Another Man Who Laughs
What’s good, comic fans?! We have another win! Joker is in theaters, and it’s hot! If you haven’t seen the movie yet, DO NOT READ THIS COMMENTARY!!! Checkout the non-spoiler commentary in If I’m Going To Have A Past, I’d Prefer It Be Multiple Choice.
Joker’s caused such a buzz that I had to bring back up. In this article with me is my arch-nemesis, Rob Wright. Rob and I are in pre-production of Nerdcast that will air exclusively with Sidespin! In the Nerdcast, we’re going to tackle all the hot comic and nerd topics. In the meantime, in-between time, he and I are going to discuss and debate several topics about the Joker (2019) film and the source material that spawned it.
Kenny: I just want to put something in perspective real quick.
Rob: Hit me.
Kenny: Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Justice League (2018) were all whack.
Rob: Man of Steel wasn’t terrible.
Kenny: Fine. It was neutered by Batman v Superman.
Rob: Fair. Wait—are we talking about Joker or the Snyderverse?
Kenny: You must be a dream on a first date.
Rob: I’m married…
Kenny: Can I finish?
Rob: Go for it.
Kenny: Those three movies were whack. Wonder Woman (2017), Aquaman (2018), and Joker were all good. What’s the common denominator?
Rob: A suspicious lack of Zack Snyder’s influence?
Rob: Snyder fanboys are going to riot in the streets for that comment.
Kenny: Wasn’t there a riot in Joker?
Rob: Aaaaaaaaaand we’re back on topic! On with the Joker!
Theme of Social Disenfranchisement
Rob: One of the things I’ve noticed is the theme of the rich vs. the impoverished. While the movie takes place in 1981, the backdrop could still be very true today. For example, the rioting at the end of the movie reminded me of Occupy Wallstreet.
Kenny: Yeah, the disenfranchisement of the underprivileged is very relevant. Was I the only one who noticed that Thomas Wayne shared similarities with Donald Trump?
Rob: I didn’t see that. If I could buy Trump knowing how to punch a dude in the face or if Thomas Wayne had a [expletive] that he could grab, then maybe…
Kenny: Snyder fanboys aren’t going to be the only ones rioting in the streets because of this article.
Rob: How much of the audience are we trying to alienate?
Kenny: You know my feelings on fanboys.
Rob: Can we save your fanboy rant for later, and get back on topic?
Kenny: I’ll get you next time fanboys. Okay—I liked the juxtaposition with the comic version of Thomas, who is most often portrayed as a saint. In this movie, Thomas is a bit of an elitist and is not afraid to throw his weight around.
Theme of Social Stigmas
Rob: How about the theme of the social stigma of mental illness? I thought that was tackled really well in the film, and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of mental illness was unprecedented. Arthur Fleck has more issues than uncontrollable laughter. I’d say that he has depression, perhaps mild schizophrenia or identity dissociative disorder. With all his psychological interrupts, Arthur is still capable of functioning in society.
Kenny: You been reading the DSM IV?
Rob: Wikipedia is free.
Kenny: Touché. Okay – the comic version of Joker, despite being a murderous lunatic, is lucid and aware of his actions. I’m glad that Arthur was high functioning as I was concerned going into the movie that his mental state was going to be a plot device rather than a story element that evoked discussion. What we got was a masterful character-study into mental illness. We could have gotten: Crazy guy cackles and kills—the end. Imagine Suicide Squad but with the Joker.
Rob: Joker was in that trash movie…
Kenny: The prosecution rests, your honor.
Rob: Arthur’s disorders made me uncomfortable, and I liked it. The movie put you in the subway/bus seats next to this guy laughing uncontrollably for presumably no reason. The director did a great job showing the discomfort of both Arthur and the bystanders in those scenes. The stigma is well portrayed. Like you said, masterful.
Theme of Transformation
Rob: As the movie progresses, Arthur becomes more violent. When he kills those Wayne Enterprise employees, he does that awkward dance. I think it’s a powerful scene, especially when you compare it to the one he does on the stairs in full Joker regalia.
Kenny: Yeah—the bathroom dance was dope. I really expected Arthur to lean over the sink and ask, “What have I done?” You know, the typical reflection scene. When the dance kicked off, my faced pruned as I tried to figure out what was going on. Then it made sense because it made no sense. I dig it.
