Even for a film devoted to perhaps the most iconic comic book villain in history, Joker has arrived front loaded with a measure of positive and negative hype mixed in with a significant level of anxiety and paranoia.
In that sense, Todd Phillips’ deconstruction of DC Comics villain The Joker, Batman’s eternal primary nemesis from almost a century of comic book lore, befits the approach taken by this detailed, Bat-free examination of the character. Phillips’ film takes a major cue from the work of Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker at the core of the American New Wave movement that defined 1970’s cinema, whose work has particularly concentrated on New York City. Were Joaquin Phoenix’s failed stand up comedian Arthur Fleck not a resident of the fictional, legendary Gotham City, Phillips’ film could easily be set in NYC. His Gotham has the same feel and texture, the same nihilistic cruelty and dystopian economic social and political divide. The early 80’s of Joker is Scorsese’s 70’s, riven through Phillips’ key inspirations such as Mean Streets or particularly Taxi Driver, not to mention the early 80’s showmanship of The King of Comedy.
It would therefore be easy to cast Joker off as a pure Scorsese-homage, or even rip off. Joker wears its inspirations very clearly on its sleeve, lifting Travis Bickle’s righteous fury at society’s decay or Rupert Pupkin’s delusional fantasy of fame and recognition, and porting them into Arthur’s descent into madness. Yet there is a case to be made that Phillips’ film and Arthur’s transformation are one and the same thing. Joker presents an origin story in which a murderous psychopath is created as a product of his environment, of his experiences, and of society’s evolution into the shape it is today. Joker, similarly, is an echo of a cinematic 70’s filled with pictures—such as Sidney Lumet’s Network or Serpico, or Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thrillers—that raged at the system, the inequality, and the corruption at the heart of American society. Joker, too, is a product of its own cinematic heritage. It feels like an evolution of the form.
The question is whether Joker, as a depiction of white male rage, is an irresponsible manifesto or a remarkable moment for comic book cinema.…