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“Someone Who Hides Behind a Mask.” “Joker”, Superheroes, Vigilantes, and Pulp Friction…

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about Joker.

This makes sense. After all, it entered the discussion as a source of moral panic. It then emerged as a box office smash. It is a potential awards contender. And it provides an interesting intersection of genre. It is a hybrid of the dominant genre at the contemporary blockbuster with more ambitious and abstract awards fare. As such, it is not a surprise that Joker has dominated public attention in the way that it has. It seems almost tailor-made to generate discussion and debate, even if that can occasionally feel deafening.

That said, one of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of Joker is the way in which the film deliberately and consciously avoids crossing any particularly provocative lines. The film sidesteps a lot of potentially thorny issues of race and gender, perhaps wary of the potential internet blow back. If the film is making a point about anything, it seems to be a self-aware acknowledgement of the desire to imbue objects with symbolic weight and meaning even when they have not been designed to bear the weight. “I’m not political,” Arthur Fleck asserts, as political meaning is imposed upon him.

That said, there is something very interesting at the heart of Joker, something that likely emerged almost entirely by accident. Joker provides an interesting genre hybrid of the seventies and eighties vigilante thriller with the contemporary superhero blockbuster. And, in doing so, suggests an interesting throughline. Joker suggests that the superhero blockbuster isn’t as far removed from these urban power fantasies as the audience might like to believe.

It is almost trite to describe Joker as an homage to seventies and eighties Hollywood. Director Todd Phillips has been very vocal about how he saw Joker as a way to secure fifty million dollars to make an example of the kind of movie that simply doesn’t get made these days. Joker is saturated with film references, often seeming to exist primarily as a laundry list of classic movies that Phillips has seen and really enjoyed. It’s notable that Martin Scorsese was briefly attached to the film as a producer, because the entire film seems like a love letter to some of his early work.

Phillips wears his influences on his sleeve. Frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert DeNiro is cast in the role of talk show host Murray Franklin. This casting is something of an in-joke. Joker owes a sizable debt to The King of Comedy, Scorsese’s (relatively) under-appreciated eighties classic about an obsessive stalker who fixates upon a late night television host. In The King of Comedy, DeNiro was cast in the role of the deranged fan to Jerry Lewis’ chat show host. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix plays the disconnected fantasist who hopes to prove himself to DeNiro’s tired television personality.

Throughout the film, Phillips borrows heavily from The King of Comedy. In The King of Comedy, Scorsese repeatedly slipped into Rupert Pumpkin’s dreams of celebrity and fame. He would often do this without any real warning or foreshadowing, instead letting sequences drift into the uncanny before exposing them as delusions. It was an intriguing and effective approach to the material, and it is a large part of why the ending of The King of Comedy is so ambiguous. Even on rewatch, it is impossible to determine whether the audience is looking at Rupert or through Rupert. It is all the more unsettling for that.

It is not an insult to observe that Phillips lacks Scorsese’s elegance or craft; few directors emerge such a comparison favourably. Joker similarly slips between reality and fantasy. Joker is much more explicit in these transitions, notably in an early sequence where Arthur imagines himself of the set of the Murray Franklin show, transporting himself from his mother’s bedside to be embraced by its host as the son that he never had. It is immediately clear to the audience that the segment is a figment of Arthur’s imagination.

To be fair, after this sequence establishes Arthur’s hallucinations, the boundaries between reality and fantasy become a bit more porous. The film’s later transitions into fantasy are less obviously signposted, with Arthur imagining an entire relationship with his neighbour Sophie. Nevertheless, the film never blurs the lines beyond recognition; after Arthur has a “bad day”, the film makes sure to carefully reveal the depth of Arthur’s fantasy to the audience. Scenes from earlier in the film are replayed to confirm that Sophie was never there by the newsstand or in the hospital ward.

Joker also borrows very heavily from Taxi Driver. The basic template of the story owes a lot to Martin Scorsese’s study of urban vigilantism and social breakdown. Like Travis Bickle, Arthur Fleck is a man who feels alienated and disconnected. He feels that he has more to offer to a world that he feels has ignored him for too long. Phillips even borrows several direct cues from Taxi Driver, including the idea that Fleck would be celebrated for his violence and even the recurring motif of a pantomimed gunshot to the head.

Other influences come thick and fast. Phillips has cited Chantal Akerman’s News From Home as an influence on Joker. The already memetic sequence of the Joker dancing down a set of stone steps seems designed to recall The Exorcist. That reference to William Friedkin leads directly into another, as two grizzled police officers chase Arthur on to a train car for a claustrophobic action beat that recalls The French Connection. Phillips’ version of Gotham is just as stylised as that created by Tim Burton, but it is just shaped by seventies and eighties American cinema more than twenties and thirties German expressionism.

With all of these influences, it might be tempted to argue that Joker isn’t really a superhero film. Certainly, Phillips himself has advanced that argument in interviews, trying to clearly delineate his film from contemporary superhero cinema. (Phillips himself is reportedly not a fan, complaining, “They’re always so loud.”) There is something a little awkward and forced in this insistence, something that is inherently dismissive of the genre. Even cast members like Marc Maron rushed to distinguish the film from the genre.

