I don’t have that much to say about this movie (although this will not stop me from stretching out my muddled thought process for the usual 2,000-ish words – this is gonna be one of those “probably better than missing an update completely” articles) and it’s basically all spoilers, so I’m going to put everything below the break except for a bottom-line review that Joker is good and you should watch it.
I saw Joker last weekend. The elephant in the room on this topic is mass shootings and whether this movie encourages public violence and etc. etc., so I’ll get this out of the way by saying that 1) someone who’s one movie viewing away from murder clearly has serious issues that could be triggered by lots of different things, and those underlying issues obviously deserve our attention more than whether or not this movie might serve as the last piece of straw on some camel’s back, and 2) anyone who decides to commit mass violence because of this movie has cast themselves as Clown Goon #6. Y’know, the guy who’s never met Joker, but quotes him right before shooting some people? That guy. I don’t think anyone walks out of the theater saying “I wanna be Clown Goon #6!”
Also, I am going to use the term “society” a couple of times in this post, and it is never going to be a reference to the meme. Just, advance warning, don’t bother looking for it, it’s not there.
The Joker from Joker actually is what the Dark Knight’s Joker claimed to be. Whereas the Dark Knight’s Joker was a ludicrously effective strategist and planner who was blatantly lying to Harvey Dent when he said he was an agent of chaos, the new Joker actually is an agent of chaos. He acts impulsively, and those impulsive actions stir up a city-wide chaos that he is able to escape into. His initial murders on the subway mean something only because Thomas Wayne has a PR gaffe in response, and Joker spends the entire rest of that movie riding the chaos that he and Thomas Wayne created, in both cases purely by accident. He’s able to talk to Thomas Wayne alone because protesters confront the police, creating a distraction that allows him to walk in unnoticed. He’s able to escape detectives pursuing him for the murders because the same protesters have modeled their look after him, allowing him to bleed into the crowd, which then attacks the police when they try to use force to control the situation. Thomas Wayne, one of the people he most hates, is killed by random violence inspired by the Joker without the Joker ever taking any direct action or giving any specific orders. He’s able to escape custody (at least temporarily) at the end when an ambulance rams the cop car, and while it’s possible that’s because the clown rioters identified which cop car was carrying him and intercepted it, it’s just as likely that it was a random act of “fuck the police” violence, and they only discovered that their figurehead was in the car afterwards.
The Joker having an origin story is something that immediately made me skeptical, because not having an origin story has been a major rule for the character so far, since this allows him to be an embodiment of chaos. Even when he, himself, is not at all chaotic, like in the Dark Knight, he still uses it to his advantage. But while the Dark Knight’s Joker benefits from chaos and (seems to) pursue it as an ideological goal despite his very non-chaotic means, Joker’s Joker is hollowed out to become its avatar. He loses everything until at the end, there’s nothing left but spite for society, a desire to get revenge on the very concept of order, on the very idea of Gotham as a city with rules and boundaries. He says at the very end that he doesn’t believe in anything, and while that’s not literally true (he clearly believes, for example, that speaking English will allow him to communicate concepts to other people), it’s true in the sense that he has no vision of what the future should be like. He doesn’t believe in chaos. He has no beliefs, and that means he is chaos.
The movie also does a really good job of demonstrating how this blind hatred for the very concept of society is something symptomatic of the society’s own decay. The Joker’s two greatest nemeses in the film are Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin, neither of whom are particularly cruel to him, just ignorant of and apathetic to his situation. They inflict a lot of pain on him, and become the targets of his vengeance, with Murray being shot in the head on live television, but both of them show a lot of signs of being sympathetic to Joker’s situation, at least up until the point when he started killing people. It’s never made explicitly clear, but there’s a lot of hints that if they understood the damage they were doing, they wouldn’t have done it. The Joker is a product not of cruel abuse, but total neglect. He’s getting revenge not for being targeted, but for being abandoned by a society whose collapse first fails those who are most disadvantaged, and is then accelerated by those neglected lashing out blindly for revenge.
