Updated: Nov 21, 2019
Review of Todd Phillips's Joker (2019)
When Todd Phillips’s 2019 Joker trailer teased a psychological thriller origin story of my favourite DC villain, I decided I would definitely be going to see it when it came to the theatres. What I didn’t expect from the maker of the The Hangover trilogy was, instead, a clown edition budget Taxi Driver. The visuals, and Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, were stunning. But putting aside the talent that clearly went into its production, the film flops in its clumsy attempt to deliver socio-political commentary, and comes across more as a poor remake of a better movie than a successful homage. Here, I want to propose why the Joker doesn’t work, through a politically-framed review of it in comparison to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver.
In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the protagonist taxi driver [roll credits] Travis resents the urban landscape he lives and works in, and believes it needs cleansing. We see this environment as he does, out of the taxi window, focussing on aspects of city life that he deems morally dirty. However, in certain scenes the camera’s gaze shifts towards showing less bleak visualisations of the space from other characters’ eyes. In these moments, while still understanding what Travis sees, we understand that he projects his conception of “dirty” onto the city as an act of looking rather than objective sight (Metz, 1975, p.44). Travis’s view of New York is a scopic regime, Metz’s term for how visual representations of what is seen are used to give the impression of an objectively observable reality, skilfully made use of in Taxi Driver to depict the way perspective warps vision (Jay, 1988, p.19).
Throughout Phillips’s Joker, we see a similar setting, the fictional Gotham as inspired by 1980s New York. We follow Arthur Fleck as an invisible character, who is embodied by the camera’s gaze, watching his experience of urban life (Metz, 1975, p.57). This does not employ perspective as a tool, but rather gives us the impression that we are omnisciently seeing an objective reality, which in its depiction seems anything but realistic. We are not shown a visualisation of the city, but instead a city as an antagonist, as Arthur sees it. Backstabbing, beating, rejecting and laughing at him, Phillips presents Gotham as if set to destroy Arthur, almost theatrically. Certain scenes, like when Arthur is beaten in a very choreographed way by a group of youths, are reminiscent of cartoon Tom and Jerry. There is no indication that this view is a visualisation, so we are lead to think Arthur truly is just the world's most unlucky man, which is the only aspect of his character that elicits sympathy and makes the film feel melodramatic. The theme of urban life’s alienating nature and the subjectivity of vision is lost, replaced with a setting that in its haunted-house-like antagonisation of Arthur, works to later provide a warped justification for his acts of violence.
Another justification given for Arthur’s acts of violence is his mental illness. He has psychopathy and the pseudobulbar affect (not named in the film), which causes sudden episodes of emotional display such as crying or in Arthur’s case laughing (Multiple Sclerosis Trust, 2018). Although representing mental health issues is something that Hollywood has long lacked, it is questionable whether Arthur’s story is a productive example. Portraying mental illness as causal of violence is inaccurate, discourages individuals to seek treatment out of fear of diagnosis, and impedes their integration into social settings once diagnosed through uninformed stigmatisation (Long, 2014, p.137). Arthur’s laugh is used gratuitously to elicit the negative reactions that push him to violence. While in comics and other films The Joker has super-sanity, often breaks the fourth wall and acts “insane” because he knows that he is in a fictional universe, by diagnosing him with mental illnesses Phillips makes these the reasons for his “insane” behaviour. Hence in Joker we “Other” him, making him into an alien Other we understand as “different” from our selves, “special” at first and “evil” at the end. While Phillips makes the point that mental health treatment funding is important, I am uncertain that an ill man becoming “evil” without it was the best way of getting this across.
Contrastingly, Scorcese portrays Travis’s mental struggle in Taxi Driver without pointing at a mental illness buzzword with previously signified meaning - “Psychopath” is somebody mad, with potential for violence - as a reason for his behaviour. When he does resort to violence, it is therefore something he is doing, rather than something the mentally ill do. Moreover, before this, we identify with elements of Travis. Instead of being an alien Other, he is human, struggling to integrate himself into the world but doing all he can. This allows for a blurring of the line between “good” and “evil” when he spirals and does act. Instead of allowing us to label him as an “evil” Other in relation to our “good” Selves, Travis’s characterisation makes him into a thought provoking antihero. As a character study, Joker would have done well to take a page out of Scorcese’s book and allow us to draw morally complex conclusions from Arthur, rather than use him as a narrative tool to make the less than revolutionary statement “not treating people with mental illness and being mean is bad”.
