Joker…I don’t know


I went off to see Joker last night, feeling conflicted. The director, Todd Phillips, has been kind of a dumbass complaining about how he’s a victim of “cancel culture”, so I felt like skipping it just because the guy has a ridiculously thin skin. He’s also been whining about how you can’t do comedy anymore, because his audience has a thin skin.

Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’

This was confusing because Joker is not a comedy. Definitely not. Not a single laugh in the whole show, except for the strained, fake laughter of the central character. It’s a bitter, sad story of a man’s descent into hell.

Another thing it’s not is a comic book movie. It’s got token signifiers — it’s set in Gotham City, with an Arkham Asylum, and a rich guy running for mayor named Thomas Wayne who has a young son, Bruce — and that’s about it. A few callbacks to characters in comic book movies does not make it a comic book movie, although maybe it makes it more marketable. I left thinking it would have been better with no attempt to connect it to the world of comic books, as a character study of a man named Arthur Fleck struggling with mental illness and an uncaring, brutal society divided into the really rich and the really poor. It’s also an interesting exercise in the use of the unreliable narrator.

You never know what’s really happening in the story! It’s told from the point of view of Arthur Fleck, and constantly slips into his fantasies. The woman in the apartment down the hall is his girlfriend…no, she’s not, she’s terrified by him. He’s in the audience of his favorite late night talk show host, and is singled out for praise and brought on stage…no, he’s not, that’s clearly a daydream he’s having. He gets invited to appear on the talk show after his terrible stand up act goes viral…wait, is this a real part of the storyline? Is any of it? The final scene is in Arkham Asylum…is the whole dang movie from start to finish a fantasy playing out in Arthur’s mind?

I like this kind of complicated ambiguity. It keeps me thinking non-stop throughout, and makes me consider seeing it again just to figure out what I missed, and assemble a complete picture of the puzzle. If you’re one of those people who thinks it’s a celebration of incels committing mass murder, you’ve made a very superficial reading of the story. It’s not that, either.

It’s also not about revolution and an underclass rising up to throw off the shackles of the rich, an interpretation one could also make. Arthur is a “hero” in the movie not to a criminal underworld, but to an oppressed majority of working class and poor people living in this grungy hell-hole of a city. They don’t know who he is, he isn’t a leader, he just represents somebody embodying the spirit of one of their signs, “Kill the Rich”. We don’t even know if this is an actual event in the world of the story, or just another wishful thought oozing through Arthur’s head.

I walked out feeling like this is the kind of movie I ought to like, and I sort of did, but the one terrible flaw is that the whole thing is unremittingly discouraging and hopeless. The message is that the world is shit, and it’s even shittier if you’re poor and have a mental illness, and even the wealthy who ought to have it easier are just grim, soulless people who take pleasure in punching down. I guess you could argue that that is all true, and the movie has built an excellent mirror to society. I’d like to be able to imagine one tiny sliver of hope somewhere, though. I guess I’m a bit like Arthur that way.

Comments

  1. microraptor says

    One of the problems I had with this movie when I first heard it announced is that for decades, one of the biggest defining traits of the Joker is that he doesn’t have a known past. Not even the Joker himself really knows who or what he was before he became the Joker.

    And apparently there’s a controversy over the film’s use of a song by a convicted pedophile, which critics are saying is pretty tasteless for a film that has the effects of child abuse as a central theme.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Sounds a lot like a much darker remake of “The King of Comedy.” A delusional wanna-be stand-up (Robert DeNiro) comic stalks a late-night talk show host (Jerry Lewis) hoping he can perform his act on his show. I suspect that Phillips had that movie in mind when he cast De Niro as the Johnny Carson analog.

  3. raven says

    I’d like to be able to imagine one tiny sliver of hope somewhere, though.

    Talk about a hopeless optimist.

    I’ve long noticed this too as has anyone who looks at it.
    Most science fiction/fantasy these days is dystopian , dark, and grim.
    It’s obvious why.
    Our current literature reflects the zeitgeist of our times.
    Which is dystopian, dark, and grim.

    That is one reason why my favorite author was Iain Banks.
    He managed to imagine a future that was full of hope, and accomplishment.
    A place where you would want to live.

  4. says

    There’s a clip from the movie making the rounds online where the murder clown commits a murder and people are freaking out about spoilers and now the film has been ruined for them because they know the murder clown commits a murder before they even get to see the movie.

