“Joker,” which picked up 11 Oscar nods on Monday morning, does not deserve to be the most nominated superhero film in the history of the Academy Awards. The problem? “Joker” isn’t a good movie. Even worse, there are plenty of films from 2019 that are far better in the areas where “Joker” claims to be good.
From a narrative standpoint, “Joker” isn’t so much a story as it is suffering porn — namely, a series of increasingly terrible events that befall a major character for the purpose of marking him or her as “tragic.” It tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill party clown and aspiring comedian who gradually turns to violence after experiencing repeated social rejection and persecution. While “Joker” aspires to be a character study in the vein of Martin Scorsese films like “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” those movies link the unfortunate events that beset their protagonists’ lives to a strong central narrative. “Joker,” by contrast, is simply an episodic list of bad things that happen to one guy, over and over again, all with the goal of bringing us to a climax in which he transforms into the titular character.
I think of Scorsese’s observation criticizing Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, one that applies just as effectively to “Joker”: “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”
The psychological origin story
“Joker,” at its core, exists to meet the demand of having its main character become the Joker, and does so by trying to be an “indie film” variation on the “comic book origin story” theme. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips admitted as much when he responded to the film’s Oscar nominations by writing on Instagram that the filmmakers started by asking whether they could “take an ‘indie approach’ to a studio film by inverting it into a character study to reflect the world around us.” The end result is a film with the superficial trappings of a deeper story, but lacking any authentic depth. “Joker” doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about comic book origin tales or the people who gravitate toward becoming outlandish characters; it just applies the gloss of the “quirky, misunderstood outsider” indie sub-genre.
Compare that to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2019 sequel “Glass,” which has a much more clever take on how superhero and supervillian origin stories can be deconstructed than anything seen in “Joker.” Building on the mythology established in the movies “Unbreakable” and “Split,” “Glass” tells the story of why one disabled man desperately wants to believe that superheroes are real and how he attempts to manipulate the outside world to both prove his theory and accelerate society’s evolution. Like “Joker,” “Glass” is at its heart an origin story, but it has the insight to really explore why the archetypes, tropes, and narrative arcs of comic book plots are so appealing in the first place. As I wrote in my review at the time, “When Price (Sameul L. Jackson) discusses why people need to believe that these heroes are real, how it can give them a sense of hope in a world too often filled with sadness and pain, he sounds like a darker version of the inspiring idealist that Jackson more famously plays in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Colonel Nick Fury (Shyamalan playfully alludes to this parallel with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pun based on the Marvel brand).”
The politics and portrayal of mental illness
It is also necessary to analyze the political and social subtext in “Joker.” As a preemptive response to those who claim that they don’t want political and social issues mentioned in their reviews: “Joker” clearly envisions itself as a message picture. Phillips himself even wrote on Instagram that the film wanted to “explore what we’re seeing and feeling in society.” As such, it is not only reasonable but necessary to hold “Joker” to the same standard that it applies for itself.
It is a standard that the movie fails to meet. While it tries to sympathize with individuals who are mentally ill — and occasionally has valid insights about issues like the defunding of government programs that help people who struggle with these illnesses — far too often it resorts to using mental illness as a spectacle. When Phoenix cavorts around in his underwear, or histrionically mugs for the camera, or engages in acts of violence that we are meant to see as rooted as much in his psychology as in a reaction to persecution, the main goal isn’t to make us feel for the character. It is to hold him up as a freak, like a patient in Bedlam, and gawk in awe, revulsion, and terror at how this poor human creature behaves as a result of being mentally ill. The fact that the filmmakers intended for sympathy to be one of their reactions doesn’t absolve them from trying to evoke other, less savory responses as well. (It doesn’t help the situation that the movie’s plot also reinforces the stereotype about people with mental illnesses being prone to violence.)
There is a contrast between “Joker” and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” which is also a genre picture (in this case, horror) that attempts to use its format to tell a deeper parable about mental illness. “Midsommar” is a harrowing tale about social intolerance toward mentally ill individuals that includes a main character who (a) is never treated by the story as a spectacle, and (b) displays far more realistic and relatable symptoms of mental illness than Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. Dani (Florence Pugh) has an anxiety condition that makes her an emotional drain on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and results in her being viewed as an annoyance by his friends. She also suffers from PTSD due to an early event in the film’s story that I dare not spoil. As a result, the film becomes a character study about one person’s grappling with mental illness even as it cycles through the narrative requirements of being a folk horror flick. When Dani visits a cult in Sweden, she is seduced by their vision of a structured life filled with love and acceptance precisely because the rest of the world has been so unwelcoming to her. Her mental illness is portrayed in an accurate way that never becomes self-indulgent or unrealistically melodramatic, and it informs the plot in a fashion that goes beyond pointing and saying, “Look at this mentally ill person! Be amazed (and also feel bad for them)!”
