WARNING: SPOILERS - WATCH THE MOVIE BEFORE YOU READ!
Trust filmmakers with a vision
In the same was it was brilliant to tell us a Spiderman story through the prism of a John Hughes film, or Logan as a western, we are given the Joker from a Taxi Driver/King of Comedy angle. On paper, that is an exciting prospect. Simply put, Joker is very much a movie of the times, despite being a period piece. Todd Phillips wonderfully and organically captures all the 42nd street character and grime of New York City in the late 1970s by shooting around anything recognizable and iconic, leaving only the city’s gritty aesthetic.
A one-man show
It’s hard for me to believe, even after seeing it, but Joaquin Phoenix’s wirey sinew and magnetic performance were so razor sharp in focus that a movie with the great Robert De Niro as a supporting character (maybe even the overall antagonist of Joker?) felt like a one-man show. He deserves an Oscar as much as Heath Ledger did, but not for bringing the Joker to life. His approach to a sinister, manipulative, psychotic? character is too tragic, childlike, and innocent and a far cry for anyone who is heavily steeped in the source material. But he made it his own.
Step away from the source
The funny thing is, paradoxically, it was far more effective for Todd Phillips to distance himself from source material that is centralized on characters who are very specific understood by a rabid, loyal, dedicated fan base. Even more surprising is that all of the Joker/Batman/DC mythology actually HOLDS the film back!! Hearing names like Gotham City, Thomas Wayne, and Bruce Wayne as well as adding an incredibly iconic well known scene (and a more obscure one) reminded me that this was technically a DC Comics movie. As a DC fan, it is a terribly adaptation, but as a film lover, it is a wonderful interpretation. In a way, I wish he would have been even more bold and took out the stuff with Bruce and just left us with Gotham City and Thomas Wayne. It worked incredibly well for Rogue One.
I have to reluctantly agree that this film is troubling and I can understand where the concern and anxiety come from - justified or not. I think it is a cultural PTSD reflex to the VERY REAL carnage we have seen coming from mentally ill people. I also don’t think it should be censored or necessarily treated differently from other (more violent/crazy/sick/dark) films. In fact, if this EXACT film was made outside of the United States, and not connected with DC in anyway, no one would be saying so much about it.
But it must be understood that this is a character study that empathizes and almost glorifies the disconnected, disenfranchised, marginalized, mentally ill person that does something in order to be seen by everyone. Joker treats that kind of person like an underdog or antihero who is capable of changing the world, achieving success, fame, love, and adoration through acts of violence and carnage. And unfortunately, in the times we are living in, that prospect is truly terrifying (and sadly) incredibly true. Which is why I nod my head when people call it a horror film or even include it on their #31DaysofHalloween as I have. It’s the realness of psychology, the AMERICAN psychology of the possible message that could be interpreted. In the same way, we are frightened by home invasion movies - because it could happen to you.
Normalizing the fringe
As the slew of Return of the King endings began, I was struck with another thought provoking connection that Todd Phillips might be trying to make with this story and he does it with just this one scene: The Joker is pulled from a car crash by his loving public and hoisted up in front of them, where he is adored and embraced for his actions. We give power, attention, and energy to people who don’t deserve it. That is how the Kardashians became national treasures. That is how the Catch me outside girl gets signed to a lucrative record deal. Watching that scene made me understand how someone like Donald Trump can get elected as President of the United States. Of all the looney notions the Joker represents, of all the fears and anxieties this movie has churned up in the media, this one is real. Words like Alt Right and Western Chauvinist are normalizing fringe concepts and ideas (not going to take it further in this writing) that make them easier to consume and digest. They are not beacons of light to follow for the general public, spreading an infection of intangible fear and mayhem that will bring down all of civilization. But are instead for those who may be at the edge and teetering on the line. I think this is the perceived danger of turning a guy like the Joker into some sort of anti-folk hero.
Does it mean it needs to be censored? Absolutely not! Does it mean I endorse and embrace its ideas? HELL NO. I think, like many things, awareness and understanding is the key. And a healthy awareness of Joker's point of view is a good thing.