By Sam Stashower ’22
Alright, so, Joker. Bit of a throwback, right? It only came out a year ago, but what even is a year ago in these quarantine times? Feels like at least a decade’s come and gone since Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning comic book film graced our cinema screens (it also feels like at least a decade since any movie graced our cinema screens, but that’s neither here nor there). Remember when Joker was a thing? Remember when it was the thing? There are few benefits to the 2020 pandemic — okay, there are no “real” benefits, but bear with me — but one thing you can say is that all the shit we’re going through right now really puts the nonsense of last year in perspective. Or maybe not; I’m really grasping for good things here.
It seems almost quaint, given our present circumstances, to look back at 2019 and remember how, for what seemed like a significant amount of time, just about everyone on the interwebz were super up in arms about this comic book movie where a clown went around, laughing and killing people (occasionally at the same time). But it’s actually true; ridiculous as it may seem with the benefit of distance, there was a legit energy surrounding this film when it came out. This film, against all odds, seemed to premiere at just the right time to completely encapsulate the tenor of the nation.
Whether you came down on the side of it being “good, actually” or “bad, actually” The legacy of Joker isn’t so much about how it was as a movie than about how it was received. Which, I mean, there was precedent for that. Even before the movie came out, it was more interesting and exciting as a conceptual thing than as an actual movie we’d maybe get to watch. Tracking this movie from inception to completion was a fucking trip, let me tell you. Cast your mind back to 2017, in the blissfully innocent days where the DCEU —- DC Comics’ answer to the recent MCU success —- hadn’t been totally consumed by the release of a new cut of a movie that had already come out. It was actually quite the contrary; the recent success of Wonder Woman had apparently convinced the higher-ups at DC to de-emphasize the “extended universe” side of their film output, and start focusing on smaller, more interesting projects. That’s how we got Shazam! and Aquaman, two very solid DCEU movies with nary a mention of the “extended universe” stuff between them.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. I’m specifically remembering when, in August of that year, we got this announcement: that Warner Bros. and DC Films were developing a standalone Joker film —- completely separate from the Jared Leto incarnation, who at that time was also getting a solo film, I think? —- with Hangover mastermind Todd Phillips directing the thing, and co-writing it with Scott Silver. Oh, and Martin Scorsese was attached as co-producer.
Just…re-read that for a second. Bask in the fittingly Joker-like insanity of it all. The director of The Hangover trilogy was going to helm an apparently super-serious take on the most famous villain in comic book history. He was going to write it with a man whose only previous foray into the superhero genre was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie best remembered for having Deadpool in it, except not really. And Martin Scorcesse —- THAT Martin Scorsese, who at the time had just released his religious epic Silence, and had never had anything to do with superheroes one way or another (boy howdy, would that change) —- was going to produce the thing with him.
I gotta be honest: for a while there, I kind of doubted that this thing would ever even come out. I remembered all those weird Spider-Man spinoffs Sony was desperately trying to get off the ground a while back —- remember the insane “Aunt May as a young, sexy spy” idea they were actually considering at one point? —- and just assumed the “Martin Scorsese-produced standalone Joker movie from the Hangover guy” (seriously, just look at that sentence) would go the way of those. Everything about this movie’s pre-production fed into that idea; I seem to remember it looked like this would actually get made in tandem with that aforementioned solo Jared Leto Joker movie…which, Jesus, what an idea, huh? Whatever you may feel about this film, be thankful we dodged that fucking bullet.
Instead, as you know, the crazy bastards actually made it, and then at some point between them wrapping the shoot and the thing actually coming out, everyone on the internet I guess unanimously decided to get really invested in the film. And I gotta be honest; even now, one year later, I still don’t get it. My response coming out of that opening weekend theater could be summed up as such: “Huh, so I guess it’s Ghostbusters 2016 all over again.”
Mind you, I don’t mean in terms of quality. I didn’t love Joker, and my opinion of it has only gone down in the months (and now year) following its release, but if nothing else, it’s better than Ghostbusters 2016 (which somehow became “Answer The Call” when no one was looking). What I’m talking about is more the way the cultural conversation warped around them, turning them into these kind of barometer tests for where you stood, or what you stood for. Choosing to see – or not to see – these movies was suddenly a political act. And then the movies actually came out, and everything kind of fizzled out. My guess is that everyone who got real riled up online, who bought a ticket determined to have a “take” on these two culturally important movies, saw them in their opening weekend, and left the theaters with a general sense of embarrassment that they’d gotten so worked up over something so fundamentally milquetoast.
It’s very well known by now, but it bears repeating: Todd Phillips is a huge Martin Scorsese fanboy, and Joker is packed to the brim with overt references to his films Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this; directors “borrow” from their predecessors all the damn time (Star Wars is a high-profile example of this paying off, and it could be argued that Quentin Tarantino has based his whole filmography on this very practice), and the fact of the matter is, if you’re trying to get inspiration for your gritty, grimy psychological character study, as Phillips clearly was, you can’t really do better than Taxi Driver and King of Comedy.
But there’s a fine line between “homage” and “ripoff,” and what I think happened here was that Phillips went for the former, and then stumbled headfirst into the latter. References to other movies are meant to enhance your experience of watching a new film; think of it as a fun little easter egg, a reward for paying attention. Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided you can find a proper balance between referencing other things and finding your own voice. And for the life of me, I never got the sense that Joker ever found its own voice.
Let me try to give an example of the difference. Y’all remember Event Horizon? If not, this is the month for it; it’s a really fun little cult horror movie about astronauts in space. It’s super camp, super gory, and very Halloween. It’s also a movie that, within the first couple of minutes, seems to go out of its way to remind you of another, much more famous, and generally regarded as “better” movie. Right away while watching the film, you almost can’t help but notice parallels between Event Horizon and the Ridley Scott masterpiece Alien. The spaceships they’re on have almost identical aesthetics to the Nostromo and the planet LV-428, the way the working-class crewmembers banter with each other is very similar; hell, there are a handful of shot setups in Event Horizon that are just straight-up lifted from Alien.
