Comic book legend Frank Miller released a book in 2011 called “Holy Terror.” Originally pitched to DC Comics as a Batman story, it follows a masked hero (Batman, duh) and his sexy sidekick (Catwoman) fighting an unnamed Al Qaeda stand in. The book is Islamophobic and ultimately devoid of substance: it is a piece that presents like it is giving the hottest take on post-9/11 America but that ultimately says nothing about terrorism or society. DC wanted nothing to do with this piece, so Miller published it without Batman attached. One wonders whether it would have been given any credence if it was published with the Batman name. Good news! It would have! Because one of the most mediocre, boring and spineless movies of the year has garnered 11 Academy Award nominations all because, I would argue, it complains about society and stars the Joker.
“Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, is a non-canon DC film that is essentially the low-rent lovechild of Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.” It tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failing comedian and for-hire clown who struggles with an unspecified mental illness in the grimy underbelly of ‘80s “Gotham.” Fleck is left behind by society: while caring for his elderly mother, he loses his job and the government-sponsored social work program that helps him with his own illness loses its funding and shuts down. He then kills a bunch of finance bros on the subway because they know multiple verses of “Send in the Clowns” and becomes a figurehead for a new “eat the rich” Occupy Wall Street-type movement that uses clown imagery like the Guy Fawkes masks in “V for Vendetta.” The movie then adds just enough references to the Wayne family’s Trump-like business empire, as well as the obligatory Martha Wayne’s pearls flying in slow motion, to be considered a “Batman-adjacent” film. It really feels like a spec script that got Batman mythos shoehorned into it.
The core reason behind Joker’s 11 Academy Award nominations is that the Oscars adore movies like “Joker.” Like last year’s Best Picture winner, “Green Book,” it is a “social commentary” that in practice manages to barely say anything about society at all. These shallow “woke” movies frame themselves as something important when they are no more than a white man’s rehashing of the world’s grievances against them and others. Nobody likes Arthur Fleck, the government no longer can aid him, the world mocks him, so he must get his revenge by killing some people, going on a late-night show and partying in the streets with Gotham’s Antifa. The film is not specific enough with what entity it is indicting for Arthur’s problems: Is it the rich? The media? The government? The film does not pinpoint anything. Instead, it opens its gangly arms wide and indicts society as a whole, therefore indicting nobody at all — but it is full of homages to classic films and has just enough good production elements to catch the Academy’s eye. (I have to give Hildur Guðnadóttir and Joaquin Phoenix their just due for, respectively, her stirring score and his committed performance.)
Then there is the public, who drove “Joker” to an over $1 billion box office gross, making it the seventh highest grossing film of all time and highest ever rated R film. People love superhero movies and will pay money to see the most mediocre films just because they start with *insert superhero here.* But what really gets me is that there have been comic book movies that are stellar films, ones that have clear messages, themes and points of view — it is not like making “Joker” good was not possible. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” already gave us our dark take on the Joker, and one that commits to its social commentary by using the Joker to examine our fear and anxiety surrounding terrorism in a post-9/11 America. Furthermore, I would also argue that we do not need another Joker origin story period, for two reasons. First, there have been many interesting and nuanced takes on the Joker’s origins: Alan Moore’s comic “The Killing Joke,” for one, or even Tim Burton’s movie “Batman” (1989), where Jack Nicolson iconically portrayed the Crown Prince of Crime. Second, and more importantly, the Joker serves his purpose as Batman’s foil much better when his origins are ambiguous and undefined. He is the absolute antithesis of the caped crusader, chaos to Batman’s order, madness to other’s sanity. The Joker is a character with barely any discernible motivation, moral compass or plan of action, and that is what makes Ledger’s or Nicholson’s Joker work. When compared to Moore’s and Burton/Nicolson’s classic characterization, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is the Joker in name only.
In the end, it is a deeply flawed film, a Scorsese riff with a Batman framing device, another movie by a white man who, by saying a lot, says nothing at all.