Don’t see the new Joker film, directed by Todd Phillips and starring an Oscar-starved Joaquin Phoenix. I invite you to sit this one out with me.
Don’t see it to gain insight into the minds of radicalized young men or burgeoning mass killers. The movie teases insight there, but offers only a shallow reiteration of another generation’s social crisis. And don’t see it as a Gotham City completionist. The filmmakers themselves have played coy about whether this is a movie about the Joker of Batman lore, or simply a joker of another sort altogether. “Maybe Joaquin’s character inspired the Joker,” Phillips said in an interview. “You don’t really know.” But we kind of do. This movie cannot be about the Joker because it doesn’t have Batman in it.
My reservations started with the film’s concept: the murderous clown that bedevils Batman as a protagonist? To be worthwhile, a film like that would need to be handled by someone thoughtful, someone intentional about not playing to the most toxic edge of fan culture. But Phillips (best known for The Hangover) has spent his press tour reveling in the free publicity provided by people’s fears about alienated men idolizing the Joker as a role model.
The trailers did little to encourage me. Fans who liked the previews praised them solely in terms of what Martin Scorsese movies they evoked. Robert De Niro is there, just like Taxi Driver! There’s a comedy show set, just like in The King of Comedy! And De Niro is the head comic, like a reversed version of The King of Comedy! But pastiche and reference, on their own, do not a worthwhile film make. Other reviews confirmed my fears. Everyone agrees that Phoenix is acting up a storm as beleaguered proto-Joker Arthur Fleck, but to what end? Maybe that’s the joke: playing a thinly-written murderous clown with operatic overcommitment.
This version of Joker helps (perhaps) to create Batman by inspiring a wave of eat-the-rich killings that include the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents. (In the grit-addicted cinematic output of DC Entertainment, Thomas and Martha Wayne have met their end in that alley more often than Superman has cracked a smile.) But amusing as it is to imagine a sequel where a decrepit, geriatric Joker faces a grown Batman, this choice creates an insurmountable problem for this film. Is the Clown Prince of Crime anything special without his heroic nemesis?
No. It’s exciting to see the Joker onscreen because of the problems he creates for Batman. How will Batman escape this death trap, or foil this scheme, or inspire the citizens of Gotham to rise above the fear and cruelty that the Joker would reduce them to? Without the Caped Crusader to combat him, the Joker is just another violent man who finds himself funnier than anyone else does. Don’t we have enough of those? (Of course, since evil is but a privation of goodness, Batman is less dependent on the Joker. He has a whole rogues gallery of foils, plus his sidekicks and fellow crimefighters. The Joker may need Batman, but only in the Joker’s head is the reverse also true.)
The mystique of the Joker, as a character, is his refusal to be explained. It’s not, as is sometimes stated, that he has no origin. Heath Ledger’s version of the character recounts multiple origin stories, and perhaps one is true. The comic book Joker has the serviceable origin of falling into a vat of chemicals. The thing is, of course, that none of these “bad days” are enough to make it reasonable for someone to dress up as a clown and commit high-concept acts of art terrorism. The incommensurate nature of his evil isn’t a shortcoming in psychological realism, it’s a choice to make him an archetype of disorder. Making a film about the Joker’s life as a humiliated and downtrodden everyman is a little like writing a prequel to Othello where Iago’s malignancy is explained by his life as a sad-sack foot soldier. It misses the point.
Hollywood needs to learn a lesson, and it won’t learn it if films like Joker rake in profits. The lesson is that evil is not all that interesting. Far more heat than light is generated by films about serial killers, child molesters, and assorted doers of monstrous evil. Controversy may create cash, but the artistic dividends are negligible. People who do evil are often unhappy and unfulfilled in other areas of life. But that doesn’t explain their evil (plenty of people are sad, lonely, or downtrodden without becoming spree killers!) and it quite obviously doesn’t excuse their evil. All it does is offer the ugly little fantasy that maybe doing something really terrible is the way to put your name on the map.
The 2018 reprise of Halloween offered a more trenchant take on a different storied killer with a stark white face. Michael Myers was a silent vector of death, without discernible motive or grander methodology. But several other characters, from a pair of podcasters to a sketchy psychiatrist, were obsessed with discovering some deeper root or larger import to his crimes. Surely, thought these characters, if he would but speak to us we would be enlightened! But, as grizzled survivor Laurie Strode warned them, their quest to uncover a meaning behind Michael’s massacres would only lead to further tragedy. There’s no there there.
These villains are outsized for dramatic effect, but it rarely pays to dig too deep into their real-world counterparts, either. A rightly ordered response to evil is prayer, fasting, and the pursuit of justice. Glamorizing or valorizing senseless violence, even framing it as a “primal scream” against an unjust world, makes for morally irresponsible and artistically trite works of art. With that in mind, skip Joker and get your Batman fix from works that shine a spotlight on heroism, like Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. saga or the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Alexi Sargeant is a cultural critic and Managing Director of the Aquinas Institute at Princeton University.