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‘Joker’: A Cinematic Marvel, and a Statement About Society

If “The Dark Knight” proved that regular people can become heroes in response to a bleak and unstable society, then “Joker” proves that regular people can become villains for the same reason.


- October 12th, 2019
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By now, you have most likely heard one of two things regarding the new film “Joker,” and while one of those things could not be further from the truth, the other could not be more accurate if it tried.

The first, of course, is the widely-spread conspiracy theory by the mainstream media that “Joker” somehow glorifies violence, is a celebration of “incel” culture, and that the film is destined to be an inspiration for many a future mass shooter. This hysteria is not only blind to the many other, lesser films throughout Hollywood that regularly glorify violence, from the latest cheap horror film to the dime-a-dozen action movies of today, but it also displays a total ignorance of the film itself.

The second is what you will most likely hear from anyone outside of that uber-elite circle of film critics and media pundits who actually saw the movie: That it is an utterly amazing film, truly spectacular in every sense of the word, and that it is easily the greatest film of the year, if not one of the greatest films of all time (which, you will soon find, is not an exaggeration).

A Masterpiece of Filmmaking

First, just to get the technical aspects out of the way: In terms of every possible visual, audio, and cinematic technique you can think of, Director Todd Phillips has gone far above and beyond the scope of perfection. He uses every single tool at his disposal, from the lighting, to the score, to the production design.

“Joker” is a very dark and gritty film, and you see that from the very beginning. From the alleyways littered with trash, to the sidewalks lined with shuttered businesses, to the streets infested with potholes and plumes of steam from every manhole in sight, to the public transportation entirely defaced with graffiti, you will be every bit as immersed in the heavy and filthy environment of the city as the characters. Just as frequently-heard as the soundtrack are wailing sirens and honking cars in the background, adding further to the immersion as you journey into a modern Babylon in near total ruin.

As has been widely agreed, the film is all but carried on the back of Joaquin Phoenix’s dynamite performance as Arthur Fleck, which is so strong that Phoenix even manages to upstage the legendary Robert de Niro in the few scenes they share together.

With every single tormented laugh, awkward smile, gut-wrenching cry, and long, intense shots of Fleck’s face that make it nearly impossible to determine what thoughts are going on inside his warped mind, you will be on the absolute edge of your seat and gripping the armrests in every other scene, with hardly a moment of relief to be found. This unpredictability is put to very good use when he finally begins turning to violence.

And no Joker story is complete without humor. Although there are a handful of genuinely funny and good-natured jokes in the film from other characters, the film is most dependent on dark comedy that has the audience laughing despite themselves. Only a film as masterfully directed as this one can elicit laughter right after a brutal murder scene, as this film does towards the end. It is a further testament to how bleak the world of “Joker” truly is; that laughter is more of a last-ditch escape from the cold and harshness of reality, rather than a part of it.

If this film were to be compared to previous films, two classics from the 1970s come to mind. The first and more obvious comparison, which just about every critic has been making (for better or for worse), is with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 hit “Taxi Driver,” which also starred Robert de Niro; the comparison is appropriate, particularly given that the look of New York City in that film is compared to the Gotham City of this film.

The other is a film that preceded “Taxi” by two years: 1974’s “Death Wish,” where star Charles Bronson, like Joaquin Phoenix, portrays a perfectly normal man who turns to ultra-violence in retaliation against a city that has torn apart his world, authorities who do next to nothing to stop such injustices, and a society that is indifferent to his situation.

The Heart of Darkness

This film can best be described as a character study, but even that is not enough. What truly works about this film is that it places you directly inside Fleck’s deranged mind, so that you see every single development through his eyes. It is not told from an omniscient perspective or by an additional character; Fleck is the source of all your information.

This not only lends itself to some genuinely shocking twists as a result of his dementia, which are just as devastating to the audience as they are to Fleck, but it also provides a much more personal connection with the viewers, the likes of which have rarely been seen in any other great film.

Of the pantheon of great cinematic psychos—from Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” to Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange,” to Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” to Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”—no film does more fully to examine the entire origin of its lead character and his complete transition into a maniac the way “Joker” does.

With “Joker,” you journey right alongside Fleck as he starts off as a normal person, but gradually realizes how his life has been influenced just as much by outside factors as it has been by his own mistakes. And there is ultimately no ambiguity about what has led up to this point; you will see it all before the credits roll.

This journey allows you to witness just how much his world crumbles around him by the end of the film, as he slowly loses his few friends and close relationships one-by-one. This is due partially to his own insanity, but it also contributes to that insanity, in a twisted self-defeating cycle of depression and darkness. With the gradual revelation that many of the people in his life—even the ones who appeared to be his friends early on—have dark secrets or selfish motivations of their own, he is left feeling as though he cannot trust anyone.

