Is Joker a big troll?
Being outraged by Joker is falling into its trap. The origin story of Batman’s nemesis, played by a low-carb Joaquin Phoenix, carefully picks its moments to troll you.
Take the film’s most triumphant moment: Joker dances in the streets of Gotham City in full clown make-up and dyed green hair. The scene is set to Garry Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2. So what’s the punchline? Well, Glitter is a convicted paedophile. You can give director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) the benefit of the doubt – the song still plays at sporting events guilt free – but even the world’s worst search engine would inform you of Glitter’s misdemeanours. Like with a lot of Joker’s edgiest moments, it’s crafted to agitate.
Phillips wants Joker to be taken seriously with its exploration of a man’s decent into madness, and eventually murder, which triggers a class war on the streets of Gotham built on an ‘eat the rich’ mentality. The politics are murky because Joker is pushed over the edge because he feels unheard and his career as a stand-up comedian ain’t working out. Jeez bud that is … not so tough. Yes, the terrifying enigma of the Joker, which has always been the character’s greatest strength throughout the history of Batman comics, gets explained in detail. The Joker used to be evil in the same way the flux capacitor makes time travel possible in Back to the Future – it just is.
None of the undercooked politics, violence or ties to exhausting tropes of Batman films (hello, young Bruce Wayne) are Joker’s worst hand. Its biggest misstep is empathy. Phillips is obsessed with ensuring we understand Joker’s motives to portray him as a tragic figure who becomes a cult hero. Phoenix’s performance is great, but he’s been better. Look to You Were Never Really Here, The Master, or as even as far back as Gladiator; a far more menacing villain.
Phillips’ greatest trick is making Joker look like a gritty character study from the 1970s, inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), William Friedkin (The French Connection) and Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico) but it’s nothing more than a poor imitation.
Only for a moment does Joker have a point-of-view that’s tangible, which is the dangers of giving extremists a mainstream platform. Gotham’s media sensationalise Joker’s crimes with newspaper front pages covered with clowns with fangs, and later in the film he’s invited as a guest on a popular talk show (enter: Robert Di Niro). It all ends badly, but Joker only ever paints in shades of black on black. Whenever it feels like the films got something to say slaps on a ‘shit happens’ bumper sticker instead.
We’ve perfected the art of giving things the attention they don’t deserve in pop culture, politics and social media; Joker slots into this category. It’s already one of the most talked about films of 2019 so far. We’ve been trolled.
This article was first published in BMA Magazine.