“I used to think my life was a tragedy. Now I realize it’s a comedy,” says soon-to-be Joker/Gotham’s resident gaunt downer Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in Todd Phillips’s much-discussed, much-think pieced, much-hyped, much-backlashed film Joker. This line became a standout early on in the promotion of the film, and truth be told, for a good reason–it’s a great line. Not that comedy and tragedy are actually opposed. As our great filth elder Charles Ludlam understood in “Manifesto: Ridiculous Theater, Scourge of Human Folly,” “Bathos is that which is intended to be sorrowful but because of the extremity of its expression becomes comic. Pathos is that which is mean to be comic but because of the extremity of expression becomes sorrowful. Some things which are opposites are actually different degrees of the same thing.”
On its surface, Fleck’s assertion is a subversive statement–one that I can firmly get behind. It’s a wry look at continually being shit on that is akin to Esther Newton’s pearl-clutching observation of the drag queens laughing at horrendous things in her ethnography Mother Camp. Why are the drag queens laughing? Because to laugh–to camp–is to maintain agency in the face of a society that is constructed against you. It’s a shame, though, that unlike those queens, Arthur never seems to have received that part of the memo. For all his assertions of seeing his life as a comedy, he isn’t really laughing (except compulsively).
Joker, at its heart, presents a simplistic social critique, which everyone involved in the film seems under the impression is both revolutionary and deep, wrapped up in a dark and gritty Scorsese love letter that isn’t, in fact, all that dark or gritty. Eschewing the possibility of a radical camp gesture, the film, like Arthur, takes itself way too seriously to be either an effective Joker origin film or something truly transgressive. Instead, it’s an exhausting self-indulgent and self-important slog with no humor that feels like a multi-part Twitter thread come to life. I mean, why else avoid the transcendent possibility of using Grace Jones’ disco version of “Send in the Clowns” rather than the tired (ok…classic) Frank Sinatra version? Hell, I’d even settle for Babs.
Now, I realize Joker is polarizing for many. Obviously, since Adam and I disagreed so much we wrote dueling reviews. Most of the howling about the film concerns woke critics upset and handwringing that Joker, in its depiction of a mob of angry clowns, would somehow spark an incel uprising. I get it. I think of incels when I see a bunch of clowns too. However, under those clown masks, those rioters might have Chad jawlines. We just don’t know. Besides incels already have a clown in the White House. I don’t think they’re in desperate need of another clown daddy. The performative outrage from many critics over the violence and incel signaling, like most performative outrage, only served to further promote the work about which they’re whining. And while we’re on it, the violence in the film didn’t seem all that extreme to me. So you killed Mummy…At least Gypsy Rose Blanchard posted an arrestingly iconic Facebook status (“That bitch is dead”) after her matricide rather than interpretive dancing. Maybe the film just didn’t go far enough.
Rather than some incel scare tactics, the trouble with the film is partially the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required to even get through it. I have so many questions: Why did Arthur go from being a guy setting off a gun by accident while boogieing in his apartment to flawlessly committing triple homicide and later shooting someone in the head on live TV? Why did a random killing of Wall Street bros spark a revolution? If only it was that easy! Who was recording footage of Arthur’s painful open mic routine? How big was that video camera in 1981? What is the timeline of this film? With Bruce Wayne as a child in contrast to Phoenix’s 40-something Fleck, does this mean Batman will eventually be fighting an elderly man? Isn’t that disrespectful to our elders? Isn’t it a bit tacky to beat up an old guy while wearing a chest piece with prominent pecs? Out of every comic available, why is Arthur taking notes about Gary Gulman? I mean, Gary Gulman?!! Why did Marc Maron accept such a bizarrely paltry role? Was it because he wanted to get in close enough proximity to Robert DeNiro, who plays talk show host Murray Franklin, to smell his hair? I could go on…
But most of all, I want to know: Why so serious?
Historically, from the uber camp Cesar Romero to the Mark Hamill-voiced animated version to Jack Nicholson’s Tim Burton mobster incarnation, the Joker has exhibited camp, brutality, and nihilism in alternating degrees. Arthur, though, is just sort of pathetic and humorless, despite his cringe-inducing attempts at standup comedy (to be fair, his awkward, unwavering and delusional adherence to his clearly failed standup dream is probably the most realistic part of the film). Take the introductory scene in which Arthur stares into a mirror putting makeup on his face, while preparing for his next clown gig (Did I mention he’s literally a professional clown? A clown with a disorder that makes him involuntarily laugh? Yep.). Gazing at himself, he pulls the sides of his mouth into a rictus-like grin. Straining painfully as he yanks at his mouth, he eventually drops his hands away as his face falls back into a depressive frown. One solitary tear, blackened by makeup, falls down his ghostly white face. Tears of a clown! Sheesh…
And that’s not the only astoundingly pretentious part of the film, a lot of which can probably be attributed to Joaquin Phoenix, like, for instance, the staggering amount of interpretive dancing (I just imagine Phoenix decided was necessary for “his character,” and nobody on set dared say no, just like losing a shocking amount of weight for the role). Once or twice, dance breaks may have been meaningful and even, quite haunting, but after the fifth dance scene, I had had it. By the time I arrived at the supposedly transformational pedo Gary Glitter-scored Joker dance down the steps an hour and a half into the film, I had the distinct feeling of being held captive at someone’s avant-garde endurance performance piece with the exit at the opposite side of the room. And trust me, I know that familiar panic all too well.
