The Joker was created by some combination of Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane in 1940 and added to the recurring cast of the Batman comics. The white-faced, green-haired, Gwynplaine-grinning, zoot-suited ‘clown prince of crime’ has seesawed between anarchic prankster and diabolical serial killer ever since. For eleven years, he had no backstory … until 1951, when ‘The Man Behind the Red Hood’ gave him that falling-into-a-chemical-vat origin as a punchline to a small mystery, though that still preserved his namelessness, which even Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in The Killing Joke and Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight stuck with. To my mind, what made the Joker distinctive in the DC Rogues’ Gallery was his anonymity – the likes of the Riddler, the Penguin, Catwoman and Lex Luthor all had biographies, traumas, motives and reasons for turning to crime. Cesar Romero just cackled. The Joker was basically a grinning bastard. Even the Red Hood was unknown and unknowable … until what had been a distinctive strength started to feel like thin characterisation, and the Jokert became a failed stand-up comedian (The Killing Joke) or the young hood who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents grown up and dunked in chemicals and played by Jack Nicholson (the 1989 Batman).
Recently, the TV series Gotham had three or four stabs at creating an origin for the Joker (the simplest, revoked in later seasons, was the most satisfying) – blurring the issue to the point when it was possible anyone could become Gotham City’s carnival nightmare. In whatever continuity the DC Cinema universe still has left, Jared Leto’s meth-head thug is presumably still the reigning Joker … which puts Todd Phillips’ take on an origin story almost in the position of one of those one-shot Elseworlds comics of the 1990s, where the familiar characters were put in different genres or time periods – partly to push the sales of pirate or Ancient Egyptian Batman, Catwoman or Joker action figures (I confess – I own some of those). Set circa 1982 – not coincidentally, the year The King of Comedy came out) – in a Gotham City blighted by a garbage strike and the sort of class-based protests/riots that didn’t really get going till the Occupy movement, this is a ‘what if …’ scenario that has abused, unstable party clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) – purists will note a tiny aside that establishes his real name is unknown – turn into a celebrity super-villain concurrent with the well-known Batman origin story. An additional radical spin on the material is that here Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is an arrogant, brutal plutocrat who is running for Mayor and has triggered a class war by referring to the disenfranchised as ‘clowns’ (inspiring a trend for masks and makeup among violent protesters).
It’s inescapable that a film focused entirely on Joker (no ‘the’ here) is more concerned with his (unreliable) point of view than anyone else’s, so characters who have traditionally been good guys are seen as unpleasant – even Alfred the Butler (Douglas Hodge) is a scowling bruiser. Phillips resists the temptation to salt the picture with MCU-style easter eggs, so we get newly-invented cops rather than, say, Gordon and Bullock – presumably since Gotham covered that waterfront completely. This is so divorced from any comics version of Gotham City that there’s an odd frisson to the inclusion of versions of marginal or seldom-seen holdover characters, like Gary (Leigh Gill), who presumably becomes the Joker’s sidekick Gaggy, and Dr Sally (Sondra Friedman), modelled on the Dr Ruth parody in Frank Miller Jr’s The Dark Knight Returns (which is where the whole Joker appears on a talk show bit comes from). Phillips – who co-wrote with Scott Silver – and Phoenix work very hard on fitting a super-villain origin story into an unusual genre box, pastiching the Scorsese of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy to give another ‘imaginary stories’ spin (what if Travis Bickle was a guest on The Jerry Langford Show) with Robert DeNiro shifted to the other seat on the set (playing talkshow host Murray Franklin).
Phoenix’ ‘mentally unstable loner’ Arthur – he suffers from a brain injury that makes him prone to fits of uncontrollable and inappropriate laughter – doesn’t just clown-dance (to a Gary Glitter tune, yet) from dumped-on, beaten-up loser to archetypal menace in Scorsese style. His first act of violent resistance is a Death Wish-style subway confrontation that evokes Bickle’s inspiration – vigilante Bernhard Goetz – with another inversion: just as Bickle scopes out a politician but eventially shoots lowlifes, framing himself as a hero rather than an assassin, Arthur is initially attacked by street punks but strikes back against a terrible trio of drunken ‘Wall Street’ guys (who all work for Wayne Industries) who were harassing a lone female passenger (‘he’s being nice to you,’ one asshole tells the girl his friend is flicking fries at). This makes the clown killer potentially the figurehead of the protest movement – and, in one of the film’s many ‘yes, but …’ tactics opens it up to criticism that it’s yoking together social concerns from across decades and tending to simplify and even demonise people who have a valid point to make … even as Taxi Driver became a playbook for self-pitying loners, despite what Scorsese and Paul Schrader wrought. Phillips knows that, and the film is full of lines and speeches Taxi Driver didn’t have about how useless Joker is as a role model and how he sneers at the notion of his antics having any political or philosophical point beyond the punchline of the joke ‘what do you get when you cross a mentally unstable loner with a society that doesn’t care?’
It’s respectable to evoke Scorsese, but in its rough edges and spikiness – not least in the commitment to strangeness that Phoenix, who sometimes looks like Patrick Troughton’s Dr Who after a starvation diet – it feels more like one of Abel Ferrara’s spirals into dementia, with Phoenix even looking quite a bit like Ferrara in the role of the Driller Killer. Phoenix also gives Joker a slightly fey, queenish tone of voice that pulls in the celebrity degenerates of Pink Flamingoes or Female Trouble (you can easily hear Arthur ranting ‘I blew Richard Speck’ on the Murray Franklin Show). This makes for a film that answers the riddle of what a comic book villain created by Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara or John Waters would look like … leaving tantalisingly open the inevitable next question of what a Batman from any of these auteurs would be. There’s already a lot of debate about the film’s Fight Club-like possible elevation to a cult status among the sorts of angry white people who commit mass shootings – with an especial relevance to the incident that inspired the film Dark Night – and it goes out of its way to raise all sorts of editorial matters about class divisions and mental health in America. But that’s all clown make-up – this, like Joker himself, is playing a game. It’s a gripping, weird, challenging and bravura performance, but it’s much more interested in the mask than the man – which, given the character’s origins, is appropriate. It might make an interesting double bill with Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader, a Sartre adaptation which could also serve as a secret origin for Dr Doom.