  5. Akira MacKenzie says

    Sigh… 44 years of mental illness, shitty parents, school-age bullying, a series of unfulfilling dead-end cubicle jobs, and sexual rejection ground away pretty much all of my hope. The world is a shitty place filled with shitty people and there is nothing we can do to fix it, much less my own miserable existence. Now, the only hope I have is for the sweet embrace of death and the nonexistence that awaits me.

    So, tacos for lunch?

  6. Scott Simmons says

    Just to clarify–the director’s comments about comedies were in response to commentary about the contrast between this and his previous output. Phillips is best known for gross-out comedies like Old School and The Hangover; the quote that confused you is his explanation of why he’s now making movies like Joker instead of, say, The Hangover IV. For some reason, he doesn’t think he’d get a lot of laughs with The Hangover IV. Can’t imagine why.

  7. PaulBC says

    The message is that the world is shit, and it’s even shittier if you’re poor and have a mental illness, and even the wealthy who ought to have it easier are just grim, soulless people who take pleasure in punching down.

    That’s probably true, though, and it’s a different message from saying the world must always be this way. I’m more interested in seeing Joker after PZ’s review than any of the other reviews I’ve read. So it’s a compelling depiction of mental illness with an unreliable narrator? It’s been done, but I’ll see another if it’s good, sure.

    I’m not sure it’s helpful to shoehorn it into the comic book genre (note: I have never really liked the Joker in any incarnation; even Caesar Romero’s campy portrayal masked murderous cruelty).

    As for comedy, it works as well as it ever did. You just have to be funny. The Simpsons, for instance, has gotten a way with a lot over the years, because people consistently laugh. Some parts really do deserve a rethink (like the stereotypical Apu) but most of the people complaining that they can’t do comedy anymore just weren’t that funny to begin with. It’s like the business rule “Sales fixes everything.” Funny fixes everything. If people aren’t laughing, it’s probably your problem and not theirs.

  8. Gregory Greenwood says

    My reading of the Joker movie, for whatever little it is worth,…

    ****SPOILER WARNING****

    Is that the movie is a character study of one man’s eroding mental stability and subsequent descent into violence, but the movie doesn’t draw a straight (and all too well worn in pop culture) line that mental illness = violence. Arthur is mentally ill, but that alone does not cause the events of the movie. He is also comprehensively failed by society at every level. Social care funding cuts means that he can no longer access his medication, he has no meaningful social support network, and he lives in the midst of an unremittingly callous, disinterested, and often capriciously cruel and violent culture. Arthur is not truly the villain, and still less the anti-hero, of this story. Indeed, there is no single villain – not the wealthy (and in this version arrogant and condescending) Thomas Wayne who is seeking political office by trying to convert the fears of the populace into political capital, and not the cynical talk show host Murray Franklin. The fault for what happens here ultimately lies at the door of a broken and dysfunctional society that allows people like Arthur to fall through the cracks and cares precious little about the consequences until it is far too late, and as such all members of that society must shoulder some measure of the blame. That is a society that feels rather uncomfortably like our own.

    Arthur does several terrible and violent things in the movie, but at no point does the movie attempt to claim that Arthur’s perspective is absolutely moral (or even remotely reliable, as PZ mentioned in the OP). Indeed, the movie never tries to justify Arthur’s actions. We see the situations he finds himself in, the increasingly extreme ways he responds to those situations, and enough of the context of his life to understand how he arrived at the point where he responds to those situations in the way he does, but the movie doesn’t try to argue that Arthur’s actions are admirable or moral. Indeed, the movie doesn’t even ask that we attempt to fully empathise with Arthur despite the many wretched experiences of his life. All this movie asks of us is that we never forget the fundamental humanity of Arthur Fleck. That for all the violent and brutal things he does, he is always a damaged human being. A man, however broken, and not a monster. That some people seem to have such immense difficulty with that idea is surprising, and a little worrying, for me.

  9. steve1 says

    I enjoyed the movie and it was thought provoking.
    Here are some of the thought-provoking topics we discussed after the movie.
    1. In his journal Arthur Fleck wrote “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T”. How society deals with the mentally ill and its stigmas.
    2. What part of the movie is Arthur’s fantasies and what really happened? I decided most of the movie was not Arthur’s fantasies.
    3. Societies decide what is right and what is wrong and by extension what is funny and what is not. Arthur eventually said screw it my life is a comedy I don’t care what you think.