Murray Franklin heckles him a bit, but everything he does is good for Arthur Fleck’s career, and it’s not like it’s Murray’s fault that Arthur had the police closing in on him for all those murders he did at the time of his appearance on Murray’s show. Murray is either oblivious or apathetic to how much he humiliated Joker with his initial clips, and to his same routine in the live interview, but he’s not a cruel bully. His Statler and Waldorf act on camera might make him come off that way, but he was nothing but accommodating backstage. He was happy to let Arthur on the show with his Joker makeup despite his reservations concerning the clown makeup given the current clown-themed protests, he agreed to introduce Arthur as “Joker” despite how weird it is to ask to be introduced on a talk show with a stage name, and when his aide told Arthur to refer to him as “Mr. Franklin,” he told the aide to come off it and that “Murray” was fine. When I saw the “can you introduce me as Joker” scene in trailers, I was sure the context had to be that Murray was being held hostage and was playing along with Joker’s “I’m a talk show guest” delusion to avoid getting his head blown off, but no, in the actual film Murray had no idea Joker was dangerous at that point. He’s just actually super accommodating.
His cruelty is born purely from ignorance and a lack of empathy. As a successful comedian with his own TV show, he apparently doesn’t realize the difference it makes that Arthur has no platform from which to roll with the punches and use the heckling to boost his own act (or maybe he does – for all we know, he was always planning on inviting Arthur on for a follow-up interview, give the kid a chance to own his performance). Maybe Murray was only so accommodating because he wanted to avoid scaring Joker away from the interview, because he really wanted to humiliate him live (again), but there’s not really enough in the movie to say for sure either way. Notably, without that backstage scene, it would’ve been easy to judge Murray entirely on his on-screen humiliation of Arthur. That scene seems to go out of its way to sow doubt as to what Murray’s motives are.
Moving on to papa Batman, Thomas Wayne condemns the subway murders, but he didn’t even know the Wayne Corp. guys who got killed and had no idea that the killer was attacked and that at least two of the murders were in self-defense. He says later on that he plans on helping the poor of Gotham, lifting them out of poverty, whether they think he’s on their side or not. That was a public statement and isn’t necessarily sincere, but he could’ve gone with some Reagan-era “greed is good” rhetoric (the movie is set in 1981, it wouldn’t have been out of place), something like “these people are never going to get out of the hole they’re in until they stop blaming other people and work on solving their own problems.” Instead, he said that he was going to lift them out of poverty, whether they appreciate that he’s on their side or not. I don’t know if it was the filmmaker’s intent, but that came across to me as a callback (callforward?) to all the times Batman has defended a city that fears him. It’s never been as big a theme for him as it has for Spider-Man or the X-Men, and sometimes it’s exactly the opposite, with Commissioner Gordon and Batman posing for photo ops together, but there’s definitely been other storylines where Batman was hated by the people of Gotham.
When Thomas Wayne punches Joker at the movie theater, he tells him immediately afterward to stay away from his son, whom Joker had menaced earlier (his initial magic show was pretty charming, but remember how creepy he got with the ‘put a smile on that face’ routine at the end? Excellent, understated reference to the “Joker wants to make Batman laugh” idea, incidentally), and outright assaulted Alfred in the same encounter. Thomas punches Joker in the face and that is really not helping with his mental state, but he was hardly unprovoked. Joker tried to throttle Alfred, for Christ’s sake, and Thomas’ own violent outburst is pretty clearly motivated by concern for his ten-year old child.
The movie gives us hints that both Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin intend to help Arthur Fleck, at least a little bit, whether that’s Thomas Wayne’s promise to help people in his general situation or Murray Franklin accommodating Arthur, specifically, on his show. Both of them inflict considerable pain on him, but notably not the way that his monster of a human being coworker did, intentionally setting him up to get fired or even arrested, apparently just because Arthur made him uncomfortable by being socially awkward and having uncontrollable laughing fits at inappropriate times. Not even in the way that his boss did, where he was sensible, though suspicious (the second time Arthur’s boss called him a liar, he wasn’t even wrong), and had a very strictly limited willingness to accommodate Arthur’s issues. Notably, when Murray was in a similar role to Arthur’s boss at the clown gig, having professional authority and the power to dictate how Arthur would perform, Murray was much more kind! But it’s Murray who gets shot live on camera, whereas Arthur’s boss at the clown job gets away completely unscathed. Murray and Thomas become the targets of Joker’s revenge on society, not because they were particularly cruel, but because they were giants, and could cause more damage to Joker’s psyche on accident than his malicious coworker and self-serving boss could intentionally.
My thoughts on this film are still a bit of a jumbled mess. There are a lot of feelings here and I’m having trouble ordering them properly. I know the first draft of this post was barely coherent to anyone other than me. Hopefully the revision process has cleaned that up a little (I’ve definitely given this post way more revision than a typical blog post, to try and make things more sensible).