Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise. Copyright: © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.  TM & © DC Comics

Joaquin Phoenix turns in a tour de force performance in Joker, starring a character who may or may not be who we’ve seen in other entertainment.

 

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Oct. 10, 2019 -- Warner Bros.’ Joker made $96 million at the box office in its opening weekend, making it the biggest October opening of all time. But it also raises a lot of questions, both in-story and out here in the world, which your humble narrator will seek to answer.

Q: Is this the real origin of The Joker?

A: Sure! And so are all the others.

The Joker first appeared in two stories in 1940 without an origin. He died at the end of the second one, but was resurrected by editorial fiat. (You can’t let a good villain go to waste.) By turns lethal and goofy, the mysterious Joker continued to appear regularly for many years, with no information about who he is or how he came to be.

In 1951, Joker co-creator Bill Finger wrote “The Man Behind the Red Hood,” in which the Clown Prince of Crime turns out to be a petty criminal who wore the titular head gear and escaped Batman by “diving into the catch basin for all the chemicals” at the Monarch Playing Card Co. The chemicals permanently dyed his hair green, his skin white and his lips ruby red.

“And all these years I’ve been laughing at you! Ha ha!” The Mirthful Mountebank cackles at the end of the story. “You never knew my identity until now!” But then again, Finger didn’t give this character an actual identity – he was “Red Hood” or “Joker” throughout.

In 1988, comics legend Alan Moore penned Batman: The Killing Joke, a short graphic novel which partly established The Joker as a struggling comedian who joined the Red Hood gang because he needed money for his ailing wife, who died anyway. Again, no civilian name is given.

Joker argues that he and Batman are alike in that both became what they are because of “one bad day” – but, of course, the Dark Knight didn’t descend into madness, and turned his “bad day” into a force for good. Still, the subtextual idea that Batman and The Joker are two sides of the same coin persists to the modern day. 

In 1989, the Batman movie established The Joker as gangster Jack Napier, who not only became the Homicidal Harlequin by chemical bath, but murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents into the bargain.

In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight gave us an anonymous, nihilist Joker who reveled in chaos but seemed to be wearing makeup.

In 2016, the omniscient “Mobius Chair” from New Genesis told Batman that there were currently three Jokers active in Gotham City. That revelation has yet to be explored.

Recently, the TV show Gotham (2014-19) established The Joker as twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, with the death of one inspiring and motivating the other.

And so on. As The Joker himself says in The Killing Joke about his origin, “Sometimes I remember it one way … sometimes another …  If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!”

Art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Copyright DC Comics Inc.

The original 1940 Joker was inspired by a host of things, including the silent film The Man Who Laughed, an image at Coney Island and a playing card.

Q: So he’s not The Joker of the comics. Is he the real Joker of the DC Extended Universe of movies?

A: No, because Joker isn’t part of, or constrained by, the DCEU, which director Todd Phillips said countless times to countless outlets in the months leading up to the film’s release. An example:

“It's not really connected to that [DC Movie] Universe,” Phillips said at the Toronto International Film Festival, as quoted in Newsweek. “And it was really intentionally not. I mean the original idea when I went to [Warner Bros.] with the idea was not just about one movie, but about a label – sort of a side label to DC, where you can do these kind of character study, low-rent, low-budget movies, where you get a filmmaker to come in and do some deep dive into a character. So it was never meant to connect, so I don't see it connecting to anything in the future. I think this is just this movie, you know?”

Besides, if this was The Joker of the DCEU, then the Jared Leto version we saw in Suicide Squad should have been a bazillion years old. And who wants to see Batman punching out senior citizens?

But in true Joker fashion, Phillips didn’t altogether eliminate the possibility of the Joaquin Phoenix version of the Harlequin of Hate being connected in some way to the Leto version. 

“Maybe Joaquin’s character inspired The Joker,” Phillips said to the Los Angeles Times. “You don't really know. His last line in the movie is, ‘You wouldn't get it.’ There’s a lot going on in there that’s interesting.”

