Todd Phillips' Joker straddles genres of psychological realism and superhero fantasy — therein lies its flaw
The Joker is an extravagant character out of a cartoon strip and was perhaps correctly played by Jack Nicholson (Batman, 1989), but since then there has been a misunderstanding of the possibilities that the character offers
Joker, by Todd Phillips, takes the iconic Batman villain, gives him a past, and places him as the protagonist of an independent story
As it stands, the character is an effort at psychological realism while the Batman is make-believe
But the genres of psychological realism and superhero fantasy are not compatible
The success of superhero franchises has seen them spun into numerous ancillary businesses. A by-product of this is how the potential for turning peripheral characters in each series into a central figure in his/her own right has been exploited. And so you have a TV series called Pennyworth, based on Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred.
The point here is that while Batman is a superhero (his human abilities are amplified by technology), these peripheral characters are ordinary mortals and cannot justly take centrestage in the superhero genre. Todd Phillips’ Joker, for instance, takes the iconic Batman villain, gives him a past, and places him as the protagonist of an independent story. This is more difficult than Pennyworth since the protagonist there was a good man. The Joker, in contrast, is a homicidal maniac, so making him the protagonist is different matter. The film has to necessarily take its protagonist outside the superhero genre, although the Joker is a super-villain. What it does, is to take its cues from another kind of film — represented by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). (Todd Phillips is a self-confessed admirer of Scorsese and Joker also invokes 1983’s The King of Comedy.)
Taxi Driver is among the most overrated films I’ve come across, although it is generally held up as a masterpiece. Its protagonist Travis Bickle is nominally a ‘psychopath’ but a psychopathic protagonist is impossible for Hollywood. The reason is that Hollywood defines causality through the individual motivated by rational choices, and the audiences identifies with him or her. It would be nearly impossible to place a schizoid individual at the centre of a Hollywood film, but that is what Scorsese tries to do in Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro gives a charismatic performance in that film but charisma is essentially directed towards an audience of some kind, to enable it to project itself into him or her. So, regardless of Travis Bickle being ‘pathological’, he is allowed to do no real harm in Taxi Driver. He kills a pimp and a dreaded gangster and rescues a teenage prostitute and helps her back to her family; these are not standard acts of a schizoid personality, but Hollywood’s codes insist that Travis can only do right, even if it is by mistake.
Joker faces the same difficulty as Taxi Driver in that the protagonist is intended to be beset by mental illness. A brief summary: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother Penny in Gotham City, where billionaire Thomas Wayne is contesting an election for the post of mayor. Professionally, Arthur dresses up as a clown and carries signs around to advertise various shops or products. He is underpaid but gets by somehow, and his ambition is to be on a talk show as a comedian. He admires talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and attracts attention on one of his shows. Arthur lives a marginal existence and is incapable of being funny but has a neurological ailment that makes him laugh without reason; he tries to pass that for ‘comedy’, though it works in one instance.
Arthur being beaten up by some hoodlums results in a colleague presenting him with a pistol. Carrying the pistol on the subway (while dressed in his clown’s costume) Arthur sees three young men molesting a woman and cannot control his involuntary ‘laughter’. This enrages the men and they assault him savagely, but Arthur shoots them and escapes. The men are subsequently revealed to be from Wall Street. Their killings send shock waves in Gotham City but ‘clown’ becomes an emblem for ‘anti-rich’ protestors and there are public demonstrations by ‘clowns’.
Arthur Fleck is ‘homicidal’ but we see that he kills first in self-defence, and his choices are essentially rational. He later kills other people but his visible deeds are bizarre, but not horrific. Never are we made to feel horror at his acts — even the seemingly worst of them has a justification.
Joker is a ‘dark’ film but it has nothing to say on any of the issues it pretends to take up, like urban decay and mental illness. Joaquin Phoenix is a good actor, but his inability at times to command sympathy makes him somewhat unsuitable as a Hollywood protagonist. The film deliberately makes him physically gross. But we also get no purchase on Arthur Fleck as Joaquin Phoenix plays him — he is all grimaces and contortions that amount to little.
When films from outside Hollywood have had lead actors portraying mentally unstable central characters (the actor Patrick Dewaere in French cinema being a case in point), the performances are of another kind. The character dominates screen time but his/her presence is not an organising intelligence, as Hollywood would have it. Hollywood, by centralising the ‘motivated individual’ for ideological reasons, effectively makes him/her the consciousness through which the world is understood. Psycho may seem the exception but Norman Bates is not the protagonist in the same sense. The reader will now see the contradiction here that undoes Joker: one cannot make sense of the world though a central figure and his/her actions, and also throw doubt on the validity of that figure’s perceptions. It would be like measuring the dimensions of an object with a scale, itself elastic or unstable. (This is not the same as using the device of the ‘unreliable narrator’.)
Joker is tagged on to the Batman franchise and Arthur Fleck’s story must fit into Batman’s. The Joker is an extravagant character out of a cartoon strip and was perhaps correctly played by Jack Nicholson (Batman, 1989), but since then there has been a misunderstanding of the possibilities that the character offers. Heath Ledger tried to give a ‘method’ performance when he played the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). Super-villains and comic characters are those an actor cannot identify with since they are naturally distant from us: imagine what might have happened if screen baddie Ajit had tried to feel as his characters did! The Joker has to be played with a certain devilishness, as Jack Nicholson did, but Heath Ledger tried to ‘inhabit’ the character.
We must recollect here that the Joker is virtually Batman’s equal, which means that he has to be cunning and virtually invincible to anyone but a superhero. This is a requirement that is given the miss in Joker and we do not get a sense of how weak and hare-brained Arthur Fleck could ever take on a superhero. As it stands, the character is an effort at psychological realism while the Batman is make-believe. The two genres — psychological realism and the superhero fantasy — are not compatible. Genres must (generally) strive for a level of purity since mixing them up can lead to bizarre results.
To conclude, Hollywood is going through unrecognisable phases but there is evidence that it has lost a sense of its own tenets. A nation’s cinema transforms over time but the transformation must be mediated by a sense of its underlying logic, a clear understanding of why it is something. This is a sense that Joker has evidently lost.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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