The Last Laugh
DC have had a tough time of late. While their studio rivals Marvel have continued to break box office records with the Avengers’ franchise, DC have struggled to put together an equally brilliant superhero team-up film. For every success the DC studio has had (Wonder Woman), there is a stink bomb (Justice League) lurking around the corner. This is largely why director Todd Phillips went to the executives of DC with a new idea – release smaller budget character pieces with less of a reliance upon CGI.
Phillips’ idea has proven to be a masterstroke as he was given the freedom to write and direct a film about the caped crusader’s arch nemesis – the Joker – and the end result is quite frankly stunning. Gone are the CGI villains and the underdeveloped protagonists, as Joker provides us with a complicated insight into the life of Arthur Fleck; a truly disturbed clown.
Ever since its release, Joker has stolen the spotlight but not all of the discussion surrounding the film has been positive, as many people are of the opinion that it doesn’t perpetuate a positive social message. To some, Joker blames society and particularly the upper classes for the development of Gotham’s greatest villain, citing how the figures who push Arthur Fleck closer and closer towards madness are people (usually men) of wealth and celebrity stature.
This is indeed true but I don’t think it acts as a general critique of class hierarchy. Instead, I think Phillip’s film is preoccupied with bringing to light the effects of bullies, no matter where they originate from. Through this, we don’t merely see the Joker as a foe. We view him as someone who doesn’t fit in and is subsequently subjected to years of mental and physical torture. Therefore, you can view the Joker as an enemy but also as someone to empathise with, which is exactly what makes Joker such a breath-taking character piece.
Beat down by others, Arthur Fleck is slowly pushed towards violence and criminality but there is one figure in particular who bares significant blame for his anarchic turn. As Arthur tends to his aging mother, we are initially led to believe she is a sweet old lady with little to say. However, it gradually becomes clear that she has been absent through large portions of Arthur’s life, watching as he gets bruised and beaten from a young age. There is an even bigger revelation which, once exposed, acts as the catalyst for Arthur’s complete transformation into the Joker.
Because of this, the social injustices which Arthur endures are not the sole reason for his transformation. His traumatic upbringing means that he is not simply a product of Gotham city but rather of his individual experiences. Having said that, there are plenty of instances where Joker questions how we treat the economically downtrodden and the physically dejected, albeit through a deeply flawed titular character. The Joker is beaten up, fired and belittled, but his reaction to these is extreme. This is the crucial distinction that Phillips intends to make as his film doesn’t celebrate anarchism, yet it does show how it can be instigated.
The Joker is definitely not the hero, but he is not always the villain. A scene where a young gang steal Arthur’s sign before beating him up acts as a stark reminder of this. The Joker even has to endure public humiliation when talk show host Murray Franklin (played with despicable charm by Robert De Niro) ridicules Arthur on live television. Sometimes, you can feel sorry for the villain too.
An interesting motif which is used throughout is a shot of Arthur with his back to the camera walking away from the viewer, often through a corridor or down a flight of steps. As Arthur becomes more closely aligned with the Joker these moments become more metaphorical as we literally view him walking away from societal norms towards something anarchic and destructive. This pertinently reminds us that the Joker is a figure who has been pushed too far over the edge, destined to cause havoc with a smile smeared across his face.