  10. wonderpants says

    “One of the problems I had with this movie when I first heard it announced is that for decades, one of the biggest defining traits of the Joker is that he doesn’t have a known past. Not even the Joker himself really knows who or what he was before he became the Joker.“

    But the film is very ambiguous about who he is. He’s an adopted child, with his biological parents unknown, who may or not be Thomas Wayne’s son. Furthermore, how much of what happens in the film actually happened is very open to doubt, since it’s established on a lot of occasions that he’s an unreliable narrator. It’s quite easy to consider that this may be one of the multiple choice origins that is mentioned in the comics, and that his past is still shrouded in mystery.

  11. leerudolph says

    Scott Simmons @6: “For some reason, he doesn’t think he’d get a lot of laughs with The Hangover IV. Can’t imagine why.”

    Free for the taking, I offer him an alternative: Cold Turkey.

  12. says

    Incels are going to take it as a celebration of incels committing mass murder. After all Fleck was failed by society and incels are just so oppressed. (sarcasm present) This reading is likely asinine and fundamentally wrong. Doesn’t matter. These people and people adjacent to them fundamentally misinterpreted Fight Club in a similar manner (Pro tip: Fight Club is about how capitalism alienation + charismatic authoritarians + traditional notions of masculinity = men pointlessly destroying themselves) . But the misunderstanding sours me on the text; plenty of films out there that are not liked by assholes, even if their fandom is based on a misunderstanding.

    I am not seeing this unless it picks up a best picture nom at the Oscars because of being a completionist on that front.

  13. says

    This is the America of Trump and the Republicans. I’m not saying that the Democrats have acted much better, but the Republican party is much more upfront about rejecting anyone who is “different.” I have much more hope that a Democratic president might try to do something helpful for those with mental illness and other problem, rather than simply saying, “It’s your problem, deal with it..”

  14. says

    This sounds less like a “hero” and more someone the target audience can live through vicariously and viciously. It sounds less like criticism of 4chan-types and incels and more like encouragement of them.

    Arthur is a “hero” in the movie not to a criminal underworld, but to an oppressed majority of working class and poor people living in this grungy hell-hole of a city. They don’t know who he is, he isn’t a leader, he just represents somebody embodying the spirit of one of their signs, “Kill the Rich”.

    The choice of song is intentionally crass. Charles Manson may have come up with the phrase “helter skelter” that Lennon and McCartney turned into song, but he never profited from it. Gadd will.

  15. microraptor says

    wonderpants @10:

    It’s quite easy to consider that this may be one of the multiple choice origins that is mentioned in the comics, and that his past is still shrouded in mystery.

    Which begs the question of what the point of the movie is.

  16. Akira MacKenzie says

    Gee, have problems attracting someone to have sex with you and you’re automatically a on potential-mass-shooter list. :(

  17. logicalcat says

    @14 Im pretty sure The Beatles came up with “Helter Skelter”, not the other way around.

  18. Jazzlet says

    The Paul Gadd/Gary Glitter song, Rock and Roll part 2, also known as The “Hey” Song, is used in the US at NFL games, as it is definitely the kind of song that gets a crowd going. Billboard reported that in 2014 Rock and Roll part 2 earned an estimated $250,000, which will have been split with Gadd’s co-writer Mike Leander.

  19. Colin J says

    Raven, @3:

    Our current literature reflects the zeitgeist of our times.
    Which is dystopian, dark, and grim.
    That is one reason why my favorite author was Iain Banks.
    He managed to imagine a future that was full of hope, and accomplishment.
    A place where you would want to live.

    Really? Banks is one of my favourite authors too, but no one did dystopian, dark and grim quite like him, even in the Culture books. Some of his stuff is truly hard to read.

  20. PaulBC says

    Colin J@21 The one Iain Banks (without the M) that I read was Complicity, and I agree that was grim. But the Culture books are definitely among the most optimistic SF out there.

    There are still terrible things going on, but the Culture itself is utopian, particularly if you view the ships as the primary intelligent species rather than the humans (who are needed to provide accessible plot lines). Banks writes about endless possibility, which is a far more interesting subject than perfection anyway. He died way too young.

  21. patricklinnen says

    Side Note: Have not seen the movie and in all honesty, doubt I ever will.

    Thema 1: Joker is not about ‘Kill the Rich.’ He is about ‘Kill everyone! At Random!’ His fans are very much like somebody else’s fans in that ‘everyone’ is heard as ‘everyone but me!’

