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Joker: No Laughing Matter

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Our own expert in all things "superhero" Dr. Thom Parham authors a film review of the recent Joker, the latest comic book-based movie to hit theaters. As Prof. Parham notes, this film represents an important—and unfortunate—deviation from the trend.

True confession: I am an OG blerd. Anyone who’s visited my office will see a curated collection of action figures from Star Trek, Star Wars—I don’t play favorites—Battlestar Galactica, and superheroes... lots of superheroes. Batman ’66 starring Adam West was my gateway drug into collecting comic books. Dick Grayson, the first Robin who was eventually allowed to grow up and become Nightwing, has been my favorite hero since I was three. This semester, I am reprising my Genre Studies: Superhero Cinema class in preparation for a new book about the history of superhero films and television series.

IMHO, Marvel Studios Infinity Saga represents an innovation in cinematic storytelling. Each of the 23 films has been rated fresh by Rotten Tomatoes aggregate website, an achievement that may never be equaled… but it will be “sequeled.” On the other hand, Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe films have been a mixed bag from hits like Aquaman and Wonder Woman to the controversial Man of Steel and the truly abysmal Suicide Squad. Thus, when Warners announced an R-rated, standalone Joker movie set outside the DCEU, I got nervous. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can report it’s not the abomination I feared: it’s worse.

My biggest problem with Joker is that writer/director Todd Phillips jettisons 80 years of established Batman lore to serve a political agenda. Science-fiction films and comic books have often portrayed an anti-corporate bias, ranging from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Batman: The Animated Series. Yet by making Thomas Wayne a symbol of the 1% rather than a wealthy doctor who gives back to Gotham City via his philanthropy, Phillips ignores the influence that Bruce Wayne’s parents exerted on him before their tragic murders. Bruce would not have become the Dark Knight Detective and a philanthropist himself had his father not set a moral example.

Next, Joker’s portrayal of mental illness is abhorrent. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you cannot deny that mass shootings in the United States have become routine. Moreover, despite public calls for sensible gun-control measures to be enacted, political partisans instead shift the blame to video games or mental illness. Joker does a disservice to that latter category: Arthur Fleck, played capably by Joaquin Phoenix, is not a well man. Yet, the movie celebrates his disturbed nature. In fact, after Fleck kills his first prey (a trio of yuppies), he becomes a folk hero. As the body count rises, so does public fervor for class warfare, which culminates in full-on riots. Moreover, rather than lending insight into the mind of a disturbed individual, Joker settles for cliched stereotypes and tropes—“The mentally ill are violent and dangerous.”

Robert De Niro (left) in Joker

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously to me as a Screenwriting and Screen Studies professor, Joker is bargain-basement Martin Scorsese with a dash of David Fincher. Arthur Fleck bears more than a passing resemblance to Travis Bickle, the anti-hero lead of Taxi Driver (played by Robert De Niro), and Fleck’s relationship with talk-show host Murray Franklin (also played by Robert De Niro) mirrors the one between veteran comedian Jerry Langford (one of Jerry Lewis’ finest roles) and aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin (again, played by Robert De Niro) in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. I’ve got news for you, Todd Phillips: you’re no Martin Scorsese! And ripping off characters and plot elements from great films doesn’t make your movie great by association.

Director Todd Phillips (left) and actor Joaquin Phoenix

Sadly, audiences are flocking to Joker, which has grossed more than $210 million domestically so far on a $55 million budget. More disturbing is the fact that irresponsible parents are taking children as young as four to see a film in which the lead character gruesomely murders multiple people in violent, gory fashion. That Joker has resounded so clearly with moviegoers speaks more to the depravity of 21st Century American culture than to the film’s quality. Sadly, I fear Warner Bros. will learn all the wrong lessons from Joker’s box-office success. Maybe next we’ll get Lex—the untold story of Alexander Joseph Luthor. Though his father, Lionel, never spared the rod lest he spoil his son, teenage Lex commits patricide, engages in ruthless, real-estate swindles, and ultimately wins the U.S. Presidency, campaigning on a xenophobic, “Earth First” agenda. Sounds like a veritable slam dunk.

Dr. Thomas Parham

Dr. Thomas Parham is Executive Director of Screenwriting for the Department of Cinematic Arts. He co-hosts Flix 66—APU Cinema’s Screen Studies podcast—and his book “Hailing Frequencies Open”: Communication in Star Trek: The Next Generation was recently published by McFarland Press.


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