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By Jason Michael
ALMOST EVERY REVIEW of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) begins with the disclaimer that the reviewer doesn’t usually go in for films like this, DC and Marvel comic book adventures on the big screen. Neither do I, but I do have a strange personal relationship with these stories and with the DC universe in particular. Some time ago, as a Biblical Studies PhD student, I was exploring Claude Lévi-Strauss’ theory of mythemes – the idea that great myths travel through time and evolve to meet changing political and social needs, but remain essentially the same stories by preserving ‘bundles’ of narrative elements. So, we might look at the account of the flood in ancient Mesopotamia – the myth of Atra-Ḫasīs and the Epic of Gilgamesh – and see how it has been preserved in the Hebrew Bible’s story of Noah and the great flood.
Grant Morrison’s book Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero (2011) put me wide to the continuation of these mytheme bundles in the modern story of Superman. He wasn’t looking at the ‘Man of Steel’ as a retelling of the flood, but as a reiteration of the Greek myth of Hercules. But it became obvious to me that the destruction of Krypton (Superman’s home planet) and the image of the infant Kal-El (Superman’s real name) contained all of the mytheme elements of the flood myth; catastrophic destruction, survival in a reed-woven ark, and heroic status afterwards. From this moment I was hooked. You should have seen the faces of the stuffy academics at a conference in Dublin when I tried – hilariously unsuccessfully – to explain this theory.
David Allen (@InkabodCrane) November 19, 2017
Since then I have been fascinated by the comic book genre and the graphic novel. Batman has never done it for me. As a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, the notion of a superhero for the capitalist class just grinds my gears. But a film touting itself as a biopic or a pre-history of his nemesis, the Joker, caught my attention. I wanted to see how Warner Brothers chose to depict the archenemy of the hero of the monied class. It was nothing like what I had expected. Without besmirching the goodness of the young Bruce Wayne, Joaquin Phoenix gives the viewer a sympathetic antihero – a broken and mentally ill Arthur Fleck struggling through his metamorphosis into a character who can only rightly be described as the perfect nihilistic super-man qua Nietzsche’s übermensch.
Before getting into this, it is worth noting the striking difference between the reviews of this film in the mainstream media and its reception by audiences. Russell Brand comments on this in his review:
We recognise mostly through news media the narrative of the lone shooter, the crazed gunman, the serial killer; these dark, antihero narratives that exist in popular culture and the way they are played out, the way that we toy with the idea of the macabre – that these characters are attractive. But somehow all of us recognise that there is an aspect of ourselves we are holding on to … and what the film certainly does is takes the temperature of a particular moment where people, it seems to me at least, feel dissatisfied, oppressed, and split. The plot of the film examines the way that an act of violence and psychosis becomes a flashpoint for a cultural movement that has a real vivacity and anger in it – a kind of ‘Kill the Rich’ … kind of movement that has a dark psychosis to it.
It goes entirely without saying that the mainstream producers and guardians of ‘culture’ would be squeamish with what Joker presents, but the audiences didn’t buy their negative judgement. It describes and speaks directly into the age of disconnect; the present zeitgeist created by atomisation, the loss of identity, cultural pessimism, the birth of the precariat, and the seething rage and ressentiment that characterise the early twenty-first century. This was an extremely bold move by Warner Brothers, but I believe it will pay off. Like Taxi Driver (1976) – which is so obviously and consciously evoked by the film, Joker is destined to become a classic of our generation’s discontents.
The name Arthur Fleck, the name of the character in the process of transforming into the Joker, is clever. As far as I am aware, this is the first time this name has appeared in the Batman canon. First off, the Joker, as the perfect anarchistic and antinomian villain is – in the parlance of social media – Crazy AF. But it hints at the dualism behind the formation of the final product; at once he is a heroic type, chivalrous and idealistic – Arthurian, and yet, like the mounting garbage on the streets of Gotham (the film is set against the backdrop of a rubbish collection strike) he is cast off by his society, a loner, mocked by all and betrayed by everyone he loves – he is a fleck to be thoughtlessly brushed away. It is in the dance of these two realities, in response to poverty, inequality, injustice, and down right insanity that Arthur Fleck begins his haphazard evolution into the Joker.
Regardless of the violence and criminality, at each stage of Fleck’s journey into the abyss the film interrogates the idea of justice – again, something I had not expected. The rich and famous – Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin (played Robert De Niro who played the protagonist Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver) – have the law on their side. They have the protection of the police and the instruments of the state. They are the great and the good, but, despite their privilege and the veneer of goodness and respectability that covers them, they are not just. Their behaviour and cavalier treatment of others makes Gotham, as it is in the real world, a hostile environment for people like Fleck. The exploration of justice in the film divides the notions of law and moral goodness, and – without giving any spoilers – it is in trying to navigate these obstacles of the law qua power and morality, endlessly frustrated by his mental illness, that Fleck finds his resolution in a violent attack on the powerful and immoral.
Watched Joker last night. It's one of the better DC movies. At first I thought it was a redress of Michael Douglas… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
(@TheWholeTruthXX) November 15, 2019
His personal rebellion is then, in a sense, ethical. Fleck, however, denies even this. In spite of his discriminate violence – he does not attack the innocent, there is no underlying philosophy to his revolution. In this regard the film is trying to manufacture a post-structural hero, a man whose actions set out to smash all the viewer’s narrative expectations. All of the rational explanations for his behaviour; everything that might justify him or mitigate his actions in the eyes of the law, are systematically trashed as the movie progresses. In the end we are left with a villain to whom we are attracted but are left without a single reason for that attraction.
Phillips brilliantly spells out his awareness of this in the film with the reaction of the people on the street to Fleck’s crime. On the train, an act of self defence becomes a premeditated murder, and – as the victims were in their persons symbols of the structural injustice and inequality of society – the public response, the response of people in the same socio-economic bracket as Fleck, is one of celebration. So much so is this the case that it sparks a movement. This is exactly what Russell Brand picks up on when he explains how “an act of violence and psychosis becomes a flashpoint for a cultural movement.” We’re reminded of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, of the shooting of Mark Duggan and the rioting it caused over England in 2011, and other similar events that have provoked popular outrage and violence.
Joker is not your typical superhero film. It is a beautiful and dark cinematic comment on what Pankaj Mishra has termed “The Age of Anger (2017).” Easily, Joker, is the best film I have seen this year. It is too easy to say that something is a work of genius, but there is definitely something of genius pervading this movie. As someone interested in society and politics, in the events and movements that are shaping the world around us, I would put Joker on an essential viewing list. So, if you are at a loose end before Christmas, this film comes with my highest recommendation.
JOKER – Final Trailer – Now Playing In Theaters