In Phillips We Distrust

As far as Joker not having a message goes, that whole moralizing line of argument is one that strikes me as slightly disingenuous. Since when did making a grand statement become a prerequisite for every film that reminds us of the real world? Joker‘s detractors have taken up the refrain that the movie raises serious issues, but that it has nothing worthwhile to contribute about those issues, either because it lacks the maturity and intelligence to do so, or because it’s too cynical and overreaching—enamored of the greats without actually understanding them.

When a Cream song kicks in as Arthur is riding through the city in a police car, it brings to mind moments from Goodfellas and The Dark Knight. Yet the joke is, this musical cue just seems there to imply, in an on-the-nose fashion, that Arthur is already in his “white room” in Arkham State Hospital, experiencing the delusion that his murderous actions have set the world on fire.

It’s a fair point to say that Joker is derivative of other, better movies. It might also be a valid criticism to say that it’s irresponsible in some of its provocations. Amid the button-pushing (did we really need a song from convicted pedophile Gary Glitter on the soundtrack?), this is a film where the title character states emphatically, “I don’t believe in anything.” He furthermore tells us, “There is no punchline.”

Hearing these declarations come from his painted mouth outwardly reduces Arthur’s struggles and the film itself to what Shakespeare would call “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It might be a mistake, however, to attribute Arthur’s philosophy, or lack thereof, to the filmmakers lensing him. Just because he affects a nihilistic view doesn’t mean the names in the credits bringing his story to life are incapable of infusing that story with meaning. At the same time, they are storytellers, not essayists, so they’re not bound by a code of thesis statements, either.

For what it’s worth, the summer The Dark Knight Rises hit theaters, Christopher Nolan gave interviews stressing that it wasn’t a political movie, even though it seemed to play on real-world issues with its Bane-led uprising of the 99% against the 1% in Gotham City. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Nolan said:

“We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. What we’re really trying to do is show the cracks of society. … We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things. It’s just telling a story. If you’re saying, ‘Have you made a film that’s supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?’ – well, obviously, that’s not true.”

Maybe that sounds like a cop-out on Nolan’s part, or maybe he has a point. Joker follows the same model of throwing a lot of things at the wall and showing us the cracks of society. It dips us deep down in the icky perspective of a man who has slipped through those cracks. “My whole life,” Arthur says, “I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.”

These words take on a terrifying context in light of the real-world Arthurs, deeply disturbed individuals who have made movie theaters and other public places feel unsafe. That’s undeniable, but objectively, I don’t think Joker is any more or less empty-headed than The Dark Knight Rises. That might sound like a back-handed compliment, but one gets the feeling that if you switched the names out on that Nolan quote, and attributed it to Todd Phillips in 2019, he would be met with more criticism. It’s the kind of thing where you can literally find articles, now, with the same fill-in-the-name headlines (“Director Says His Movie Isn’t Political”) as the ones they were running back when Nolan was doing press for The Dark Knight Rises.

Back in 2012, Nolan could perhaps get away with being noncommittal toward his film’s political imagery, because he was the quintessential filmmaker of the 2000s and his reputation preceded him. Phillips, on the other hand, is the guy who directed Old School and The Hangover. The old rallying cry of Nolanites — “In Nolan we trust” — has a new sentiment prevailing over it: “In Phillips we distrust.”

The truth is, Phillips doesn’t inspire the same critical respect or fan loyalty and he doesn’t have the same pedigree as a dramatist that Nolan does. In fact, he’s publicly admitted that he turned to projects like Joker as a way to repackage the irreverence from his bro comedies, because they were a dying brand in the current “woke culture.” Unfortunately, with comments like these, he’s just supplying the ammunition against his own movie, stirring up the very Twitter mob that he sorta-kinda blames for killing his career as a comedy director. He’s thinking of a joke, you see, but you wouldn’t get it. “Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream.”

Contending with the Clown Mob

In Joker, it’s not hard to see the clown mob as a more three-dimensional, action-oriented, cinematic stand-in for the Twitter mob. Yet in the spirit of Nolan’s quote, I found myself focusing less on the mob’s sociopolitical implications and more on its simple viability as a plot element.