Ultimately, though, the depiction of Arthur is so self-pitying, so woebegone, so sad sacky that I just didn’t buy Arthur’s eventual evolution into the iconic Joker character (the most telling line may be when he says to the cops, “Do I look like a clown that can start a movement?” Not particularly, buddy). Sure, he was clearly worn down physically and emotionally by constant attacks by violent punks in the mean streets of Gotham, tormented by antisocial clown coworkers, manipulated by a weird mother, kept company by imaginary girlfriends, screwed over by a broken mental health system, and fucked by an increasingly stratified capitalist economy that rewards nobody but the top. But other characters had it worse and didn’t break. What about the Sophie, the unlucky Black single mother next door, that had to endure this lanky spidery creep in her elevator pretending to shoot himself, who then fantasizes that he drags her to his open mic (nightmare fuel!), and shows up soaking wet, sogging up her couch in her apartment? Now, that’s a woman who deserves to go rogue. I’d stand up and cheer.
But I don’t want to get into Arthur as a representative of eye roll-inducing white men with a chip on their shoulder because that’s not my problem with the film. My problem with the film is the utter seriousness with which both the character and the filmmaker take their eventual, violently rendered social commentary. Arthur accepts an invitation to appear on Murray Franklin’s TV talk show, whose interpretation by DeNiro could have used more sleaze, in my humble opinion, to smooch Dr. Ruth, undersell some uncomfortable jokes, and rant about society. He admits to crimes (ok, good TV), and then flies into a galaxy brain whoa-is-me rant that would have been better suited for a post on Reddit or a string of Instagram stories (“Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit there and take it, like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!”). I would have turned the TV off. Do you need some performance pointers, Arthur?!
His final act is to kill Murray Franklin live on air, which he does by shooting him point blank after hollering: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you fuckin’ deserve!” Oh please. You’re not funny at all! Quick-someone give this guy the hook before we have to endure a Christ-like finale on top of a cop car.
And look, before I’m told that I just don’t get it. I do. I get it. Our mental health system sucks. Capitalism has failed all but the few, and failed some people more than others. Ironically, though, despite Todd Phillips’s kvetching about “woke culture” ruining comedy, his film seems to exhibit a similar sort of, what I’ll call, Twitter politics as the same woke-chasers he attributes no longer being able to make cinematic classics like Old School or The Hangover 3. It’s a political critique that could be delivered in 280 characters, and is done so absolutely convinced of its own righteousness and virtuosity. The issue in this is not seeing that the actual stronger position is one that the Joker inherently represents in almost every other incarnation except the Phillips version: celebrating the absurdity of this fucked-up world at the expense of those in power.
If it’s all a joke played on us, then, why so serious?
Joker’s weakness is further exposed when juxtaposed with a much more terrifying and philosophically effective version: Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning unhinged camp nihilist lunatic/Filthy Dreams on an bad day Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Ledger’s Joker was all manic energy–lip-licking, shaking, shifty wild-eyed, Tom Waits voiced, and hell bent towards ultimate destruction. Why? To prove a point that nothing matters, but mostly, it seems for fun.
Now, I’m not saying The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. It’s got a role model-worthy character wedged between Christian Bale (yet another self-serious actor like Joaquin) continually throwing his voice two octaves lower once he climbed into a bat suit. What even was he going for? And I don’t even like comic book movies. Yet, I do have a certain soft spot for the Joker character. For some reason, laughing while the world burns feels familiar…hmmm…I dunno why…It’s certainly not our modus operandi here at Filthy Dreams.
The striking contrast between Joaquin and Heath’s interpretations of the Joker appear visually. In Joker, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker is marked by perfectly rendered clown makeup that reach sharp points, recalling, as many have pointed out, John Wayne Gacy’s serial killer look. He even paints on his makeup with a brush, which I know because we get to painstakingly watch him put it on several times. At one point, he even creepily licks it. But, who hasn’t wanted to sneak just a taste? This is a man who takes his clown artistry seriously–so seriously he wants to consume it.