But the most overarching theme regarding the Joker’s journey to isolation is that just about everyone he encounters treats him horribly. It’s not enough that he is eventually betrayed by his friends and family, it comes even from random passersby on the streets. From a group of juvenile delinquents, to a snobby fat woman on a bus, to his boss and coworkers, to a group of rich yuppies who work for Wayne Enterprises, to a late night talk show host whom Fleck once idolized, and even Thomas Wayne himself—every single person Fleck encounters takes his turn at putting Fleck down in some capacity, chipping away at his morale until he finally snaps. Or that’s how Fleck sees it.

There truly are no heroes to be found in “Joker,” but there are more than enough villains. No, the film does not really sympathize with Fleck as he eventually turns to murder and unintentionally sparks a city-wide series of violent riots; but the film makes clear that if there is a true catalyst for the evil that transpires, it is the brokeness of that society as a whole.

A Broken Mirror

The preemptively negative response to “Joker” by the same elite that is vilified by this film only serves to prove the film right. Rather than spend too much time responding to the individual criticisms, as others here at American Greatness have already done, all that really needs to be discussed is the response by those who worked directly on the film.

Director Todd Phillips has made abundantly clear his frustrations with the critics and self-righteous bleeding hearts who denounce the film as “inspiring violence,” blaming this trend on the fact that we live in a society where “outrage is a commodity.” Star Joaquin Phoenix, rightfully, walked out of an interview with The Telegraph when the interviewer asked perhaps one of the stupidest questions of all time: if the film could inspire mass shooters.

But by far the greatest response to the faux outrage comes from one of the film’s executive producers, Michael Uslan, who described the film as having “held up a mirror to our society.” The subsequent backlash is the result of people who “don’t want to see that reflection,” and instead “want to run from it.”

Uslan could not be more right. “Joker” is a film that points blame in all directions, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor; everyone holds some responsibility for the degradation of society when it gets to the point where no one cares for another anymore. Those who may support the anti-elite message are angered at the equal blame that is placed on the criminals and the common people, while those who support the vilification of the angry mobs are similarly bothered by the anti-rich sentiments.

Just look at how the media has unnecessarily focused on non-stories that have some tangential relationship to “Joker,” in the hope of somehow connecting the film to violence; such examples include two men being arrested for simply smoking in the theater during a screening of the film, or a man having his guns confiscated for posting about the film on social media. The film is already about the most powerful in society going out of their way to pick on the most insignificant members of the population who present the least threat to their power, simply because they can; real life, as it were, isn’t too different.

Perhaps, above all else, such voices in the media are seeking to suppress the film because it teaches a very simple lesson: Introspection. In the sure-to-become-iconic climax of the film, as Fleck rants and raves on his favorite late night talk show about how he became what he is, he offers a painfully accurate observation about society:

Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy … Have you seen what it’s like out there? … Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy!

For a media that profits on ratings, few things drive ratings more than magnifying the kind of partisan conflicts and socio-political divides that are currently plaguing our nation. If a message like these few lines were to be driven home to millions of Americans as effectively as they are in “Joker,” it could go a long way toward easing such tensions within our society, and the media has nothing to gain from that.

A Revolutionary Film

And yet despite the backlash, and despite how truly disturbing and uncomfortable the film is and was intended to be, the people have spoken: “Joker” is already proving to be a smash hit, producing the biggest October opening in film history, and far exceeding box office expectations with over $200 million worldwide in its opening weekend alone.

But even beyond the financial success, another important takeaway is the very high opinion viewers appear to have of the film. While critics are working overtime to reduce the film to an average score on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, the audience reviews on other major sites paint a much different picture.

On both Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), “Joker” currently stands at about 90 percent among audiences. On the latter site, with well over 200,000 user reviews for an aggregate score of 9.0/10, the film is rated so highly on average that it currently stands as the 9th-highest rated film of all time on IMDb. It shares the Top 10 with such cinematic icons as the first two “Godfather” films, “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Schindler’s List,” and—fittingly enough—“The Dark Knight.”

2008’s “The Dark Knight—the second film in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, and the film that immortalized Heath Ledger for his iconic performance of the same character—was widely considered a revolutionary film in the genre of comic book adaptations. It modernized the idea of the superhero and brought the world of DC Comics back down to reality, merging the adventures of the caped crusader with modern crime drama films.

The result was a film that was not only enjoyable to fans of the original comics, but also drew in legions of new fans out of moviegoers who normally couldn’t care less for comic book movies. It was this film that laid the groundwork for everything that the rival line of comic book movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would copy with its wildly successful series of twenty-two films over the course of the next decade.

It is fitting, then, that within the same year the Marvel series came to a close with “Avengers: Endgame” in April, “Joker” comes along towards the end of the year to show us the way forward for a whole new era of comic book films. Just as “The Dark Knight” revolutionized superhero films, “Joker” has the potential to revolutionize supervillain films in the same way.

If it does, it will do so with an added caution: If “The Dark Knight” proved that regular people can become heroes in response to a bleak and unstable society, then “Joker” proves that regular people can become villains for the same reason.

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