Oh, Todd, you tease.

Q: How much of Joker is real, and how much happens in Arthur Fleck’s head?

A: That’s impossible to answer, since Arthur is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. It’s possible the entire movie is in his head, while he remains committed in Arkham. It’s possible that when he crawled into his refrigerator, he never emerged, and all of the movie after that scene is a fantasy. Your call.

Q: Is Thomas Wayne really Arthur’s father?

A: See: “unreliable narrator.” But if we take the information given at face value, then it’s possible but unlikely. The photo with Wayne’s initials (if that was real) indicate he possibly had some sort of relationship with Penny Fleck that he’s now lying about. On the other hand, Arthur was adopted. Probably. I fall on the side of “no,” only because if it’s true then Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck would be half-brothers. Ew.

Q: Some fear that Joker will inspire copycat violence. Is that a valid concern?

A: Violence in America is always a valid concern. But just about every study ever done on the subject shows that media doesn’t lead culture; media reflects culture. In fact, some studies show that viewers reject and resent media to the extent that they’ll believe the opposite of what the “fake news” is telling them. In short, the media mantra – especially in commercial entertainment – is “give the people what they want.” The box office tells us that, yes indeedy, Joker is something we want.

So my opinion is this: If someone is inspired by Joker to commit violence, in all likelihood they were going to do it anyway, and Joker – or any other movie, TV show or video game – just gave them an avenue to channel their antisocial tendencies. Your mileage may vary.

Art by Brian Bolland. Copyright DC Comics Inc.

Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, is one of the most famous and critically praised Joker stories. Batman comes off more or less unscathed, but Barbara and Commissioner Gordon aren’t so lucky.

Q: Martin Scorsese has dismissed Joker by saying it isn’t cinema. Is it just junk?

A: Scorsese’s is not the only negative voice in the choir. CNN’s Brian Lowery says Joker isn’t art, but only commerce disguised as art. Esquire’s Gabrielle Burney’s says Joker has a “profound misundersta... of working people, mental illness and politics.

I’m a little baffled by all these complaints, especially about a movie that left me stunned and emotionally drained. It's definitely art to me.

To Lowery, I say that without money, artists don’t eat, so there’s been a commercial connection to art since forever, including when Pope Julius II paid Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. 

Is Joker commercial? Sure, or it wouldn’t get made. Is it too commercial? Well, that’s up to the viewer, but I’d like to note that Warner Bros. restrained themselves from creating Joker action figures, Happy Meals or any other merchandise. In general, though, if you feel dirty watching movies that are made to make money, you’re not going to go to very many of them.

And Esquire is correct that Joker isn’t a clinical expression of mental illness, does not explain its politics and isn’t an accurate representation of The Common Working Man. Why should it be? Joker isn’t trying to solve social problems or give a lecture on mental illness or stand on a soapbox.  Like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – two Martin Scorsese movies Joker metatextually references – or movies like Psycho, it is a chilling portrait of a man sliding into homicidal psychopathy. You can’t ask a movie to do all those other things – it’s just here to tell a good story.

And speaking of Scorsese, he’s entitled to his opinion. But he’s not entitled to define “cinema” for anyone but himself. I’ll go with the response Robert Downey Jr. had to say on the Howard Stern Show.

“It's his opinion,” Downey said. “I mean, it (Joker) plays in theaters. I appreciate his opinion because I think it's like anything. We need all of the different perspectives so we can come to center and move on.”

That sounds like good advice to me.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Andrew Alan Smith) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).       

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Perhaps I am a cynical fellow, but I sometimes suspect  that what certain directors or critics are really thinking is, "Why are people going to see Joker and not the movies that we think they should be seeing?"

If you're a cynical fellow, then I am too, because that's what I think. 

I thought Martin Scorsese's take was another in the "comics are for kids" vein. And I can see him being chary with praise for a movie that pretty openly cribs from not one, but two of his classics.