In contrast, Heath Ledger’s Joker looks like he woke up in a dumpster or crawled from a sewer–sweaty, greasy green-haired in a dusty purple suit. His makeup is smudged and cracked as if applied frantically and monomaniacally fixated: a slash of red over his Glasgow smile scars, white pancake makeup often turned grey as it starts sliding down his face, and circular black raccoon eyes. Unlike Arthur, this wasn’t applied with some brushes purchased at Sephora. How do I know? Because he’s got it all over his hands. This is a man that knows “camp is a disguise that fails.”
But their telling differences run deeper than just some pancake makeup. Arthur’s stance, though brutally executed (literally), essentially has a core belief system and some wonky sort of ethics. He’s lashing back at the representatives of the world that has pushed him down: Wall Street douchebags, fake rich daddy, loopy mommy, a wealthy talk show host/comedy gatekeeper that laughed at him, etc. It’s tactical and symbolic. In fact, the way he inflicts punishment on systemic bad guys makes him closer to a superhero than a super villain. He’s not killing people at random, but agents of a deteriorating society. Misguided, yes, but there’s direction.
Heath Ledger’s Joker, though, is bound and determined to act as the symbol of, as he says, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” (a prescient statement during the Trump years when it seems we really have no rules. Dems take note! Think sleazier). He understands society is a cesspool but rather than trying to yell at people watching basic cable before bed, he’s laughing as he tries to tear it down–one random act at a time. There’s no clown mask-sporting activist uprising that’s going to fix this society, just a band of weirdos experiencing psychotic breaks he’s managed to convince to do his bidding at any cost. The motive is simple–pure, unhinged, nihilistic chaos for chaos sake. As he himself says, “I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, It’s fair.”
And the lack of an origin story only strengthens this depiction of anarchical chaos. Who cares about a past if nothing matters? He even invents several stories about his facial scars: attributing them to both an abusive drunken father and his own self-destructive hand trying to placate a gambling addicted wife. Is one of them true? Neither? Who knows because, given his outlook, truth doesn’t even mean anything. It’s also way more frightening–he could be anyone given the right push over the edge.
In this, Joker and The Dark Knight are indicative of their times: The Dark Knight plays on America’s deep seated fear of terrorism delivered by an unknown and unknowable entity with no real goal other than chaos. Likewise, Joker addresses an America that broke itself. However in their dually harebrained solutions, only one Joker seems to get that you can’t solve anything with a couple of bullets and that rules don’t matter. As Ledger’s Joker says, “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” You get the feeling he’s doing all this elaborate terrorism not only to torment authority, whether the cops or Batman, but mainly for his own amusement. He even says at one point, “I just…do…things” (same).
But the most compelling and truly threatening thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker, particularly when compared to the excruciating self-seriousness of Joker, is he’s not taking himself or anyone else seriously. He even says, “It’s a funny world we live in.” Though the rage is real and deeply felt, it’s transformed into camp. “Camp is motivated by rage,” writes Charles Ludlam. And we see both in equal measure in The Dark Knight. Thankfully, without any interpretive dancing.
He makes bombastic entrances at parties (“We made it! Good evening ladies and gentleman. We are tonight’s entertainment!”), bad puns (“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you… stranger.”), jokes about himself (“Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”), and even commits violence with a sort of poetic, ironic flourish (a firetruck on fire, shooting out of a flatbed truck that reads “S-Laughter is the best medicine”). There’s even drag, as he visits Harvey Dent, now Two-Face, in a hospital dressed in a white nurses out fit paired with a pointy, feathered Reba McEntire wig. Fancy! Before taking off the wig, he enacts an exaggerated performance of sympathy for Dent, a man whose burns he’s responsible for, made even more outlandish by the startling makeup.
And why is this a better rendition of the Joker than Joaquin’s? Because despite Todd Phillips’s clear belief that he’s truly made some sort of radical work of art, it’s much, much more transgressive and sometimes deeply upsetting to others to take nothing seriously and instead, be camp. To understand it’s “nothing but a bad joke,” and laugh maniacally anyway. In Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, Ann Magnuson is quoted as saying in reference to Club 57: “We tended to take nothing seriously and that can be an affront to people who are taking things way too seriously.” This represents the stance displayed by Heath Ledger’s Joker and in fact, why Joker missed the mark in its social critique. Taking the violence and terrorism out of it, taking nothing seriously is still a threat to the stability of society. When you just do, with no real plan, no real rules, you’re more dangerous than any of them. And when you find it all funny, well, then they’re really in trouble.
As Heath’s Joker says, “It’s about…sending a message!”