Upon Joker’s initial release, praises flew in from critics and fans alike regarding its replication of the 70s hit streak of gritty films about loners who have been marginalized from society. The film is littered with references to those of Martin Scorese, namely The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Upon seeing this movie, it’s clear why many drew such comparisons: they offer Joker its main—and possibly only—sense of political relevance.
With vague political critiques masquerading as both attempted commentary and allusions to the films that have come before, the movie’s director Todd Phillips balks at asserting any coherent political message. Phillips hides behind the pre-established “chaos for chaos’ sake” take on the Joker established by The Dark Knight’s director Christopher Nolan as an excuse for never delving deeply into the circumstances that created the notorious villain.
The movie follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a struggling clown by day and comedian by night whose mental illness renders him unable to perform. Joker examines the consequences of society overlooking the less fortunate and the circumstances that could lead someone to commit acts as heinous as the ones perpetrated by the Joker. The only problem, though, is that these “circumstances” are never defined and the “less fortunate” are never given a face. Instead, they are represented by pseudo-Marxist catch phrases like “Kill The Rich,” a headline featured in a newspaper that many of the protesters read. Making sure not to pinpoint any one cause as to not alienate any viewer, Phillips merely throws vague criticisms towards society at large.
To backtrack on the aforementioned leftist views—Phillips himself has frequently criticized the “far left”—Joker depicts Gotham City’s poor as easily agitated, with a mob mentality that leads to the death of various police officers. Fleck is assaulted by poor, thieving children as well as rich, arrogant Wall Street brokers. In Phillips’ Gotham, Fleck’s antagonists are the poor and the rich alike, allowing caricatures of the two groups to take the place of any real portrayal of class relations.
A step in the right direction for DC movies, Joker sets the framework for DC to produce films that are unbound by genre conventions and, hopefully in the future, will grasp the ever-shifting political and social climate of the real world. An Oscar-worthy performance from Phoenix facilitates a grounded understanding of mental illness that isn’t as cartoonish as the comics would have you believe. The film’s decision not to villainize the mentally ill, but rather those who lack compassion towards them, is greatly appreciated and one of the few moments of originality in an otherwise trope-riddled film. It’s clear that the movie should have stuck to just that, rather than attempting to engage in a political discourse grounded in a misunderstanding of the films Phillips frequently references.