Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen
19 days post-Joker release and the final verdict is in: the people like Joker, maybe a bit too much, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t take me wrong, the neoliberal establishment and I do not share concerns over this film. You won’t find any alt-right dog whistles or provocations of mass murder anywhere in Hangover director Todd Phillips’ Joker movie. Instead you’ll find a compelling-enough illustration of the consequential failure of capitalism and austerity politics. What radicalizes Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) into the evil Joker isn’t insanity or enraged entitlement (like the Wall Street goons Fleck kills in self-defense early on), it’s the socio-political and economic disdain towards the impoverished made hegemonic by the elite that specifically precipitates his “descent.”
Todd Phillips’ Joker follows vaguely-employed clown and aspiring stand-up comic Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who’s quickly approaching the end of his proverbial rope. He makes a meager living waving around going-out-of-business signs and entertaining hospital children to support his ailing mother, played by Frances Conroy (American Horror Story), who like him, suffers from socially debilitating mental illness. Arthur’s mother is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), your template neoliberal billionaire running for mayor in Gotham who also happens to be our main connection to the Batman/extended DC universe Phillips and company have been trying so hard to distance themselves from. Regardless, Thomas Wayne – and his son Bruce in a mostly passive capacity – plays a pretty major part in Arthur’s “transformation.” I quote that last word because the film’s job of conveying that ideological transformation is where the greatest faults lie.
The popular discourse around Joker has been aggravating to say the least. Lots of bad faith assessments both for and against Phillips’ frankly confused picture. The director’s public statements dishonestly blaming “the Left” for the neoliberal media’s absurd slant on the provocative tent-pole as well as his lazy excuse of “woke culture” sullying his ability to make comedies do Joker‘s thesis no favors, only obfuscating an otherwise transgressive piece of relevant mass media. That said, the existential panic around the film destroying society isn’t entirely unjustified; capitalist actors are right to impulsively vilify Joker for its revolutionary narrative context. The back drop of the film sees the city in the midst of rising class warfare, with protest signs in the background calling to “kill the rich” and point capitalism out by name, but Phillips makes an odd choice to downplay the political moment in favor of Fleck’s various preoccupations, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the very notion of a broken system broken in the name of exploitation wasn’t the crux of the film’s climatic talk-show scene. Whether Phillips is ill-equipped to confidently deal in the subject matter or simply has no idea what he’s doing doesn’t matter to glean the film’s visceral opportunity to rage against this unjustly manufactured society and those who buttress it.
Joker is nowhere near a complete lost cause, but it’s no crowning achievement of cinema either. At best, it’s literally the only current era comic book film to even vaguely challenge the nature of the status quo. That’s good enough for me.
*If you liked ‘Joker’ check out Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994) and my piece on that film here!