    Thema 2: A couple of sayings of praise in the theatre, ‘You’re killing them! You’re slaying them!’ Getting the audience to laugh was never the point. Getting them to die of laughter was. Or rather just die.

  22. raven says

    Really? Banks is one of my favourite authors too, but no one did dystopian, dark and grim quite like him, even in the Culture books. Some of his stuff is truly hard to read.

    You can say that but I still disagree.
    Iain Banks’s Culture novels always have a happy ending and the Culture always wins in the end.
    That is rare in modern fiction these days.
    The Culture itself is Utopian.
    It’s a post-Capitalist society that doesn’t even use money. Lives are as long as you want.
    The big problem is entertaining yourself day in and day out.
    At the end, people sublime to the next order of existence which is some sort of unimaginable existence that is so good, no one ever comes back from.

    He died way too young.

    Yeah, for sure.
    I just took a chance one day and read one of his Culture novels.
    And liked it enough to randomly grab every one I could find.
    Which turned out to be all of the Culture novels.
    About 18 months after my discovery, he was dead and I was upset about it.

  23. wzrd1 says

    @Paulbc #22, Ian Banks didn’t die. He was fully backed up and restored on his home GCU. ;)

    @PZ, might I suggest viewing the film again, with someone from the psychology department viewing as well?
    I’ve not viewed the film yet, however, it does sound, per two descriptions (yours and Gregory Greenwood #8), as if the unreliable narrator is viewing everything through the filters of his mental illness.
    I’d suggest reviewing it while considering that to some mentally ill persons, while going untreated, reality is quite literally, subject to change without notice and unreality and reality cannot be discerned.

  24. chrislawson says

    Mike Smith@12–

    Gender fundamentalists won’t listen to reason. One of their favourite catch-phrases is the “Red Pill” — a phrase they took from a movie written and directed by two trans women.

  25. chrislawson says

    raven@24–

    I’d describe Iain Banks’ Culture novels as plunging into the horrific mechanics of interactions even within the protective shell of a utopia. And while the Culture is pretty utopian for its own citizens, it is perfectly willing to unleash weapons of mass terror against external enemies (see Look to Windward).

  26. jefrir says

    Akira Mckenzie, incels aren’t just people who have difficulty finding partners, any more than the Proud Boys are just boys who are proud

  27. steve1 says

    McCartney wrote the song Helter skelter If I recall correctly Helter skelter is about an amusement park ride.

  28. Peter Bollwerk says

    I thought the movie was surprisingly well done. Excellent acting, cinematography and score.

  29. Akira MacKenzie says

    jefrir @ 29

    Objectively I realize that, but that’s not how it feels most of the time. I can’t speak for your experiences, but our culture has this expectation of sexual success. “Normal,” “healthy” people can get laid, while “losers,” “weirdos” and “psychos who live in their mom’s basement” don’t get to have sex. Each time an a misogynist goes postal, I have friends and family who know I’m a 45-year-old virgin jokingly ask me when I’m going to have my sexually frustrated shooting spree. I don’t laugh.

    I may have never swallowed the red or black pills and you’ll never catch me dead on 4Chan, but I’m an “incel” in the technical since of the term. Now, maybe it is just my diseased imagination, but I’m just tired of being mocked or viewed with contempt just because no woman wants to be with me. I’m sorry World, but genetics, neurobiology, and childhood development scarred by shitty, religious parents and middle-high school bullies have rendered me unfuckable. I didn’t ask for that, so lay off.

  30. says

    Jefrir: “incels aren’t just people who have difficulty finding partners”

    Who are incels then?

    Who gets to define who incels are, and why?

  31. says

    patricklinnen:

    Thema 1: Joker is not about ‘Kill the Rich.’ He is about ‘Kill everyone! At Random!’ His fans are very much like somebody else’s fans in that ‘everyone’ is heard as ‘everyone but me!’

    That might be true of some versions of the Joker. It’s not true of Fleck. The only people he attacks are those who had fucked him over in some way.

    Thema 2: A couple of sayings of praise in the theatre, ‘You’re killing them! You’re slaying them!’ Getting the audience to laugh was never the point. Getting them to die of laughter was. Or rather just die.

    Again that’s not Fleck.

    I agree with those fans who have speculated that Fleck isn’t actually the same person as the Joker who would go on to be Batman’s nemesis. Fleck isn’t a criminal mastermind – he’s not a master anything. Nor is his character taking him in the direction of becoming one. It’s more likely that some other person, perhaps one of the rioters took on his identity.

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