The hazy economics
Next, we should also look at how “Joker” attempts to address economic issues. While the movie does take place in a world where poverty and crime are rampant (though this is hardly a new theme in “Batman” movies, especially “The Dark Knight Rises”), it doesn’t add any teeth to its supposed analysis. As I wrote in my review at the time:
“Yet those who oppose this unjust establishment aren’t given a specific ideology, just explosively violent rage. It offers no solutions beyond “burn it all down,” with the Joker openly (and somewhat disingenuously) disavowing any interest in politics during a climactic monologue. The desire to kill elites is instead driven by primal vengeance, not a desire for a new world order like the anarchism preached by Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Given the movie’s ultra-violent conclusion, the malleability of this aspect of its identity is also potentially dangerous.”
To this observation I would add: Many fans of “Joker” are also fans of President Donald Trump and/or the alt right. (I know this from having been harassed by many “Joker” fanboys — nearly all, with characteristic cowardice, doing so anonymously and from the safety of a keyboard.) Considering that Trump’s economic philosophy is based around aiding the wealthy at the expense of the poor (see: his tax cuts and business deregulations), and the alt right focuses on marginalizing non-whites because of their race, it is hard to imagine a movie appealing to them that has genuine compassion in its soul. The most generous explanation is that “Joker” is a humanitarian film that anti-humanitarians stupidly see as supporting their agenda. The more likely explanation, alas, is that “Joker” is so generic in its message that audiences of all persuasions can read whatever they want into it. That may be a sound standard for a popcorn flick, but not for a movie that wishes to be taken seriously for its “message.”
Compare that to Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” is a tale of struggling with economic inequality that actually provides a socially meaningful explanation and offers an empowering narrative about dealing with it. Inspired by the New York magazine article about strippers who stole from rich male clients, the film presents protagonists who have their foibles and flaws, but unlike Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” they feel like real human beings rather than caricatures; just as important, their flaws are never meant to be ridiculed or gawped at, but understood as part of the richer tapestry of who they are at this point in their lives. The plot itself also has more focus than “Joker,” whose effort to get back at a society that has wronged him economically feels aimless aside from sporadic outbursts of violence. (Again, I turn to my point about the film reinforcing stereotypes about mentally ill individuals being violence-prone.) By contrast, the strippers in “Hustlers” have a well thought-out plot to rip off the stock traders and CEOs who regularly visit their club, one that fuels the plot and is cathartic given how these women are both sexually and economically exploited. Finally, the movie’s message is unmistakable: It is difficult to imagine anyone enjoying “Hustlers” and then supporting a president who brags about grabbing women’s vaginas and cuts food stamps.
One thing that “Glass,” “Midsommar” and “Hustlers” have in common, by the way? Unlike “Joker,” none of them received any Oscar nominations. And there are plenty of superhero films in the past that were genuinely Oscar-worthy that either were shortchanged by the Academy (such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, which was only nominated in the Visual Effects category) or received a number of nominations but not as many as “Joker” (such as “Black Panther,” which was nominated for seven awards and won for Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design). Part of the travesty of “Joker” doing so well in the Oscars is that it is receiving a distinction that superhero films like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther” either did not or at least not to the same degree.
The biggest shame of all, though, is that Hollywood does need a popular movie that spreads empathy for people with mental illnesses, and discourages poverty-shaming, and denounces bullying. If “Joker” really was that film, its popularity could have had a galvanizing effect on society as a whole, much as the Fleck character is able to inspire a mass movement in the film’s climax. Yet when you strip away the sound and fury surrounding this motion picture, all that’s left is a giant nothing into which audiences can insert anything they want. It takes no courage or artistry to make a movie like that — and that’s why the Hollywood elites, mental illness shamers, and online bullies can so easily embrace “Joker” as a movie made for them. (There was also the tragic case of a young man in Reno who allegedly shot and killed another man while dressed as and claiming to be Arthur Fleck’s Joker; Salon reached out to the Washoe County District Attorney’s office which said that it could not disclose details on an active case but that the defendant is to be arraigned on Thursday.)
One can only hope that worthier movies from 2019 and/or the superhero genre ultimately receive their due as well.