I didn’t really buy it that a single incident on the subway, this triple murder of stockbrokers, would immediately trigger such a huge “groundswell of anti-rich sentiment,” as the movie calls it. That, to me, was the one of the weaker elements of Joker’s plot. It would be like if the “copybat” vigilantes in hockey pads from The Dark Knight started showing up in Batman Begins, not long after the one-hour mark, when Batman made his first public appearance in costume and busted up Falcone’s drug shipment on the docks.

The accidental Joker of the subway just doesn’t resonate as enough of a larger-than-life symbol yet for him to realistically inspire this whole clown-masked movement to rise up and eat the rich. If the angry protests and riots in Gotham had started after he emerged on TV, that might have made more sense. There’s already a rich history in the Batman mythos of Joker hijacking the television airwaves, making threats and inciting Gothamites to action. Putting him in front of the cameras, letting him rail against the world and then shoot a famous talk show host on live national TV, might have been a more believable catalyst to start a sweeping social movement among the disaffected of Gotham.

The clown mob serves its function within the movie, of course. It just feels like a forced subplot, at first. That said, the scene where Joker eludes a pair of detectives on a train full of protesters is one of the movie’s best. The way he taunts the cops, that little jig he dances when he escapes from them on the train platform, registers as a classic Joker move, even though Arthur is very much a non-traditional Joker, one who doesn’t conform to the usual princely patterns of clown crime.

While we’re nitpicking here, one other wee aspect of Joker’s plot that doesn’t quite work is the anachronous insertion of a viral video into a late-night talk show host’s opening monologue during the early 1980s. Sincere question: did Johnny Carson, the real-life Murray Franklin, ever once take time to comment on a video like that in one of his monologues? Is there any historical precedent for something like that happening on Carson’s Tonight Show? It seems more likely that this is just another convenient plot device that the movie uses to expedite Arthur’s rise to fame.

Given the precedent for fantasy sequences in the movie, it’s alternatively possible that it could all just be another one of Arthur’s delusions. By the end of the movie, whether it’s a delusion or not, it’s easier to swallow the sight of Gotham burning at the hands of anonymous rioters. They don’t require Guy Fawkes masks. This isn’t V for Vendetta. It’s less principled than that.

Though he intersects with it at key points, Arthur’s story mostly runs tangential to that of the clown mob. Maybe that’s the point: shitstorms take on a life of their own, and the original shit-stirrer need not be present or invested in what’s happening while they’re away. We didn’t necessarily need Phillips to lob a hand grenade in the room and teach us that, but it never hurts to have a little reminder.

It makes me wonder how invested Phillips and Phoenix are in the online reaction to their movie, or if they’ve already moved on to bigger and better things. Another thing Arthur says in Joker is, “You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week.” So who among us is really listening and who among us is merely biding their time till they can throw the next rotten tomato?

There are a lot of threads woven into the fabric of Joker’s bright-colored suit, but are any of them worth pulling on if it means unraveling the entire thing? Or is there actually a good movie under there, a grimy ’70s throwback that managed to don a theater usher’s disguise and smuggle itself into the superhero multiplex on the strength of a villain’s brand-name recognition?

Before Phoenix signed onto Joker, Phillips reportedly sold him on the project by quipping that it was a heist movie where they were going to “take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell [they] wanted.” Speaking with The Wrap, he recounted how he told Phoenix: “Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.”

Performative opinion-havers from all corners of the Internet (myself included) play right into Joker‘s hands, perhaps, by attributing all sorts of meaning or meaninglessness to this comic book film. How are we any different from the cheering clown mob that hails Arthur Fleck as a hero, or the jeering studio audience that views him as a monster? Maybe the joke’s on us, and Joker has already hijacked the culture and won … for now. Come next week (or next month, if it’s lucky enough to draw it out that long), it’s moment in the spotlight will have ended. Then, we’ll be talking about the next big thing. How’s that new Batman movie coming along these days?

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About the Author

Joshua Meyer is a Tokyo-based freelance writer who contributes to /Film and WDW News Today and has also contributed to GaijinPot and Japan Today. You can join his growing legion of 100+ Twitter friends @TheGaijinGhost.