Reel Talk

Joker and Nihilism



I noticeably haven’t been that on board for the DCEU. And, I don’t even think it’s really an ongoing concern any more. After several truly bad films, the entire franchise seems to have crashed to Earth, taking the few aspects that worked and spinning them off into their own stories, kind of just agreeing to forget that the DCEU even happened. And, by and large, that seems to have been a great idea. Aquaman and Shazam! have both been a lot of fun, renewing some interest in these characters and providing just a little confidence that Warner Bros. has any idea what they’re doing with these properties. And, it seems like that may be continuing, looking ahead at some solid sounding films with good creative teams and some genuine passion. However, there was a film looming on the horizon that really seemed to put all of that goodwill into question. Because in the midst of all of these colorful and pleasant films was Todd Phillips’ Joker, a film that has put me at arm’s length from the sheer announcement. Now, I talk about Batman quite a bit on this site, most Saturday’s in fact, and thus I’ve had quite an opportunity to discuss my opinions on the Joker. And, by and large, it’s not too positive. He’s a character that I loved when I was a moody teenager, and have come to like less and less and I grow older, and honestly the more Joker stories I read. So, the idea that they were making a movie purely about the Joker was by itself not something I was overly into, but to then make it a pastiche of King of Comedy that seemed to give sympathy to a man driven to murder by society rejecting him, at a time when unhinged people are shooting up public places seemingly every day for just that reason, I was really worried that this was going to be something I would totally loathe. So, imagine my complete surprise to find that in actuality, it’s a movie that’s so lacking in anything interesting I can’t even imagine mustering the feeling to hate it.

Joker takes place in an essentially dystopian Gotham City in 1981, a town completely over-run by crime and garbage, and follows the life of an incredibly sad man named Arthur Fleck. He has a strange neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, he works as a clown for hire, and he lives with his invalid mother. But, he by and large just tries to keep positive, ignoring all of the horrible things in his life, while society seems to crumble around him, primarily by obsessing over a single-mother neighbor and a late-night talk show comedian named Murray Frankling that he adores. And, after getting jumped by some kids during his work as a clown, a coworker gives Arthur a gun, telling him he needs to start protecting himself. Arthur seems put off by this, but ends up taking the gun anyway, and brings it to a job in a children’s hospital, earning him a swift termination from his clown job. This causes Arthur to spiral into self-pity, which culminates in him getting jumped by a bunch of drunken Wall Street guys singing show tunes after having a laughing fit. And, in an act of self-defense, Arthur shoots and kills the men, brutally executing them before returning home and sleeping with Sophie, the single mother he’s in love with.

And, that act has major ramifications not only on Arthur, but Gotham City as a whole. The killing of these men by a mysterious clown leads to a fissure between the haves and have-nots of Gotham, which eventually spurs millionaire Thomas Wayne to run for mayor, deriding the “clowns” who want handouts in the city, giving the malcontented masses a persona to hide behind, the murderous clown. And, all the while, Arthur is loving it. Things seem to be going great for him, he’s dating Sophie and is having sets at a local comedy club. However, the police eventually get on Arthur’s trail for the killing, and end up approaching Arthur’s mother, leading to her having a stroke, which is when everything truly falls apart. Arthur ends up finding that his mother is delusional and has believed that Arthur is actually Thomas Wayne’s son to cover up the fact that she was incredibly abusive to him in the past, we find that Arthur’s relationship with Sophie is completely made-up in his own head, and Murray Franklin plays a clip of his disastrous stand-up on his show, mocking it and referring to Arthur as some Joker. This all causes Arthur to completely snap, deciding that he’s going to go out with a bang. He kills his mother in the hospital, and ends up agreeing to appear on the Murray Franklin show so they can humiliate him further. But, for his appearance, he dresses up as a clown, on the same day that a massive group of protesters are also going to be dressed as clown. And, as he comes onto the Muray Franklin show, Arthur begins explaining that he was the man who killed the bankers, that he is mad that society has let him down, and ends up shooting Murray Franklin on live television. This causes a massive riot to break out, which also ends up with Thomas and Martha Wayne getting shot in front of their young son Bruce, and Arthur is hailed as a counter-culture hero before being locked up in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.





Going into this film, I really had no idea what to expect. I had spent months dreading it, fearful that it was going to lean into everything I truly hated about the Joker, just a puerile celebration of angst that follows a serial killer while portraying him as the hero. And it didn’t help that director Todd Phillips seemed to go full right-wing asshole in the days leading up to release, deriding political correctness and critics, a normally sure-fire sign that he has made something incredibly embarrassing. But, it also won rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival, and led to several film-critics I respect giving it positive reviews. There were also plenty of incredibly negative ones too though, making me genuinely curious to see what in the world this movie even was going to be. And, the answer turned out to be, a very lazy movie that was designed as a soft-ball for a very specific audience, and that audience is lapping it up. It’s a movie that makes every single obvious choice, standing on the shoulders of better film-makers while having nothing new to say. It’s just boring and predictable, which really goes against the whole “shocking for the sake of shocking” thing that it’s trying to cultivate. It’s a movie that seems tailor-made for angry high-schoolers, mad at the world while having no real life experience, and finding the idea of nihilism funny. Joaquin Phoenix is fine in the movie, I guess, putting in a very hammy performance and doing what he can with the truly terrible script. Robert DeNiro is having some fun at least, taking some jabs at what I maintain to be his finest performance, Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy. And, the set design is pretty great, really bringing this Gotham City on the verge of societal collapse to life. It’s just a shame that it’s all in service of a laughably bad plot that feels like it was written with some sort of predictive text, choosing the simplest and least-inspired choices every single time.

I saw this movie getting a lot of flack for being such an obvious pastiche of the early films of Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Hell, I myself was tempted to scoff at how clearly Phillips appeared to be aping these films. However, I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. People react powerfully to other people’s stories, and those reactions can lead to very inspired uses of familiar things. It’s certainly possible to be inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese and tell a story that is clearly indebted to his work, while being its own thing. But, to do that, you need to have something to say. And Joker, ultimately, has nothing to say. It just kind of points to better films and says, “boy, those were great, weren’t they?” There’s nothing interesting about this movie, and it just kind of soullessly apes better movies, seemingly without any understanding of what made them work, aside from the visual aesthetics. And, that general malaise ends up permeating the entire film, playing right into the ultimate nihilism that it seems to embrace. It isn’t a movie about anything. Arthur makes it quite clear that he doesn’t want to be political, and I don’t think the movie does either. It seems to have contempt for both sides, choosing the infuriatingly juvenile path of proclaiming both sides dumb, while having “no opinion.” Which, is just a way to plugging your ears and not caring about the world around you. Arthur Fleck’s actions lead to murder and chaos, and he doesn’t even care. And, while I’m sure I would have found that awesome when I was a spoiled teenager who though the whole world was ridiculous, living in my suburban house while everything was provided to me, I now find it incredibly aggravating. And, that’s kind of this entire movie. It takes what it wants with no insight or appreciation, and seems offended when you want something in return. It doesn’t deliver a story, a moral, or even a coherent worldview. It’s just a series of bland scenes that boil down to a movie about nothing. And I’m so glad I never have to think about it again.


Joker was written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, directed by Todd Phillips, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.



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