Comic book legend, camp TV slugger, blockbuster superhero…pre-pubescent milksop? How on earth did Batman end up here?
Then again, Batman barely is here. Retreat Bruce Wayne, bland and peripheral in his child-sized pin-stripe; enter Arthur Fleck, humiliated, medicated and on minimum wage. Maybe not a man for all seasons, but quite at home in this one.
A backstory has to conjure a few ghosts of personal history, but it’s the disfigured-but-distinct features of public history which insert themselves into this tale. The ghosts of Occupy, of Harvey Weinstein, of President Trump and the mental health pandemic, stalk this movie just as tenaciously as trouble stalks poor Arthur. “Is it me or are things getting crazier out there”, Arthur asks his probation officer. It’s the only time she seems to think he’s remotely sane.
So too the ghosts of other movies. The influence of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The King of Comedy is hard to miss. Joker is a film whose ingredients definitely include madness, medication and media exploitation. But the strongest – and bleakest – echoes are from the great filmic meditations on the city. Joker is Seven, without the rain; You Were Never Really Here (Phoenix’s last film but one), without the mob; and Taxi Driver, without anyone in particular to save. Astonishingly, it outdoes all three for alienated self-loathing.
That all this comes from a director best known for the three instalments of frat-boy fave The Hangover is even more astonishing. While Todd Philips looks like a journeyman in comedy, he has instantly become a maestro in tragedy.
Shortly after the film was released, Philips told Vanity Fair that Joker was a “character study” about one man’s “decent into insanity”. I’m not convinced. Joker has a prototypical zero-to-hero character arc. Arthur begins the film crying at his own reflection, trembling before his social worker, awkwardly laughing at all the wrong moments. His awkwardness is absolute. I offered my teen kids the option of quitting our viewing partly because the embarrassment was almost too much to bear. You didn’t need to be an adolescent to feel it. I needn’t have worried. Arthur ends the film – five murders done, including that of his mother and one of the few people to have done him a semi-kindness – assured and purposeful. And the unpalatable truth is that we’re right behind him. Arthur’s descent into madness feels positively triumphant. Indeed the film ends twice; in the first, real, ending Arthur stands aloft amid the neon-splatter of a Gotham City intersection, roared on by an adoring crowd. In the second, he’s back in hospital, but still dancing off into the sunset (rise?).
Some have taken issue with the seemingly unpunished immorality. And there is the palpable sense that Philips is rather on the side of the underpaid, over-stressed precariat, those who have just about had enough of being patronised by billionaires. Never has a supervillain demanded more pathos. Ignored, forgotten, abused with humiliation heaped upon humiliation. It’s another murder, there’s a new mob, it’s a new day, and I’m feeling good.