I also don't get what Brian Lowrey's crack "commerce disguised as art" is supposed to mean. 

Now Jennifer Aniston has chimed in,saying Marvel movies are "diminishing" the industry, and wanting more rom-coms made.

For an interpretation of this remark, see the Baron's incisive remark above. "Why don't people like the kinds of movies I like?" Wahhhh!" Also, there's a mercenary element involved, in that she wants more people to go to rom-coms, so that more will be made, so she'll have more work. 

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: If rom-coms pulled in the kind of box office Marvel movies do, then more would be made. But you can't blame the movies for that, Jennifer. It's the audience, and they have shown a clear preference.

Meanwhile, I have seen variations on the Baron's post immediately above, but not this one. Man, that's cold!

The people who say that there are too many blockbuster movies don't seem to realize that these movies are allowing the movie theaters to survive. 

Captain Comics said:

Now Jennifer Aniston has chimed in,saying Marvel movies are "diminishing" the industry, and wanting more rom-coms made.

For an interpretation of this remark, see the Baron's incisive remark above. "Why don't people like the kinds of movies I like?" Wahhhh!" Also, there's a mercenary element involved, in that she wants more people to go to rom-coms, so that more will be made, so she'll have more work. 

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: If rom-coms pulled in the kind of box office Marvel movies do, then more would be made. But you can't blame the movies for that, Jennifer. It's the audience, and they have shown a clear preference.

Meanwhile, I have seen variations on the Baron's post immediately above, but not this one. Man, that's cold!

Jennifer Aniston is currently working with Reese Witherspoon on a TV project set in the world of morning TV news shows, dealing with women working in a hostile environment and dealing with the fallout that happens when a beloved anchor (played by Steve Carell) is exposed as sexual predator. (Why is everybody looking at Matt Lauer?)

It's the kind of thing that doesn't make a $100 million blockbuster, but it did get made, albeit on TV -- which in my book is fine. And a lot of the kinds of things Aniston would like to see "back" -- the Meg Ryan romantic comedies, movies like Terms of Endearment, Heaven Can Wait, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Goodbye Girl -- are being made, for TV, as we discuss at length starting here. As somebody over there noted

ClarkKent_DC said;

There are more outlets for a storyteller to get his or her work out than movie theaters, and more ways than just theatrical films. The advent of HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and FX, TNT, and even Lifetime (and others) allows for more ways to present those stories, be they movies, miniseries or ongoing TV series, projects that put characterization, plot and good writing in the forefront.

Aniston is coming from the tired standpoint that TV is somehow lesser than movies. I thought actors were past that. 

Generally, non-blockbusters can be made for less money and therefore can more easily make a profit. Of course that assumes that actors in those movies are willing to work for less money.

Richard Willis said:

Generally, non-blockbusters can be made for less money and therefore can more easily make a profit. Of course that assumes that actors in those movies are willing to work for less money.

That's true as far as it goes ... but a non-blockbuster that is made for less money tends to make a profit that also is smaller than what a blockbuster brings in. Unless it's something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was made on a $1.98 budget* and pulled in $369 million. The overwhelming majority of such small films, it is safe to say, don't get those kind of results.

The rule of thumb is that any given film needs to have a box office take that's double the budget just to break even, to cover production costs and marketing expenses.

So at $6 million, a small movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding is doing well if it does $12 million or better ... but a blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame is like having your own money printing press. It cost $356 million and made $2.8 BILLION worldwide.

So yeah, studios are more willing, and even more dependent upon, the blockbuster that costs $100 million-plus to make. Why is why the midrange movies are, more and more, being done on one version of TV or another ... and, more and more, are being done not as movies but as limited series. And non-network movies aren't constrained by network Standards and Practices -- or, as most of us know them, the censors -- they can include as much nudity, foul language and "adult" content as any filmmaker wishes to include.

 

*Well, $6 million, which might as well be $1.98.

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