And yet, I would never call Event Horizon an Alien ripoff, for one fairly significant reason; it’s a completely different movie experience. Event Horizon is a gonzo, campy bloodbath, a movie more akin to a haunted house ride than something that’s actually trying to scare you, whereas Alien is almost painfully protracted and suspenseful. Event Horizon borrows the aesthetics (and a lot of the setup) from Alien, but it uses those aesthetics as a springboard to tell its own story.
Joker, as mentioned, also borrows a lot from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. The plot of Joker is basically just those two movies put in a blender, with a clown slapped on; it’s a movie about a mentally ill loner, slowly being driven mad by isolation and social degradation (Taxi Driver), who also aspires to be a stand-up comic, but keeps getting rebuffed, which doesn’t help much with his deteriorating mental state (King of Comedy). And I want to repeat: there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Honestly, if you’d put me in charge of the “Joker origin story project,” I’d probably come up with something similar. Telling the Joker’s origin by way of a Scorsese riff is a legit inspired idea.
The problem is, Joker doesn’t use the aesthetics of those other, classic movies, as a way to spin off into its own thing; it re-appropriates them basically in service of the same kind of experience. Both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy tackled pressing social issues (albeit different ones, and in different ways) in a way that was aggressively un-sensationalized and down-to-earth. They featured characters that were mentally ill, and presented a world as seen through their eyes. That’s…I mean, that’s basically Joker, to a T.
And if that were the end of it? Alright. But when watching Joker, I couldn’t ever really shake the feeling that Todd Phillips, in spite of his obvious love of those Scorsese classics, and especially in spite of his obvious (and, given where his career had gone with those Hangover sequels, surprising) technical skills, didn’t really get the point of what he was doing.
I want to emphasize something, before we really get into this; Joker is an exceptionally well-made movie. It won the Oscar for Best Original Score and was nominated for cinematography, and the fact of the matter is, it deserved both (not to denigrate the other nominees in each category; I’m just saying that both nominations were very deserving). It has a terrifically expressive visual palette, managing to evoke a nonspecific era of the past without ever lathering it on too thick. And the music to the film is simply magnificent; the same year that Joker came out, Hildur Guðnadóttir also lent her talents to the HBO show Chernobyl. Now, the score for Joker only has a tenth of the power that the Chernobyl score had, but in all honesty, that’s all it needed.
So it looks great, sounds great, and the acting, as I’m sure you all know, is excellent across the board. The problem, then, is intention and depth. What makes Taxi Driver and King of Comedy such enduring masterpieces, to the point where they’re still widely seen and discussed to this day, isn’t their technical skills, or the acting, or any of that. That helps, no question, but what really gives those movies their power is their themes and the power of the story they’re really telling.
Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are movies where the main characters are mentally ill, and prone to extreme violence. The films are told from their point of view, and at several points, we’re invited to feel pity for them. But —- crucially —- we’re never on their side. At all times, Scorsese is careful to keep us at enough of an arm’s length away from them so that, whenever they do something reprehensible, we have distance to recognize it as such.
Joker has no such distance, and for a lot of the movie, accidentally seems to revel in his acts of wanton murder and cruelty. It takes moments that should be chilling, or sobering, and accidentally repurposes them as badass or kewl. At the same time that Rupert Pupkin was sweatily kidnapping talk-show host Jerry Langford, Arthur Fleck was dancing down the stone steps like the awesome rebel the movie seems to think he is. The song’s change – from “Rock and and Roll Part 2” to a more quietly bombastic, ominous track from Guðnadóttir – doesn’t actually do much to alter the impression that we’re watching someone formidable, and not pathetic, which is the understanding Scorsese had when making those movies.
That understanding is totally lacking from this movie, as evidenced by Todd Phillips’ whole post-movie demeanor, which was frankly baffling. I’m not just talking about his now infamous answer as to why he was making a movie like this now: that “woke culture has killed comedy” quote, the kind of statement that’ll give you a hemorrhage from eye-rolling too hard. No, I’m actually talking about his even more idiotic comparison to John Wick, where he openly questioned why audiences “hooted and hollered” to that character killing 300 people while his movie was held to scrutiny.
I’m just…wow, right? It’s been a straight-up year, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how someone could think those two things are equatable. An escapist fantasy about a guy who goes on a killing spree against the mob to avenge the death of his dog, vs. a movie that, in every single scene, goes out of its way to insist on its own importance, to the point of actively stealing its best bits from two of the most highly-regarded movies ever made.
He made that movie, and yet his whole demeanor after-the-fact screamed, “Why are you even asking these questions?” Dude, you made the film that way. The same goes for Phoenix, who made some waves when he just up and left an interview when asked if the Joker might incite violence. He came back later, claiming that he just needed to “compose himself” and “think about the answer,” and I’ve got to ask: did any of these people ever stop to think about the kind of movie they were actually making?
I really don’t think so. In the cold light of day, with a year removed since its release, Joker reads more and more like a movie made by a guy who wanted more than anything else to have that “serious movie” cred, so instead of actually sitting down and developing the point he wanted to make, he took two of his favorite movies, grabbed around for some hot-button social issues of the day, then threw everything at the wall, in order to see what stuck. Is Joker about mental illness? Yes! Is it about society? You bet! Is it about the media? Totally! Is it about class struggle? You’d better believe it! Does it have the focus or the narrative clarity to actually develop any of these ideas beyond the most basic surface-level texture?
…’cause the Scorsese movies did.