Rob: I think another thing that made that scene so powerful was the third guy that he killed. Dude was crawling away, begging for mercy, apologizing profusely, and Arthur just shot him. No words, no emotion. I think that’s when Arthur realized that killing was surprisingly easy.
Kenny: It was almost as if it felt good to him. It appeared like he felt something more than revenge.
Rob: He felt vindicated. These three individuals were the first time he stood up for himself, and to Arthur, they represented his feelings of disenfranchisement.
Kenny: Although I don’t think I like a Joker that feels frustrated about other’s treatment of himself. But then again, perhaps Joker doesn’t get frustrated because he’s normally in control. Arthur wasn’t in control.
Rob: True. Also, he wasn’t the Joker yet.
Kenny: Yeah, I guess. The Joker was emerging. I have to say…I’m not a fan of the blossoming-into-the-Joker piece. Seeing Bruce become Batman is okay. Seeing Joker become Joker just doesn’t have the same effect. Maybe it’s because the movie lacks the moral compass inherent in the transformation of Bruce into the Bat.
Rob: Man, I feel that! As good as the movie was, I sat there going, “Wait. Was I rooting for the Joker?” This movie made you sympathize with a maniacal mass murderer.
Theme of Identity
Rob: I like how Arthur’s perception of self crumbles. When he reads his mother’s letter and believes that he might be Thomas Wayne’s son made him rethink his position in life. Like, Thomas Wayne means something to the world, so Arthur must mean something too. The other time is when he finds out that not only is he not Thomas Wayne’s son, but that he is not his mother’s son, either. I think that plays beautifully into source material’s portrayal of the Joker’s identity: the revelation of his adoption means we really don’t know where Arthur Fleck comes from. It frees him to create his own identity.
Kenny: As much as don’t buy a Joker origin story, I have to agree with you. Todd Smith, the director, did a great job telling an origin story that arguably isn’t an origin because what we watched may have been one big delusion that Arthur had concocted in the very last scene.
Rob: Exactly. Especially since the Joker, as we know him, is known for his manipulation of the law and the truth. If the Joker were to recount his story, I would assume that his latent narcissism would put him in the sympathy seat.
Interest in a Joker Origin
Rob: I just don’t get why there’s such a fascination with the origin of the Joker’s psychology?
Kenny: Well, avid comic fans are a small population. So, my take is the majority of the audience seeing Joker are casual fans. They don’t read the source material so they don’t have a grasp of the literary dynamic behind the character (and that’s perfectly cool with me). I suppose the demand for a Joker origin story comes from the casual fanbase more so than the avid comics fans—or at least the diehard Batman fans. But since a Joker origin is unnecessary for the character, it is the very reason that I say Joker is a great movie, but Arthur just isn’t a great Joker. To the casual fan, he is. To the avid fan, he is a character that only looks like the Joker in appearance.
Rob: Except for the face.
Kenny: Yup, except that. Don’t really know the science of the makeup design in the movie. Doesn’t make the movie not good, just a mild criticism.
Rob: Batman says, “If you can understand the criminal, you can stop the criminal.” It’s hard to stop the Joker because Batman can’t understand him. He’s tried for years to dig up background on Joker and has found nothing.
Kenny: Yup—that’s what makes the Joker so dangerous. In the film, the Joker isn’t as dangerous as more faithful incarnations; he’s nothing the Bat can’t stop. I spent the whole movie thinking to myself, “Batman would have broken Arthur’s arm there. Batman would have dragged Arthur all over the street here. Batman would have kicked that measly six-shooter up Arthur’s ass right at that moment.”
Rob: Arthur is no match for Batman.
Kenny: If he’s no match for Batman, he’s not the Joker.
Rob: Ledger’s Joker was a match.
Kenny: Damn right, he was. Oh, there is a potential origin that I am looking forward to.
Rob: Which is?
Kenny: Three Jokers by Geoff Johns. He just can’t write fast enough.
Rob: We’ll see.
Kenny: Be skeptical if you want. Johns turned the Green Lantern book into one of the greatest comic series in history. I have faith.
Rob: Yeah, we’ll see.
Batman Mythos’ Commentary on Social Decay
Rob: I think we can agree that when it comes to the Joker, writers warp societal rules slightly. For example, when Joker commits murder, he goes to an asylum, not prison, because of the insanity plea. I don’t think that plays out in the film. What do you think?
