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Why “Joker” Is Brilliant, But Controversial (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s brilliant in so many ways, but undermined by the circumstances of its release. In the same way certain movies come along at just the right time to become a cultural phenomenon, others hit theaters with unexpected forces working against them.

When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, its timing was perfect. It struck all the right notes from a cinematic, narrative, and cultural perspective. On top of that, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker went down as one of the greatest displays of acting prowess of all time, and not just for a superhero movie. For many, myself included, Ledger’s version of the Joker will always be the one by which all others are measured.

By contrast, “Joker” couldn’t have been timed worse. The current social, political, and cultural landscape is vulnerable and hypersensitive to every one of the themes it explores. On top of that, the movie explores those things very well, so much so that it warrants being in the same conversation as “The Dark Knight” in terms of how it portrays the Joker.

While Heath Ledger’s Joker is still superior in almost every way, what Joaquin Phoenix accomplished in this movie deserves plenty of praise. At the very least, it helps cleanse the memories of those still cringing at Jared Leto’s rather eccentric take on the character in “Suicide Squad.”

This movie, as well as Phoenix’s performance, comes at a time when taboos about mental health and disturbed lonely men are hot-button topics. On top of that, a string of mass shootings perpetrated by disturbed men, some with disturbing manifestos, has created real-life horror while stoking genuine fears. The story in “Joker” neither avoids nor downplays those issues.

This movie also dares to do something that few beyond Alan More has been able to achieve, which is to give the Joker a backstory. For many lifelong comic fans, especially Batman fans, the very concept of fleshing out this character undermines the core of his appeal. He has always functioned better as a chaotic force of nature rather than a person with a tangible history.

Ever since his creation in 1940, his life and his story have been vague. He has been defined as a perfect counter to Batman’s never-ending crusade. Whereas Batman seeks justice through clear, defined rules, the Joker seeks chaos and laughs at such rules. He can never be too defined, as a character, if he’s to personify that chaos.

Despite these challenges, “Joker” finds a way to tell his story and, like “The Dark Knight” before it, actually manages to make the Joker even more terrifying. Through the character of Arthur Fleck, we see a disturbed mind trapped within an environment that does everything to make his condition worse. Through both unavoidable circumstances and fateful choices, we see this broken mind become something far more dangerous.

It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s no single trigger, like falling into a vat of chemicals. There’s a cumulative effect to Arthur Fleck’s transformation. It’s not always logical or smooth, which comes off as intentional from the beginning. The only constant is that Fleck gets more twisted and unhinged with each escalating event.

This is where Phoenix’s performance really shines. He carries himself with a presence that feels very close to what Ledger captured in “The Dark Knight.” He starts off as simply being mentally ill and struggling with it. However, what he does with his illness and what it does to him turns him into something more than just another disturbed loner.

It’s here where the controversy behind the “Joker” takes hold. I would argue it’s a dumb controversy, but it was serious enough for Aurora, Colorado to cancel screenings of the movie. While it feels like an overreaction, it’s somewhat understandable, given what happened in Aurora in 2012.

If that were the extent of the controversy, then “Joker” would only be a passing concern for most people. Then came the idea the movie celebrates or glorifies “incel culture” through Fleck’s story. While I usually try to be balanced when scrutinizing certain ideas, even if they’re absurd, I can’t do that this time.

Simply put, this part of the controversy is just plain stupid. There’s no better way to say it.

Worrying that this movie might somehow inspire lonely, disturbed men to go on killing sprees is completely without merit. It’s akin to worrying that “Friday the 13th” will inspire anyone who wears a hockey mask to brutally murder camp counselors. Moreover, the absurdity of this controversy undercuts the more substantive messages of this movie.

There is a real message in “Joker” and it has nothing to do with incels, masculinity, or even violence. In this world, Gotham City is the perfect symbol of a grossly flawed society that tries to pretend those flaws can be fixed by staying the course. From the perspective of people like Arthur Fleck, this notion is a complete joke.

Much like our world, there’s a small segment of very rich, very powerful people who benefit the most from this society. The Wayne family is the perfect manifestation of this joke. Even when they carry themselves as responsible, upstanding pillars of the community, they still look down at those who are dissatisfied. On top of that, they think their dissatisfaction is a flaw.

Arthur Fleck is as caught up as anyone in this decaying society. Then, through details I won’t spoil, he starts something that inspires chaos that would make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. That chaos may or may not be entirely justified, but it’s understandable. In a sense, the Joker is just an extreme manifestation of something that seemed inevitable.

If there is a real controversy with “Joker,” it’s that the wrong issues became controversial. This movie conveys a message to the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from society that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Those same people who think they know the solutions have no idea what people at the bottom are going through and dismissing them as “clowns” only makes things worse.

We’ve already seen this happen in the real world. The powerful who seek greater power call those who lash out as unimportant or misguided. They think those who protest loudly have nothing of merit to say, which only feels like an excuse to not listen. In that sense, it’s probably not surprising that many media outlets have turned on this movie, albeit for the wrong reasons.

At its core, “Joker” highlights the craziness that compounds craziness. In a world that’s unfair, unjust, and full of lies, how can sane person not be driven insane by their circumstances? Arthur Fleck had more circumstances than most and his mental illness only compounded the situation.