Speaking of less than revolutionary statements, I was perplexed when Joker stopped replicating Taxi Driver momentarily to head into V for Vendetta territory, before abandoning this direction. Arthur’s shooting of three businessmen sparks a “movement”, in which the masses don clown masks while protesting the government, holding up signs including one that says “Kill the Rich”. These protests continue in the background of the film, but are not at all tied into the plot in any substantial way. Their inclusion in this film feels like an example of the commodification of resistance, à la infamous Comrade Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, in that they seem to be there just for the sake of being there. While failing to exploit its “movement” for commentary is a missed opportunity to thematically explore protest culture and class, the Joker mask has appeared in a series of recent demonstrations around the world (France 24, 2019). Perhaps, despite its lack of follow-through, the “movement”’s un-fixed presence in the film has allowed for a creation of meanings around the Joker mask - I think it would be a reach, however, to claim that this was Phillips’s master plan all along.
Taxi Driver provides an example of how it is possible to integrate commentary about social inequality in metropolises without a sign that says “Kill the Rich”, through scenes that simply show the interactions between Travis and his clients. Palantine’s taxi ride with Travis is full of class tension, with the politician asking Travis what political issues he finds important, and Travis unable to articulate these eloquently, culminating in Palantine responding with empty pleasantries that imply he is pretending to understand. This makes light of Palantine’s campaign slogan, which is emphasised earlier: “We Are The People” (Skoble, 2007, p.28). Palantine hardly is the people, yet he will be in charge of them; we are not told this, but shown it through dialogue. Scorcese is able to embed scenes like these, which comment in a nuanced way while also being instrumental to the plot, in a way Phillips fails to.
I did not like Phillips’s Joker, for reasons beyond its flailing attempts at political commentary. Its version of The Joker was stripped of all the elements I enjoy the villain for, the balance of camp humour and complex character that makes me root for him, and instead takes a somber, definitely serious (if you will pardon the joke) single note approach. This would be alright, had it been well done within an original plot. But despite Joker’s visual beauty, strong acting, and Robert de Niro cameo, it’s no Taxi Driver and comes off like it’s trying to be, crossing the line between inspiration and imitation. That said, there is no denying its reach and influence, and in its attempt at pioneering a highbrow genre film take on the superhero movie Joker has the potential to pave the way for better executed films to come.
Costello, D.P. (1993), “God’s Lonely Man: Taxi Driver in Script and Screen”, Christianity and Literature, 43(3), pp. 402-418
Jay, M. (1998), “Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, in Foster, H. (ed.), (1998), Vision and Visuality: Discussions in Contemporary Culture #2, Winnipeg: Bay Press, pp. 3-23.
Joker. 2019. [Film]. Todd Phillips. dir. California: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Long, V. (2014), Destigmatising mental illness? Professional Politics and Public Education in Britain 1870-1970, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Metz, C. (1975). “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen, 16(20), pp. 14-76.
Mounier, J.K. (2019), “From Beirut to Hong Kong, the face of the Joker is appearing in demonstrations”, France 24. Available at: https://www.france24.com/en/20191024-from-beirut-to-hong-kong-the-face-of-the-joker-is-emerging-in-demonstrations, (Accessed: 09 November 2019)
Multiple Sclerosis Trust (2018), Pseudobulbar Affect (Pathological laughing and crying). Available at: https://www.mstrust.org.uk/a-z/pseudobulbar-affect-pathological-laughing-and-crying, (Accessed: 09 November 2019).
Skoble, A.J. (2007), “The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese”, in Conard, M.T. (ed.), (2007), God’s Lonely Man: Taxi Driver and the Ethics of Vigilantism, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 23-30
Taxi Driver. 1976. [Film]. Martin Scorsese. dir. New York: Bill/Phillips Production.