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Joker: A Compelling Yet Fragmented Sad-Clown-to-Mad-Clown Story

Rihab Attioui, MA Postcolonial Studies 

Rating: 3.9/5

From the over-saturated and over-decade long reign of the superhero genre emerges: ‘Joker’. 

Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ is a film that, for many die-hard fans, signals a long-awaited (and somewhat holier-than-thou) return to the niche sub-cultural status – where the genre supposedly belongs. From the frenzy of its pre-release praise to the genuine interest in the Pagliacci-esque character study of a well-documented villain, ‘Joker’ certainly generated a buzz like no other this autumn film season. The loudest strand of commentary, however, does not come from its ardent fan base, nor from the prejudice of art-house film critics, but from those that have concerns about the type of behaviour this film may encourage. Given that the Joker has notoriously been a figure-head for a very specific ‘nice guys finish last’ archetype, there were worries this iteration of the Joker would build on the character’s misogynistic past – like Jared Leto’s Joker and his penchant for abusing Harley Quinn. After watching Phillip’s version, however, I have an altogether different concern.

‘Joker’ tells the story of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown for hire and an aspiring yet failing comedian whose oppressively piteous life leads him on a ‘slow ramp up to insanity,’ as Phillips himself described. However, before his Kafka-esque metamorphosis into the super-villain we know today, Fleck is overwhelmingly portrayed as a man who is constantly beaten down by the uncaring monolith that is Gotham City and its billionaire benefactors like Thomas Wayne. The audience feels, from the very beginning, that this is a tale of one man’s neglect and abuse by the institutions that are meant to protect him – for instance, the austerity cuts to the counselling he receives which were crucial to his mental stability. However, the care taken to comment on such social issues is consistently undermined as the film progresses due to the sheer gratuitously graphic nature of the abuse he endures. The constant displays of violence made it difficult to focus on anything but blood and gore, and any hope for a nuanced anti-establishment critique got lost in amidst the overbearing edgy grittiness. Similarly, the didactic direction of ‘Joker is somewhat fragmented. Fleck repeatedly denies having any political motivation behind the burgeoning Gothamite revolution he comes to incite, despite the film seemingly positioning itself as an advocate of populist anti-one-percenter sentiment (note the scene where the Gotham mob, donned in clown masks, rise en masse in opposition to the wealth of the Waynes). Although the palpable mass rage and plights of the disenfranchised are very real problems that are undoubtedly familiar to today’s audiences, there is a sense that the anti-capitalism of the film was scrounged up as a slightly desperate attempt to ground it in something politically relevant and substantive. It doesn’t quite fit.

The care taken to comment on such social issues is consistently undermined as the film progresses, however, due to the sheer gratuitously graphic nature of the abuse he endures.

Despite this, there is an unmistakable compelling quality to the production and tonality of the film itself. As a comics-inspired origin story, it is no ‘Logan’ – but similarly to what ‘Logan’ did for Hugh Jackman, there can be little doubt that this iteration of the Joker provided a deliciously multi-dimensional canvas for Phoenix’s acting range. It is made clear that Phoenix is the fulcrum around which the film revolves. Even if you are not the type to be bogged down by admittedly pretentious filmic commentary, ‘Joker’ is definitely still worth the watch – if only for Phoenix’s performance. His portrayal of an unsettlingly piteous man that transforms into a killer with an indiscriminately exorbitant delight for violence is nothing short of operatic. 

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