You could practically hear a collective sigh when the new Joker film was announced. I think it’s fair to say that The Onion said it the best:
When the original trailer was finally released, it gave me super-heavy Taxi Driver vibes: misunderstood loner in a morally corrupt city who just snaps. I wouldn’t say I was that too off, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the rest of society, everyone’s minds went straight to that asshole who shot up a theatre in face paint. Since The Dark Knight the Joker has unfortunately become a symbol for edgy incels and loner types, an issue that was amplified by Jared Leto’s juggalicious take on the Clown Prince – though mostly ironic, but it’s no secret that the Joker holds a special place in every shitposter’s catalogue.
Due to this negative energy (the shooting-part, not the meme-part…unless we’re talking about incels, but again getting ahead of myself), an exhausting amount of hype and fear made for excellent publicity. Personally, I wanted to see it regardless – I’m a sucker for mid-century modern aesthetic and Joaquin Phoenix. And Batman, generally. Plus I wanted to see if it was just like Taxi Driver.
I was pleasantly surprised.
We meet Arthur “Happy” Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally ill man who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in the worst part of Gotham, a city plagued with corruption on all levels. Art is our tragic character, someone who is abandoned by any and all who can help him, until he inevitably snaps.
Despite my poor synopsis, this portrayal of Joker is incredibly well-defined: Art is an unreliable narrator, but not a liar. He has no political leanings during the riots – all of his qualms are personal. It’s the rest of Gotham that recognizes that there is power in his iconicism – after all, they started this movement before they knew Arthur existed.
The big question is: does this film demonize the mentally ill?
No. If anything it exposes the poor support systems for the mentally ill, or rather, the institutions funding the support systems when dealing with a corrupt society.
Additionally, Arthur’s illnesses appear to be a blend of nature and nurture, and every bit of the “nurture” part is made up of the worst circumstances possible – circumstances that could have been prevented.
So the bigger question is: does this excuse his actions?
Of course not, you silly person.
The first strike was self-defense, sure, but that’s it. The rest was self-empowerment.
Art turns violent because he finds release – he is getting back at the bullies while challenging the status quo. No one cares when he’s attacked, so why not fight back? He’s got nothing to lose. We can feel sympathy for Arthur the struggling clown, but that is far from empathizing with his behavior. His behavior spirals when he discovers there are no consequences for his actions.
And if you’re of the mindset that this film promotes violence, that’s admitting that you not only don’t understand right from wrong but also cause and effect.
Is this film “dangerous?”
What does that even mean?
People act like they’ve never seen an antihero before.
How does Joaquin Phoenix fare against the other Jokers?
I think Joaquin Phoenix is a fantastic actor: Arthur is sympathetic but unnerving, like an uncanny personality valley. This portrayal adds to that definition that I mentioned earlier, both original and timeless. To break it down, I present the following:
My Brief Joker Character Breakdown
Cesar Romero – a cartoon brought to life
Jack Nicholson – an unpredictable criminal/cartoonish gangster, style icon
Mark Hamill – a well-written literal cartoon, practically perfect in every way
Heath Ledger – unreliable narrator, liar, anarchist, modern, claims to be chaotic but seems to do a lot of planning, gritty/funny
Jared Leto – an attempt at quirky contemporary, ultimately gross, highly romanticized
Joaquin Phoenix – pitiful, mentally ill, theatrical/obsessed with comedy, embraces absurdity
This being established, how does Joker fit into the Batman mythos?
As much as I enjoy Batman films, I’m not the best aficionado on the subject, so it’s not so much if it does than if it can.
As of now, this film serves as a standalone character study that forces its way into the Batman mythos. Thomas Wayne is a classist candidate who wants to make Gotham great again, who becomes a martyr for a new Gotham. But even if you somehow didn’t know anything about the Waynes, the film still stands as a cautionary tale for a broken system, especially when Gotham is the perfect placeholder for any metropolis.
Bruce’s appearance in Joker serves as a reminder that he is also a victim of circumstance, only he does what’s in his power to help prevent tragedy rather than revel in insanity (though the latter is tempting). Because we presently don’t know anything about Bruce’s future, this is not perceptively in the Batman universe.
If there was to be a sequel where Bruce confronts Arthur as Batman, he would be confronting a figurehead, a man not directly responsible for any of the chaos done in his image. Additionally, this is a man who is a danger to himself and others who is not easily “fixed,” it would be more of a introspective on Bruce’s role as Batman as well as shaking his morals, which was already done in The Dark Knight.
Should Todd Phillip’s vision splinter into it’s own take on the Gothamverse, I’d rather have Bruce Wayne be an entrepreneur by day and private eye by night. Arthur would become his reminder to stay grounded. I’m also imagining that the Rogue’s Gallery is just as socially-relevant: Oswald Cobblepot is a deformed blue-blood from a rival family, Pamela Isely is a bio-terrorist, Selena Kyle is a kleptomaniac animal activist…. It’s a weird idea, but it’s doable. I also feel like each story would end the same way: bittersweet, sad, heavy, probably just as thought-provoking or controversial if done correctly.
I dug it. It was reminiscent of Taxi Driver and American Psycho with a bit of Falling Down and a dash of Network for taste, culminating in something surprisingly different.
I’ll admit, I knew little to nothing about Whitey Bulger before seeing this film. Sadly, by the end of it, I really feel like I still don’t know much about him.
Brief synopsis: Black Mass is based on the true story of a criminal-turned-informant-turned-crimelord; what began as a joint effort to take down the Boston Italian mob lead to the creation of a power-mad monster – a man who couldn’t be stopped simply because blood is thicker than water.
I want to believe that this film is a portrait of a man who was simply looking out for himself and his community, but I can’t help but think that the heart of the piece is lost in the grit, as is motivation. Maybe that was the idea? Perhaps Scott Cooper wanted to portray a first-person look the rise and violent fall of an empire? Nah, I’m probably just looking too far into it.
Though origin tales are overdone, I really would have appreciated a small look into the turn to crime – just a small taste of what made this man so methodically vicious.
On the upside, the performances were great. Like really, really great – even Rolling Stone thinks that Johnny Depp’s take on Bulger might be the cusp of an oncoming Deppessaince. And as advertised, this puppy has a hell of an ensemble – though, it was weird seeing Benedict Cumberbatch pull off a Boston accent.
Despite my gripes about the storytelling, I honestly feel that Black Mass is a welcomed addition to American crime drama. The pacing and tone are perfectly matched by well-crafted cinematography (thank you, Masanobu Takayangi), and the score just adds to this dreary, tense agglomeration (dreary and tense in the best possible way, of course). Personally, I think if there was just a bit more, well, personality, or more definition, this might be one of the better dramas of the year. But that’s just me.
Final Grade: B