There are times when it’s not entirely clear when the events unfolding are real or vivid delusions. It nicely reflects the uncertain nature of the Joker’s origins, as both the Killing Joke and “The Dark Knight” have previously established. There’s a point in the movie where it becomes unclear where Arthur Fleck truly comes from or whether that name is truly his.

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because once he becomes the Joker, he becomes something more than just a mentally ill loner. For certain people who have seen mentally ill loners commit atrocities in the real world, it sparks real fear. At the same time, “Joker” makes clear that’s the wrong target.

After seeing “Joker,” I feel like I just saw a movie that people are going to be talking about for years to come. It’s a movie that can be interpreted in many ways, which is perfectly befitting of the Joker’s chaotic nature. At the same time, I knew some of those interpretations would be used in the name of an agenda and not in a good way.

In another time, “Joker” would be hailed as a movie worthy of praise on the level of “The Dark Knight.” However, because it came out at a time when people fear the lonely, deranged men more than the society that creates them, it’s not able to have the same impact. It’s still an excellent movie and one that will have a unique place in cinematic history for years to come.

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Detective Comics #1000

Every Wednesday, a new batch of comics enters this world and makes it a little more awesome. However, it’s not every week that an iconic character achieves an incredible milestone that only one other superhero comic has achieved to date. There aren’t a lot of characters who could hope to achieve such ratified status, but if ever there were someone equipped for that journey, it’s Batman.

Today will likely go down in history as one of Batman’s greatest triumphs and he achieves it without the aid of Christopher Nolan. That’s because on this day, Detective Comics #1000 came out. Beyond just being a landmark issue that celebrates the legacy of Dark Knight, this comic helps remind superhero fans of every generation why Batman has endured.

From the triumph of “The Dark Knight” to the lasting damage done by Joel Shumacher, Batman has navigated many eras over the years. However, like Superman and Wonder Woman, he has never deviated far from his core persona. He’s a detective, a symbol, and a personification of vengeance against egregious injustice. No matter the time, place, or culture, there’s always room for that kind of crusade.

Detective Comics #1000 helps affirm that by telling a collection of short stories by some of DC Comics’ top writers. None of these stories really tie into one another and they don’t have to. It’s just not possible to capture the breadth of Batman’s legacy in just one story, no matter how many members of his iconic rogues gallery enter the picture.

Instead, each story is crafted in a way that helps capture a critical element of Batman’s never-ending crusade. A story by Scott Snyder helps highlight Batman’s unparalleled detective skills. A story by Warren Ellis highlights Batman’s ability to strike fear in criminals. A story by Christopher Priest show show Batman’s humanity is as strong as any one of his skills.

Each story carries its own weight, in terms of drama and impact. They present some of Batman’s best traits alongside his greatest weaknesses. They never give the impression that Batman is too powerful or too capable. At the end of the day, he’s still human. He has very human vulnerabilities and not just compared to the heavy hitters of the Justice League.

Beyond not being bulletproof, there are many instances that show he’s still someone who was deeply scarred as a child. The murder of his parents still haunts him. There are times in which he fails to cope with it, as nicely shown in a story by Denny O’Neil. At the same time, however, that loss and the pain it causes still drives him to be Batman.

In many respects, Batman is more true to his persona than Bruce Wayne. If anything, Bruce Wayne is the real mask. When he’s not wearing his cowl, he has to be someone else. He has to give the impression that he’s a successful, functional adult who got over the murder of his parents long ago. That has never been the case for Batman.

After 1,000 issues of Detective Comics, it’s abundantly clear that Batman does not see injustice the same way others do. People suffer tragedy and injustice all the time, both in the world of superhero comics and in the real world. Most people are content to let the authorities and the justice system deal with it. Batman isn’t most people.

In his world, the crime-ridden metaphor that is Gotham City, the authorities are corrupt and the system is flawed. Unlike people of lesser means, he’s in a position to actually do something about injustice. As Bruce Wayne, he can help improve the economy of the city. As Batman, though, he can make it so other children don’t have to watch their parents die.

It’s a powerful message full of powerful themes. They’re as relevant today as they were 80 years ago when Bob Kane and Bill Finger first created Batman. Injustice and tragedy know no single time, race, culture, or gender. They affect everyone and Batman stands on the front lines to fight it.

More than anything else, Detective Comics #1000 reminds us of why we want Batman on the front lines of that crusade. He’s capable of confronting the worst of the worst in terms of criminals. He’s also compassionate enough to understand and empathize with those who have been affected by injustice. It’s how he’s able to recruit and inspire others like Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, and Catwoman.

Over the years, he’s even managed to carve out an extended Batman family, of sorts. It’s not the same as the family he lost, but an incredibly touching story by Tom King and Tony Daniels shows just how much it means to him. It helps give balance to someone who can be a hardened crime-fighter one moment and a caring friend the next.

Not all the stories in Detective Comics #1000 are so serious and dramatic. The story by Paul Dini provides some colorful humor that shows that even the gritty world of Batman isn’t prone to a few absurdities. Batman himself doesn’t deny this. He just embraces and accepts it as part of his never-ending crusade.

It’s hard to imagine any crusade lasting 1,000 issues and spanning eight decades, complete with campy TV shows and genre-defining movies. The universal nature of Batman’s crusade against injustice helped fill those issues with so many iconic moments. This landmark issue shows why that crusade is poised to endure another 1,000 issues.

The struggle never ends, but he never gives up. He can’t and he won’t. He’s the goddamn Batman.

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