The Man Who Laughs
Opening last weekend, Joker is creating quite a buzz both at the box office and in popular culture. Since it’s debut and eventual win of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, it has been seen by many to be a potential Best Picture nominee as well as a potential Best Actor nominee in Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, The Master) and potential Best Director nominee for Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover). However, in subsequent weeks before its full opening here in the United States, the movie was met with quite a bit of backlash including a credible threat of violence potentially for service members in Oklahoma. It has also met criticisms of celebrating violence and mental illness enough so that Warner Bros. had to release an official statement. With such attention, backlash, and acclaim, I was very curious about what the movie would be. Having seen the film last evening, it left me wondering: is this really a movie about the most famous comic book villain of all-time, or is it more about us?
Joker, Jack White, The Clown Prince of Crime, or any of his other names or aliases, has been haunting the pages of Batman comics since his inception in Batman #1 (1940). Originally created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and especially Jerry Robinson, his concept was created on The Man Who Laughs (1928) a silent melodramatic romance film about a man cursed to smile because of the crimes of his father so that society can mock him. While he was used primarily in the 1940s and 1950s as a master gangster and lifelong criminal as a foil for Batman, many of these themes have been more born out as newer generations reinterpreted the character in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and now. Most legitimate Batman fans can name the many actors who have played Joker over these decades in film, TV, and video games (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, Jared Leto, Zach Galifianakis). However, there have always been a few tropes that are central to the comic book character: he is never known by what people would consider a real name unlike Edward Nygma or Oswald Cobblepot, his only primary motivation is chaos or anarchy, he is held in the comics as the yin to Batman’s yang, and he never really has an origin story even to the point of one of his more famous lines, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer multiple choice!” (The Killing Joke, 1988, Alan Moore).
Thus, the notion of Joker getting a solo film all about his origin that shows his real life and does not have any inclusion of the Dark Knight seems antithetical to the whole history of the character. Yet, after watching the movie, there is one major misnomer that I feel sets the expectations of people in the wrong direction: the title. By calling the film, Joker, the audience immediately assumes that the movie will be about the comic book character. However, because of the things I just mentioned, this is not really so. Yes, the movie includes several connections to the larger Batman universe including (spoilers) Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne and an unidentified Alfred Pennyworth, Joker as a failed comedian and clown, and the eventual murder scene of Thomas and Martha Wayne that seemingly needs to be included in every Batman movie or TV show there is. Nevertheless, every thing this movie does undermines the entire history, motivation, and personality of the character. This is because the movie is not really a movie about a comic book villain (that is only there to get butts in the seats). No, this is a movie about ourselves.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is seen by many as the most authentic take on Batman in modern culture, and his shared depiction with Heath Ledger is held by many, including myself, to be the truest take on the character. However, I would like to highlight another theme from that trilogy, and from the Batman universe as a whole, that resonated most with me after seeing Joker. Gotham is often depicted as crime-riddled, corrupt, desperate, and, most importantly, segregated. From the Dark Knight Rises, I kept thinking back to one particular quote: “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” (Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman, The Dark Knight Rises, 2012). It highlights one of the growing narratives of our current lives: the Haves and the Have-Nots.
Similarly, Joker uses this theme as its primary driving force. (SPOILERS!!! If you want to see the film first, please read this afterward) Phoenix’s take centers around a character who has been previously hospitalized for mental illness; he has a mental condition we are told that causes him to laugh at truly inappropriate times; he lives and takes care of his mother in the projects while working a second-rate job as a clown for hire which we get an early depiction makes him an easy target for abuse, mock, and scorn; he was abandoned by his father who we come to find out is Thomas Wayne and thus becomes the target for physical and mental abuse by his mother’s boyfriend to the point that they are both eventually hospitalized; eventually the social services Arthur (or Joker) comes to rely upon for his medications because of all of the abuse and abandonment is cut, and he can no longer get the help he desperately needs; he is twice during the film kicked and beaten both in an alley by kids and then by young investment bankers in the subway; and, finally, one of the few solaces in his life, watching Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the late night talk show host reminiscent of Johnny Carson, who Arthur day dreams of being treated like a son by early in the movie, uses a clip of Arthur’s stand-up routine to mock him in front of the entire world. This is the story of an abused, neglected, beaten, and scarred man, and what makes Arthur special is that he is not special.
Joker clearly borrows themes from the Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988) which is widely viewed as the essential comic book canon on the character. In the story, Joker is an ordinary man grieved by the loss of his wife and daughter driven to madness after he falls in a chemical vat during a robbery while being chased by Batman. He famously says, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” (Joker, the Killing Joke, 1988). This is clearly what Phillips is driving upon here. One ordinary man, abused by life, the system, and society eventually has enough, and, due to his mental illness, strikes back against those forces in truly stunningly violent and tragic ways. What I mean to say here is that this is less about a film named Joker, and more about a film that I would argue should be called The Man Who Laughs.
This is an usual film in which to find present commentary, and yet, that’s really what this film presents. We live in the age of President Trump, and I, like many others, was stunned at his election as the leader of the free world. However, if one were to apply the film against the backdrop of what our country is currently going through, how is Donald Trump any less than the agent of chaos that the movie presents. President Trump has famously joked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and people would still stick with him. Similarly, the end of the film descends into utter chaos and madness after Arthur, instead of committing suicide, shoots Murray Franklin on live Television. Gotham erupts in violence and rioting because someone is trying to burn down the very institutions that are seemingly abusing, neglecting, beating, and scarring them as well. So, they turn to a leader and a symbol of that chaos that fuels and understands their anger. The election of Donald Trump was as much a matter of the anger of the forgotten as anything else.
We now, likewise, live with many acts of madness, anger, and mental illness that we seemingly see on the news each week with every new mass shooting. However, I disagree with the criticisms of this film on this point: this movie does not celebrate violence or mental illness. Rather, it shows the tragedy of it. It highlights and mirrors the chaos of the world around us, and depicts the potential evidence of our future. Last week’s jobs report noted that unemployment is still at ridiculously low levels, and yet, income inequality continues to grow. If we don’t address all of the neglect, if we keep cutting services, if we keep pushing on people to disparity and desperation, unfortunately, any ordinary man can be the next Man Who Laughs.