to set off any alarm bells amongst the incel-fearing staff). And yep. My instincts were right. Didn’t like it.

It’s not that JOKER is poorly made. It accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s just that I hate what it sets out to do. By giving the Joker a sympathetic backstory and making him the anti-hero of the tale, JOKER commits the cardinal sin of comic book adaptations: It utterly misses the point and the essence of the character.

Now, before you start accusing me of being an intractable pedant, I understand what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix were trying to do. I get that this is a different take on a well-established character. But in every conceivable way, it’s wrong. Arthur Fleck never feels like the Joker. He feels like (as was widely presumed from pre-release materials) an amalgamation of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin in clown makeup. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance reeks of pathos, anxiety, depression, delusion, paranoia, and instability, but he never comes close to evoking the terrifying, sheer anarchic malevolence of (you knew I was going here) Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT.

I realize that this movie ain’t that movie, but comparisons are inevitable (to this and every other version of the Joker). Prior to TDK, we had Cesar Romero’s campy gagster (fine within context) and Jack Nicholson’s wannabe artiste (too likeable and Jack-Nicholsony, just one of innumerable flaws in Tim Burton’s stiff melodrama), neither of which truly captured the essence of the character created by Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and/or Bob Kane (the precise creative provenance will forever be in dispute).

But then came 2008, and Christopher Nolan’s Bat-masterpiece, THE DARK KNIGHT, at long last giving Batman fans a Joker for whom they’d longed. What Nolan (along with co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) understood was that in order for the Joker to be a truly horrifying, existential threat to the Batman, as well as all of Gotham—cops, crooks, and gen-pop alike—he had to remain a mystery, an “agent of chaos,” someone for whom money, order, or any semblance of normalcy felt like a complete anomaly. Heath Ledger’s performance, with all its verbal and physical tics (contrast his long fingernails with Phoenix’ gnawed nubs), took what was on the page and brought it to indelible and unshakeable life. The white may have been makeup, the rictus a scar under lipstick, but godammit, this felt like the Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck isn’t the embodiment of anarchic malevolence. He’s just… pathetic. Pitable. Except of course, when he’s killing finance bros and exploitative talk show hosts. Then you’re supposed to… what, cheer for him? I guess? Or at least revel in his numerous slow-motion dances to questionable soundtrack selections?

It just felt… off. And not the kind of “off” that was the point of JOKER’s far superior antecedents, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY. It felt like the work of filmmakers who thought they were making something entirely different than what ended up onscreen. At least to me. I didn’t get any deep treatise on mental illness or metaphor for heartless capitalism, I just got... Ugly. Superfluous. And worst of all, self-indulgent.

(Also, if I can veer off of character and into plot for a second, the entirety of the Murray Franklin part of the story strains credulity at every angle. Showing the [how’d they make that?] video [without permission] in the first place [it’s not that funny], inviting Arthur on the show, letting him go on in clown makeup during a riot in which criminals are running around in clown makeup and masks, not vetting his material [or even giving him a pre-interview], not running a security check on him, letting him call the shots [pardon the pun] on his appearance, not cutting to commercial and having security haul him off the second he admitted to the subway killings, the entire subplot is comically ridiculous. If, as some have suggested, Arthur's appearance on the show is yet another of his delusions, it makes more sense, but only adds to the pointlessness of the whole thing.)

In another boneheaded twist, JOKER also gives us Thomas Wayne as a villain. Depicting Batman’s doomed dad as a power hungry, tone-deaf, rich asshole goes against the character as much as Jonathan Kent being a callous paranoiac in Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL. If Thomas Wayne has no empathy for the downtrodden of Gotham City, if he’s not using his wealth for philanthropic purposes, then his death isn’t a tragedy (or not as great a one, anyway). Also, if Thomas Wayne is Donald Trump, then that means Bruce is Donald Jr., and you know who Donald Trump Jr. doesn’t become? Motherfucking Batman, that’s who! Hell, this movie even makes Alfred into a dick! So who cares what happens to them?

Oh, right, we’re not supposed to care about the Waynes, we’re supposed to care about Arthur. He’s the star. He’s the hero. Sorry, anti-hero.

All of this role reversal might’ve been a bit easier to stomach if the movie didn’t bow to so many Batman conventions. Despite his claim of JOKER not being a DCEU film, Phillips really wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Not only do we have to yet again witness the murder of the Waynes (cascading pearls and all), there’s also an homage to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the form of the bank of TV screens after Arthur kills Murray. That’s a lot of Batman in a movie that’s not supposed to be a Batman movie.

But, as I said at the beginning, this is another case of me being woefully out of touch, with both the mainstream and much of the comic book cognoscenti. And while I’ll take this opportunity to toss in my mantra of “it’s all subjective,” this is also one of those cases where I simply do not understand how a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan can get behind this film.

The other day, one of the dozen or so ads for bootleg memorabilia that scrolls into my social media feed on a daily basis pictured a Joker tee-shirt that redrew an old Irv Novick image (of a character called Willie the Weeper from the cover of The Joker #2) in the Joaquin Phoenix outfit and makeup (which I hate, by the way…forgot to mention that), with the tagline in the ad reading, “He is the hero, not a villain (heart emoji)!” I mean, seriously… what the fuck?

Loving the character (which I do) is one thing. But you’re not supposed to side with the Joker. And, perhaps even more egregiously, when he kills people, you’re not supposed to think that’s a good thing. Unless you’re, you know, John Hinckley Jr. Or maybe Jared Leto (oof, at least the silver lining here is that hopefully we never see that guy again). 

The bottom line is, the world of JOKER is not a world where I wanna live, fictional or otherwise (even if it is on my block).

But hey, I guess that’s just me. The damn thing just became the most successful R-rated film of all time. So you guys go ahead, paint on a happy face, dance to music by pedophiles, and let the darkness wash over you. Me, I’ll go watch THE DARK KNIGHT for the 400th time and revel in a world that’s not exactly sweetness and light, but where you can at least tell the good guys from the bad.