A Jovial Joker Examination

Since I started writing every single week rather than every couple months, I’ve left myself less room for some in depth analysis. A couple weeks ago I got really excited about the Midsommar Director’s Cut and released a very long examination of everything incredible about the film. My weekly format doesn’t exactly lend itself to incredibly lengthy entries, so I’m starting a new type of post: the Examination Collection. I’ll be retroactively adding some previous posts, and will write one of these not on a schedule, but whenever I see a movie I love and/or think deserves a deep, deep dive. Without further ado, behold my analysis of Todd Phillips’ Joker…

I love me some controversial cinema. More often than not, though, I fall on the side of dislike or even hatred, such is the case with Mother! and Interstellar. But seldom is there a movie where the controversy is not entirely confined to its quality, but extends to what the film is trying to say, what it’s trying to do, and in this case, how current divisive, black and white politics fit into Joker’s jigsaw puzzle. Many say that it’s a call to arms for the poor and the outcast, many say it’s an incel’s wet dream, and others are saying that it’s a nihilistic critique of Trump-era mentalities. So let me tell you what I think it is: Joker is a brilliant character study in which a city desperate for a heroic, liberating figure inadvertently chooses a sociopathic clown. 

The most popular critical take on Joker I’ve come across is that Todd Phillips is empowering the involuntary celibate community by giving them a mainstream character to worship. The only reason I can see for this being the case is that people are so used to films where there is a hero and a villain, especially considering this is a DC movie, that they can’t fathom a film where everyone is at fault, and nobody is to be worshipped, or idolized, or even remotely respected. Phillips makes it clear that the upper class elites are not intended to be the so-called “good guys”; they’re constantly looking down on Arthur Fleck and the rest of Gotham’s ever-increasing justice deprived population. But Joker never hails The Joker as society’s saviour, in fact, it consistently does the opposite. Arthur states at many points during the film that he had no intention of becoming any sort of political idol. When he killed those three Wall Street men, he did it because they were beating him for fun, not because of who they represented. Gotham’s underbelly interpreted his act of vengeance and self-defence as an act of rebellion against an oppressive upper class, and reports of the assailant donning clown makeup, along with Thomas Wayne calling the unrestful public “clowns”, make for the perfect symbol of the chaotic uprising that had been brewing for what’s assumed to be years. The Joker that caused the uprising is not the Joker that is worshipped by the citizens of Gotham, he is instead a collective projection of the catalyst necessary to cause a large scale revolution. 

What I’m getting at is that there are two separate Jokers in Joker: society’s fabricated revolutionary symbol, and the character Arthur Fleck, a broken man who never had any intention of starting a class war, he simply wanted people to know he existed. As he dances on the hood of a police car in one of the final shots of the film, he basks not in the glory of insurrection, but in the personal victory of confirming his own reality. When people conflate the two iterations of the Joker present in the film, they are conflating a sociopathic murderer with a lower-class paladin, and come to the erroneous conclusion that Phillips intended for you to revere and respect such a pitiful and disturbed character. 

Joaquin Phoenix’s hysterical performance as Arthur Fleck, later known as Joker, is what makes this movie such a fascinating character study, and not just a vicious and visceral social commentary. For over two hours, we witness a demoralized and defeated man gain a minacious and unlikely amount of power over a city that has never cared about him. Phoenix’s take on mental illness on screen is second to none, allowing us a window into the mind of a human being with no social skills but a penchant for showmanship, a combination that unsurprisingly leads to stand-up comedy, interpretive dance, and murder. His unpredictable nature forces you to the edge of your seat in every scene; his every movement a reminder that Joker does not think like us, and certainly never acts like us. 

Joker is an exaggeration – or perhaps an extension – of the violent and cynical world we live in today. Nearly everyone is seen as a villain, and those we believe to be heroes have nothing going on behind their eyes. Joker deserves to be seen as something more than just the internet’s next big controversy, because in the meaningless squabblings and pearl-clutchings, a paralyzing film about an individual’s madness and a society’s blind worship is being shoved to the wayside.

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