Kenny: Not really. Todd Smith did a great job painting Gotham as a problem. You know, the super-rat thing, the riots, and the social stratum. What was left out is how broken the legal system is and how corrupt and inept the Department of Health is in Gotham. Social infrastructure (or lack thereof) is a major element in the Batman mythos. Perhaps we were supposed to go into the movie with the assumption that the infrastructure is broken. Seeing the Joker stand trial and get off would have driven that home. The infrastructure piece may not matter to the narrative. But I do think that was lost on the film. But again, we’re avid fans, so we spot the minutia.
Rob: Remember that they cut funding to the social worker? That clearly shows a broken infrastructure.
Kenny: True. But I’m referring to how a debased murderer like the Joker manages to forego prison and go to Arkham—you know, with its revolving door. The loss of funding was a turning point for Arthur, not a signal to us of the ongoing decay in Gotham’s infrastructure.
Rob: What’d you think about the Waynes? I wasn’t a fan.
Kenny: Bro – complete proof that the character, Joker, is measured by Batman. (Check out If I’m Going To Have A Past, I’d Prefer It Be Multiple Choice)
Rob: I don’t think Thomas Wayne should’ve been in the movie. And, why do the writers insist on showing us their death every time?
Kenny: Facts. Haven’t seen that enough. Because, you know, no one knows how the Waynes die.
Rob: The Wayne murders should have been inferred instead of deliberately showed.
Kenny: I hate it when the Joker is responsible for creating Batman. Grinds my gears.
Rob: Definitely. Joker is defined by Batman, not the other way around.
The Character of Arthur Fleck
Rob: Arthur Fleck is presented as the meek, invisible man. All he wants to do is be acknowledged as valuable. No one pays him any attention until he kills people, and then we see the transformation really begin.
Kenny: His aspirations of being a comedian felt shoe-horned based on its placement in the narrative. After he asserts his desire, a few scenes later, he’s in the club taking notes. I think the director should have placed the club scene before Arthur voiced his desire. Either way, I’m not a fan of the comedian piece and never was in the comics. Speaking of comedy clubs, how about that off-key laugh?
Rob: I thought it was a good touch. Can I just say, though, that while The Killing Joke (1988) was a badass story, it doesn’t have to define EVERY Joker story that hits the big screen?
Kenny: No lie. We need to start a petition imploring writers, directors, and studios to ban basing stories on The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and The Killing Joke…
Rob: …for at least the next thirty years. Both of the stories are numbers one and two on the list of Batman books for beginners. I need adaptions of the other great Batman stories out there. Anyway, I really liked the off-key laugh because it was a good indicator of Arthur trying to fit in.
Kenny: What the Joker’s personality and motivation lacked was unpredictability.
Rob: Right?! Nothing in the movie surprised me.
Kenny: The only thing that surprised me was the dance in the bathroom. If you can call it surprise.
Rob: Yeah, the film was predictable. I knew the whole Wayne’s-son thing was a red herring.
Kenny: I knew that Zazie Beetz’s interactions were also misleading. It was cool; I just wasn’t surprised.
Rob: Yeah – that last sequence with Zazie Beetz was intense, though.
Kenny: It really was. It was a great scene. Loved it. It was predictable, though. I mean, the Joker is supposed to be mercurial and cruel.
Rob: Shooting Murray was cruel, but it wasn’t surprising at all. I was sitting there waiting for it to happen.
Rob: I thought it would’ve been cool for the doctor that was interviewing him at the end to be an attractive blonde.
Kenny: Eff that. I would have wanted to drop-kick a baby fur seal if that happened.
Rob: I like Harley.
Kenny: I don’t hate Harley. The media outside of comics and the animated series don’t understand the character. Remember that Suicide Squad crap?
Rob: Been trying to forget. Either way, I think it would have been a cool easter egg.
Kenny: What if the rioters weren’t wearing clown masks, and it was all in Arthur’s head?
Rob: Dude. If that were true, Todd Smith might be my most favorite director since Christopher Nolan.
Kenny: One of the masks was hanging in Arthur’s room.
Rob: Smoking gun?
Kenny: Do you think the movie respects the fanbase – casual and avid?
Rob: I do. I don’t think it’s a mesmerizing take but I do think Todd Smith and Joaquin Phoenix gave us their all in trying to gives us something new and fresh that also respects the loyalty of fans. I give it a solid C.
Kenny: Ouch. Alright. Bro, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is a C. I don’t agree, I give Joker a B+ or A-.
That concludes the commentary! If you have input, leave it in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Joker (2019).
~~Why so serious?
Kenny & Rob