– By James Powers –
Spoilers below for Joker
There was much blood and thunder in the world of pop-culture commentary preceding the release of Joker, with many a critic who had already seen the film at Venice or TIFF proclaiming either that it was a) a trenchant social commentary in the guise of a comic book movie, or b) a pernicious incel fantasy in the guise of a comic book movie. And upon its release there was more blood and thunder, as the rest of us plebians got to see the film ourselves and put our own hot takes on top of the previous hot takes.
Then there were the alleged dire warnings (from whom exactly I’m not sure, but how much does that really matter anymore?) that the film’s trigger-happy protagonist would inspire copycats at screenings. In some cases, apparently, police got involved. And there were various antics from Joaquin Phoenix, and reactions to said antics, and dissections of said reactions to said antics. Then, finally, there was the shock and awe at just how many of us normal people actually went to see the film on opening weekend (hint: a lot). Not that that’s necessarily surprising – generally, when the public is told that a certain film is grotesquely violent, socially irresponsible, and/or likely to incite bloodshed, then you can expect ticket sales for said film to skyrocket. Especially when it’s already based on a comic book character.
Now, two weeks after Joker’s release, all that furor has died down somewhat – so now I’d like to do a sort of post-mortem on it. Is Joker actually as big of a deal as all the early hype (both good and bad) suggested? And why or why not?
Well, to an extent the numbers speak for themselves. As of this writing, the film has raked in a box office total closely rivaling that of Aquaman at the same point in its run. Let that sink in. If you’ve been paying any attention lately, you know that although both are DC movies, they’re about as different from one another as it is possible for two films to be. And if you’ve seen Joker for yourself, you know that it is definitely, emphatically not the sort of movie that should be keeping up with superhero tentpole films at the box office. Yet it is. What a world we live in.
Personally, I didn’t find Joker much of a movie to write home about when I finally saw it last week. Granted, it’s beautifully shot, relentlessly grim, and in general paints a picture of urban decay that’s disturbingly realistic. I’ve been living in LA for about three weeks now, and that’s long enough to make the garbage piles on Gotham’s fictional streets look familiar. And, of course, Phoenix goes to town in the titular role, giggling and sobbing and sprinting and interpretive-dancing his way into something like this generation’s Travis Bickle.
But in the end, I think Joker turns out to be one of those films that’s more interested in looking like it’s about something deep than actually being about anything in particular. At least, anything other than “we live in a society” and “Joaquin Phoenix is a real actor” – both of which are things I already knew. It aims not so much to understand the Joker as to present him as a phenomenon, ultimately settling for something along the lines of, “hey, look at this weird thing we did with this iconic character that you thought you knew!” In the process, it kind of undercuts said character – it’s hard to see how Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, unbalanced and violent though he surely is, could ever become the brilliant, unstoppable maniac of Batman lore.
And yet. Aaaaand yet. If Joker is in fact just a “meh” sort of movie, then why has it made like gangbusters in a way that grim mid-budget dramas of its ilk seldom do?
I think the answer lies with another box office phenomenon from about six months back. It’s no coincidence that Joker has come out – and come out with both barrels blazing – in the wake of Marvel’s titanic Avengers: Endgame. Joker may technically be a DC movie, but both it and its success are every bit as much a pushback against the MCU juggernaut as is something like Deadpool or The Boys. Unlike those decidedly tongue-in-cheek superhero sendups, however, Joker is no fun at all. It’s gripping, visceral, immersive, at times perhaps exhilarating, but I don’t think I’ve heard a single person refer to it as fun. I sure wouldn’t.
As if in deliberate mockery of its own name, Joker is 100% dour and pessimistic, without a shred of the wisecracking that has become nearly mandatory for blockbusters ever since Joss Whedon had the bright idea to make the Avengers collectively witty back in 2012. It doesn’t even offer the spectacular smackdowns that are a fixture in “darker” superhero fare like Watchmen or The Dark Knight or Daredevil. And for all the talk about its violence, the body count in Joker is actually quite low – I think I can literally count the on-screen casualties on one hand. Apart from a few moments of splattery catharsis, all it gives its audience is the claustrophobic experience of small people struggling in vain to escape an impenetrable maze of grimy concrete. Mmmm, #citylife.
In short, Joker is a quintessentially “post-Endgame” phenomenon. Now that the superhero genre has reached its pinnacle of glory, here comes Joker to drag us down into its humiliating antithesis. That in itself isn’t so remarkable, of course; we’ve been cross-examining superheroes for as long as they’ve been around. What’s weird is how audiences are super into it this time around.
I don’t think this film would have been remotely as successful if it had come out before the MCU Infinity Saga had run its course. And, to extend the point further, it might not have been as successful if it had come out before the great gathering of pop-culture’s biggest heroes under a single empire. As much as audiences love Rey and Finn, Spidey and Ant-Man and even trash-mouthed Deadpool, it’s almost as if we’ve – dare I say it – grown a bit weary of them as well. And we find ourselves very curious about the polar opposite, not just of the heroes themselves but of the world they inhabit.
A world, basically, like Joker‘s Gotham, where heroes and their attendant spectacle and valor don’t even exist, let alone win the day. And without real heroes, there is of course no need for a real villain either. So in place of the mad genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker, or the manic theatrics of Jack Nicholson’s, we just get a sad, shattered man crashing into other sad shattered men. And in place of the Avengers’ triumphalist New York, or even Christopher Nolan’s morally complex (yet still redeemable) Gotham, we get a nihilistic gray world where ultimately nobody wins. Not even the Joker himself.
Intriguingly, perhaps disturbingly, American audiences have given a resounding vote of approval to this grim reversal of the blockbuster paradigm. As many pundits before me have remarked, Joker is “laughing all the way to the bank.” It’s laughing in the face of an entertainment ecosystem where mid-budget arthouse movies (it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, after all) are, more often than not, dead on arrival. An ecosystem built upon diverting escapism, on bringing audiences to worlds more exciting and colorful and ultimately hopeful than the one they perceive themselves inhabiting.
Like I said, I don’t think Joker is a particularly revolutionary movie in itself, despite the acclaim (or outcry) that it’s received. The remarkable power it wields owes more to its context than to its narrative or technical achievement. It seems that, sometimes, the masses just get tired of bread and circuses, and a shot of simple nihilism feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison.
Not that superhero movies as we know them are going anywhere anytime soon. I don’t think that Joker hails the dawn of some new genre of, I dunno, gritty realist tentpole films. But it is a reminder that even mass audiences will only allow themselves to be razzle-dazzled for so long. Eventually, after we’ve been fed enough of the glamour and spectacle, we’ll start to wonder whether we aren’t being duped by it. Which is definitely a good realization to have – I just hope Joker’s miserable vision isn’t the only alternative we get.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.