Perhaps Joker doth protest too much. Joker is a superhero origin story through and through. Even if it didn’t use established characters and even if it didn’t include countless easter eggs, the basic structure of the film is that of a superhero origin in the style of something like Batman Begins. It has the same big thematic ideas about men turning themselves into symbols, the same preoccupation with unresolved daddy issues, the same emphasis on larger-than-life iconography over naturalism.

Joker admittedly does some interesting things within the template. While most superhero films involve the death of a father figure, Arthur (through means direct and indirect) murders three of his surrogate father figures. While most superhero moves place an emphasis on flying as a metaphor for elevation and ascent, Joker returns time and again to the image of descent; Arthur is never as liberated as when he is going down stairs. While Bruce Wayne might build Batman as a symbol for Gotham to rally around, Arthur has an external meaning imposed on him by a city desperately searching for meaning.

Joker doesn’t actually have much to say using this template. It consciously avoids any clear reading, eschewing a couple of obvious interpretations and staying on the right side of the boundaries of good taste. Joker can be read as an “incel” movie, but also as a commentary on broken social structures and inequality. It also refuses to commit to either reading, often deliberately complicating its argument and avoiding one clear position. This largely seems to be the movie’s point. While it is frustrating and cowardly, it also makes a statement of itself; meaning is more often projected than read.

At the same time, the hollowness of Joker makes the structure of the film much more interesting. There is something intriguing in how Joker fuses disparate elements together. Most obviously, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of the kind of films that major studios were producing forty years ago with the kind of films that get produced today, a curious an awkward hybrid of two different approaches to cinema that underscores the gap between then and now in a manner similar to The Irishman. However, Joker isn’t just juxtaposing production across decades, it is contrasting genres.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Phillips is an interesting director, with a more varied career than his greatest hits would suggest. However, one of his most interesting films remains The Hangover, Part III. The film is an awkward attempt to hybridise the bawdy lads-on-the-town comedy of The Hangover with something closer to an organised crime epic. The juxtaposition simply didn’t work. There were many reasons for that, but the most obvious one was fundamental. What was the point of crashing a goofy R-rated comedy into a crime thriller, beyond the fact that Phillips really wanted to make a crime thriller?

In contrast, the strange hybrid of seventies urban thriller with superhero film works rather well in Joker. Part of this is down to the fact that the superhero genre is naturally adaptable; it is flexible enough that it can be threaded through a variety of other genres without seeming strange or surreal. The Marvel Studios films have made shallow attempts at this, with Ant Man nodding to heist movies and Captain America: The Winter Soldier gesturing at paranoid seventies thrillers. However, these are rather superficial points of intersection; they are much closer to the standard superhero template than Joker.

However, there are plenty of superhero films that have blended genre much more successfully. Brightburn is a superhero movie wedded to a slasher. The Dark Knight drops Batman and the Joker into a crime thriller like Heat, and lets them wreak havoc on the narrative. Batman Returns is a macabre fairy tale. The Incredibles is an aesthetic nod to sixties film and television, inside a family drama, with the trappings of a superhero movie. These films all find a way to use the familiar rhythms of a superhero story to play with the structure of other kinds of movies.

Joker belongs to a slightly different breed of hybrid. It is perhaps closer to director James Mangold’s work within the genre, with actor Hugh Jackman. The Wolverine is a messy and clunky film, one that feels very much hobbled by its need to hit the requisite superhero beats. Nevertheless, drawing on the work of writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller, the film draws a clear evolutionary link between the modern superhero and the older samurai. Mangold would develop this idea in Logan, which contextualised its own superhero story as a grim apocalyptic western.

The Wolverine and Logan provide something of a metatextual history of the superhero, treating the archetype as an evolution (or perhaps mutation) of the classic samurai or cowboy archetypes. Logan explicitly references Shane, suggesting that its protagonist is effectively playing out that classic cowboy arc. There is a sense in these films of the superhero film trying to contextualise itself, to position itself within the larger history of pop culture. At its best, Joker does something very similar.

Joker suggests that the modern superhero shares a lot of conceptual DNA with the sort of urban vigilantes that populated seventies and eighties film. Of course, this isn’t an entirely radical notion. After all, the entire character of the Punisher can be seen as an attempt to import that Death Wish aesthetic into the world of four-colour heroes. (The second season of Daredevil consciously evoked seventies and eighties New York when it introduced Frank Castle in Bang.) However, the Punisher has always been treated as an aberration. He exists at a remove from conventional superheroes, defined in opposition to them.

In contrast, Joker suggests that perhaps there is no great distance between the power fantasy of seventies and eighties urban vigilantism and the modern superhero blockbuster. Early in the film, Joker effectively restages the infamous Bernie Goetz subway shooting when Arthur guns down three strangers who assault him on a train. While Joker makes a point to consciously deracialise the confrontation, the Goetz shooting was a cultural touchstone. It was the story of a man who was tired of being victimised (he had been violently mugged several years earlier) and so took matters into his own hands. It was a power fantasy.

