Analysis, Commentary, Opinion
I saw the film The Joker this week.
I went with a couple of friends and saw it in a nice movie theater with comfortable seats.
We went for the 5:30 showing on a weekday and the theater was practically empty, but the movie by Todd Phillips, starring Joaquim Phoenix had been in command of the box office for the past couple of weeks.
I had been excited to see this film ever since I saw the first preview, and that desire had been amplified by the great reviews it had received.
I was utterly disappointed.
Before I get into why the movie was disappointing let me just say that Joaquim Phoenix’s performance was great, and the movie was beautifully filmed…nevertheless, it was not worth the price of admission.
The star’s performance and the art direction end up being meaningless when the story does not present us with a meaningful narrative.
The Joker was in its essence a bio-pic. It presented us with a narrative of the early life of one of the most iconic villains ever written about; a sociopathic, mass-murdering nihilist and merely presented the touchstones of how he went from A – B.
There was nothing at stake in the movie, there was nothing at risk, there was no conflict there was just the story of man slowly losing his mind and devolving into madness, while making the determination at various points along his journey that he was okay with it, though he did not struggle to become okay with it, he merely was.
The story took some risks insofar as it introduced elements to the Joker’s, biography that shake-up the common understanding of Bruce Wayne’s (a.k.a. The Batman) parentage, suggesting that the Joker could be his biological brother, while simultaneously obscuring our ability to be certain about that because that particular piece of his story could also be the function of his mother’s own delusions.
In writing this possibility into the Joker’s narrative it opens the viewer to the speculation that Thomas Wayne was not the noble philanthropist we had been led to believe in. He may have been merely one more billionaire business mogul who slept with his employees, fathered a child by one, and who might have gone to extravagant ends to cover up the “illegitimate” birth.
Furthermore, it suggests the possibility that this cover-up is the very thing that drives the Joker’s biological mother too madness, deprives her of a meaningful livelihood, exposes her to the dangers of Gotham City, bringing abusive men into her life who beat and neglected both her and her child. It suggests that one of these beatings that the Joker suffered as a child caused the organic brain damage that led to his own permanent state of psychosis (and other derangements).
These narrative elements establish material conditions for the Joker’s collapse into madness, and so they are significant, but the film does not treat these details at length, and they ultimately make up a small part of the story.
It was a disappointing film.
We are presented a picture of the Joker which suggests that he was either born with a hereditary madness, or inflicted with an organic disability at a very early age, which subsequently determined the course of his life, an argument that he was born bad and corrupt by nature.
The film also presents us with the narrative that his natural condition was manageable, able to be managed for a time by medical intervention, but when the city stopped funding social services, and his medication was no longer accessible to him he spiraled out of control, suggesting that a more nurturing environment could have saved him.
The entire narrative suggests that some human beings are corrupt by nature, that society has an obligation to intervene on their behalf, and it fails to do so, then it will get what it deserves, a murderous incarnation of its own self-loathing.
The film presented the Joker as the archetype of this sociopathic nihilism writ large, but it also suggests that the average men and women of Gotham share these same traits writ small, as in the final scenes when inspired by the Joker’s murderous rampage the city proceeds to riot en masse, not do to the experience of a particular act of injustice, but because they were inspired by the Joker’s spate of killings.
The Joker was a wasted opportunity, a great production, with beautiful artistic sense wasted on a week narrative.