No, I haven’t seen Joker yet, though I have to eventually because I netted a gig talking about the role of evil clowns as the protagonist in media for an academic anthology. Mostly based on a piece I wrote about Joker. My life is very weird.
And yes, I’ve seen the rave reviews. Terri White at Empire called it “bold and utterly beautiful." Owen Gleiberman at Variety dubbed Joaquin Phoenix’s performance “astonishing." And at least one headline says it already deserves and Oscar.
I have no doubt that Joker is a good film from a purely technical standpoint, though between Robert De Niro and the visuals it really does just look like Taxi Driver hoping for a comic book movie box office. I might even enjoy it, but there’s a shadow over this film that can’t be ignored. At a time of weekly mass shootings, who wants to see a white man who feels the world doesn’t understand him slowly turn into one of the most feared murderers in the DC Universe? Mark my words: at least one spree killer will cite this film in their manifesto. It won’t be the filmmakers’ fault, but there it is.
Which honestly makes you wonder: why does this film exist when virtually any of Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery could have had a character study solo film and explored wondrous new concepts instead of the old “no one cared who I was until I put on the mask” nonsense. This line of thought was inspired by YouTuber Chris Franklin aka Errant Signal on Twitter.
In case you can’t read the meme, it basically outlines the various arguments for and against a movie like Joker that might cater to the worst in a potential killer looking for media validation before saying “Hey! Wouldn’t a body horror Clayface film have been better?”
OMG, yes it totally would have. I’ve written before about how Clayface received this brilliant new characterization in the DC Rebirth. The idea of a House of Wax-style superhero horror film centered around Basil Karlo at odds with his muck-monster transformation. Anyone who has seen the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Feat of Clay” knows exactly how wonderful and ghoulish that could be, especially if played by a good hammy actor like Winston Duke. It would be a mostly new tale to people and free of all the Joker baggage that the role has.
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Or what if they’d really done Poison Ivy right this time? Pansexual eco-terrorist who sits lotus position in the Venn diagram of good, evil, and alien is absolutely something that would transcend in a way that Joker will never even be able to dream of. With climate change threatening the globe at rocket speed, what role would someone who could stop the Amazon burning with a sexy nod play? How would humanity respond, especially as she held us in contempt for destruction?
The possibilities seem endless. An old-school monster flick starring Man-Bat. Robin Lord Taylor taking his Penguin front and center in a pure mafia flick. That weird third incarnation of The Ventriloquist Gail Simone came up with mimicking the Annabelle movies. Catman. We need Catman. Sad, loopy Catman who lives in Batman’s shadow and never seems to catch a break. At least Ratcatcher is going to show up in Suicide Squad. Hell, if you want to do the scarred madman angle, why not Crazy Quilt, you cowards?
I’ll tell you why: because stories of misunderstood white dudes empowered by their outcast status to do whatever violence they want draws a big and dedicated audience who will paw over it like an open wound. Because Catwoman will forever be held up as “we tried a villain movie it with a woman and a minority and it failed.” Because Hollywood loves a tortured performer getting their time to shine more than just about anything. And because DC films remain desperate to be the “art” movies of the genre. Joker being taken so damned seriously is perhaps the greatest joke of all.
I’m sure Joker is good, but it sounds like a million other dirty city stories. It’s tired, and in the current climate I’m not sure I have the energy to drag it along. It was dull when Brian Azzarello did it as a graphic novel, and even Alan Moore is disillusioned with The Killing Joke. We could have put someone like Poison Ivy center stage, but instead it’s a dude that just makes me want to check on the shooter drill protocols at my kid’s school. Life’s disturbing enough without Joker, and at this point I sort of feel contempt for the Clown Prince of Crime for not being able to handle it like the rest of us have to.