Pop culture has always been drawn to these sorts of power fantasies, stories about people who are strong enough to exert their will upon the world. Even beyond simple vigilantism, classic police movies like Dirty Harry played into the trope. In a complicated and violent world, men with guns were capable of reclaiming a little space for themselves. They could use their power to determine right and wrong without worrying an ineffectual or indifferent system. These films were fantasies, allowing people to feel like they had some power over the world around them.

These sorts of films largely faded into the background towards the end of the eighties, allowing for an occasional exception like Falling Down or The Equaliser. There are any number of reasons why these stories might have drifted out of the public consciousness. Perhaps these fantasies became redundant; the crime rate fell dramatically during the nineties, particularly in urban areas like New York. However, it also seems likely that the fantasies became increasingly uncomfortable.

These stories of angry mostly white and mostly male vigilantes (“the good guy with a gun”) hit worryingly close to home in an era of mass shootings. In the modern world, these sorts of shootings are often accompanied with manifestos or recorded statements, in which the killer rails angrily against those who they feel have wronged them. Joker alludes to this, allowing Arthur to appear on The Murray Franklin Show to air his grievances before exacting a terrible vengeance against his fallen father figure. (One of the shrewdest aspects of Joker is that Arthur’s justifications are deliberately played as pathetic rather than triumphant.)

The real world offered a showcase of the sort of resentment and entitlement that drives these power fantasies. After all of that, perhaps this particular fantasy hit a little too close to the bone. It is worth noting that Eli Roth’s 2018 remake of Death Wish, starring Bruce Willis, landed with a dull thud at the box office. What had been the basis for one of the most iconic films of the seventies suddenly felt out of place. Maybe there were enough self-righteous men with guns running around around in the real world. Perhaps mainstream audiences didn’t need any more of them.

On the other hand, maybe these power fantasies were just sublimated into the superhero genre, repackaged as family-friendly entertainment. After all, the default template of the modern superhero movie is the story of a brilliant individual (usually white and usually male) who takes it upon themselves to exert their power upon the world without any regard for existing systems of government and authority. Indeed, a lot of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe is built around the idea that these figures are entitled to their power no matter how they screw up. A lot of modern cinematic superheroism is selfish and self-involved.

Is there a world of difference between how Travis Bickle and Tony Stark see themselves? Both are men who believe that they should be held in esteem and that they have moral authority to exercise their power. The only difference is how the films see the characters in question. Travis Bickle is a deliberately unsettling character, somebody who should unsettle the audience. Tony Stark is presented as an ideal and an exemplar, a man whose plan to build “a suit of armour around the world” should be lauded instead of fear. (He also shouldn’t be blamed when it goes wrong.)

Even ignoring Taxi Driver as an exceptional work, there was a visceral and uncomfortable quality to many of those seventies and eighties power fantasies that made them quite bracing to watch; Dirty Harry is a very aggressive and abrasive piece of film, whereas Death Wish is deliberately provocative and salacious. There is a strange honesty to the brutality of these kind of films, an understanding of the push-and-pull dynamic of these power fantasies. These films understand (and indulge) the allure of such violence, while also being quite confrontational in how they frame it.

Modern superhero cinema lacks these rough edges. The power fantasy remains, but any abrasive quality has been very painstakingly and very carefully removed. When Peter Parker accidentally almost kills his classmate in Spider-Man: Far From Home, it is played as a joke. When London is almost leveled in Thor: The Dark World, there is no sense of the human cost of such a tragedy. Even blood is a rarity in these films, in an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible. Characters are often thrown across rooms and into walls without any sense of the actual damage this would do to a human body.

This is the most interesting aspect of Joker, in that the film implicitly draws a straight line from that seventies fascination with urban vigilantism through to the modern blockbuster spectacle where Iron Man uses a weapon of mass destruction to wipe out an entire army with the click of his fingers. The two genres are closer than one might think. Despite all the hand-wringing and anxiety that surrounded the release of Joker, is the film any less of a power fantasy than movies like Iron Man or Iron Man 2? It is arguably just a less sanitised one.

Largely shaped by a desire to create four-quadrant hits, the cinematic superhero genre tends to downplay these obvious connections. This is perhaps most notable with the Netflix adaptation of The Punisher, which made an effort to consciously steer the character away from his history of urban violence towards a more plot-driven conspiracy thriller. The result was a surreal effort to disentangle the character from any potentially problematic elements, but at the cost of completely erasing his conceptual history. After all, there are reports of soldiers and police officers branding themselves with the Punisher’s iconic logo.

In that context, Joker is refreshing. It foregrounds these connections, as uncomfortable as that might be. The film is a bridge between two genres, rendering a lot of the subtext of the superhero genre overt. It bridges the gap between these seventies vigilante films and modern superhero cinema. Its storytelling weaves the two together, adhering quite closely to the beats and rhythms of a standard superhero origin story as seen through the lens of these older vigilante movies. Early in the film, the news reports that Gotham has been infested by “super rats”, a combination of two words that beautifully encapsulate the film’s aesthetic.

In doing this, Joker serves as a reminder that perhaps superhero cinema is not as far removed from those grotty urban vigilante fantasies as they might initially appear.

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