A Detached Joke: How Phoenix’s Performance Goes Into The Joker Canon

by Steven Harris

Joker is a fascinating movie. Despite having no clear comic analogue, the version of the Joker presented in the 2019 film is arguably the most definitive version of the character on screen to date. Joker will undoubtably go into the film canon for the character due to how compelling Phoenix’s performance is. Not only is Phoenix’s Joker going against other on screen representations for top spot in the canon, but it’s also going against the comic book representations. For years fans have heralded Mark Hamill’s various voice performances as being the epitome of what the characters with a subset championing Heath Ledger’s performance from the The Dark Knight as the definitive version. However, Phoenix’s performance manages to tap into to something more primal and unsettling which is what puts it over any other adaption of the character to date. Phoenix’s version of the character is not humorous — he is however fully detached from reality which makes him more dangerous. 

When analyzing what makes Phoenix’s version of the Joker canonical, it is easy to see how his performance overlaps with versions of the character created by Alan Moore and Grant Morison.

The origin presented in The Killing Joke by Alan Moore is widely accepted by most fans as the character’s definitive origin. Previous to The Killing Joke, the Joker was given an origin story where he was a former criminal who was set to retire before his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime. Flashbacks in the The Killing Joke focus on an unnamed, struggling, stand-up comedian who becomes a criminal in order to provide for his pregnant wife. Ultimately, the comedian falls into an all-too-familiar vat of unnamed chemicals and emerges with the now iconic green hair and white skin. While Alan Moore uses an unnamed comedian, it is clear that Moore believes that anyone could be the Joker — that all it takes is just “one bad day.” That logic is evidenced by the Joker’s plan to kidnap and traumatize Commissioner James Gordon, thereby forcing him down the same spiral of insanity the Joker has previously slid down.  However, this origin story should not be accepted at face value.  Within the story itself, the Joker makes the comment: “Something like that happened to me, you know. I…I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice”

Batman: The Killing Joker by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, DC Comics (1988)

This statement should call into question the entirety of the flashback that is presented in The Killing Joke. The flashbacks are very much within the mind of the Joker, and are being presented to you the reader. With this confession that he is an unreliable narrator, Moore set the precedent that the Joker is somehow capable of breaking the fourth wall (or at the very least aware of the reader). Furthermore, this one statement allows for other writers to propose their own origins for the character with the possibility that their origin is the “true story”. 

Grant Morrison has done the most of any Batman writer to explicitly fold a sense of “cosmic awareness” into the Joker. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth is the first time Morrison posits the theory that the Joker is suffering from a sense of “super sanity” — that the Joker is reacting to reality (possibly multiple realities) as fast it/they presents its/themselves to him, During his Batman run, Morrison has the Joker explain that every so often he has to reinvent himself with a new persona (a clever way to explain different writers’ take on the same character.) 

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, DC Comis (1989)

Arthur Fleck shares the same hyperawareness that defined both Moore & Morrison’s versions of the Joker. Arthur is not a reliable narrator in his own life, and is very much in control of the narrative that he presents to others. For example, when confronted about his condition (and whether or not he can actually control it), Arthur does not definitively answer the question. Evidence exists that he actually can. In the opening scenes of the movie Arthur walks away from an uncomfortable situation where a joke has been made to his disabled co-worker and does his trademark uncomfortable laugh. However, as soon as he turns the corner and exits the social situation, the laugh stops. This is similar to how once the face paint is applied to Arthur, the laugh is no longer uncontrollable.  

The most distinctive characteristic of Arthur Fleck is his dancing. Whenever Arthur dances in the film, it is largely in sync with the orchestral score that the audience is hearing as well.  (Side note: the use of music in Joker is utterly fantastic. Early in the film, music is used to denote which scenes are “real” vs. what Arthur is imaging in his head. After his psychotic decent, the use of music becomes much more unpredictable and only adds to the viewer’s discomfort). Typically, orchestral scores are never acknowledged by the characters on screen. However, Arthur’s movements are perfectly in sync with the music being played during his bathroom dance scene and before being introduced to the late night show audience. The music is being played at moments close to moments where Arthur is at his most violent is reveling in his “true nature”. Having the audience hear the same music that Arthur does only invites them into his narrative and demonstrates that Arthur has control over his narrative.  

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019) by Todd Phillips

Furthermore, during the film’s final moments, Arthur makes two comments that show he is fully aware of the narrative being presented to the audience. First, Arthur is singing along to the closing song “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra. Despite being slightly stilted, Arthur is singing along in time to the song and matching the lyrics verbatim. Second, there’s a moment where Arthur is laughing and it cuts to a young Bruce Wayne in front of his dead parents. When asked why he is laughing by his therapist, Arthur replies “you wouldn’t get it.” Due to the canonical nature of how closely Bruce Wayne and the Joker are destined to become, one can interpret the scene as that Bruce would, in fact, get the joke. Arthur knowing that someone in the universe can finally get the joke is another example of how this version of the Joker shares a similar sense of hyper awareness to Moore and Morrison’s version of the character. 

The aloof detachment from reality that exists in both Moore and Morrison’s version of the Joker is present in Phoenix’s performance. Being detached from reality makes him indifferent to his surroundings and the value of human life. Having a foot in reality makes the character less effective as evidenced by the greed obsessed Nicholson version and the hypocrisy of planned chaos found in Ledger’s performance. Having the Arthur Fleck version of the Joker carelessly dance as the surrounding city burns adds a level of discomfort only previously seen in works by Moore and Morrison. A discomfort that reminds you that there is nothing to celebrate about this character. He might be dancing and laughing, but there is no reason why you should be as well. 

What do you think— does Joker’s similarity to comic book canon make it more effective as a film? Sound off in the comments below. 

Glass: Subverting Your Cake And Eating It Too

by Steven Harris

Glass (2019), written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.

This weekend saw the release of Glass from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. Glass serves as both a sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000’s non-traditional superhero film, Unbreakable and 2017’s horror film, Split. Due to Unbreakable and Split having such drastically different tones, Glass had large shoes to fill by providing a conclusion to the Eastrail 177 trilogy. 

Despite its glaring narrative flaws, Glass is a important film to take note of in 219. Much in the vein of how Unbreakable deconstructed the superhero film genre in 2000 (eight years before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Glass wrestles with trying to determine what comes next for the genre. While critics have already grown tired of the genre and fan attendance being unpredictable (many predicted that the billion dollar success of Aquaman would be a financial bomb for DC ), filmmakers struggle to determine what direction the superhero genre should go in next. Glass arrives on the scene to offer an answer as to where the genre should go next.

Right out of the gate, the film subverts your expectations of how you think the story will unfold. Since the reveal at the end of Split that the film took place in the same world as 2000’s Unbreakable, viewers were promised an inevitable showdown between Kevin Wendell Crumb and David Dunn.  Expectations based on previous onscreen superhero conflicts dictate that the film would be based on a prolonged game of “cat and mouse” between the hero and villain.  Surprisingly, a majority of them film’s conflict has nothing to do with the might of David Dunn squaring off against the brute force of Crumb’s “Beast” persona; instead the film primarily focuses on the question posed to all three main characters by Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) — “What if you aren’t special? What if this is all just inside your head?” The crux of the movie takes place in a prolonged surreal sequence in which Dr. Staple address each of the lead characters and deconstructs the more supernatural aspects of the previous films. She not only places seeds of doubt inside the minds of the characters, but also the audience. After that pivotal scene, both the characters and viewers start to question the reality unfolding before their eyes. As the film continues to unfold, viewers themselves doubt what was previously seen in the film, and start to pity the characters they previously saw as destined combatants, but now see as damaged due to their supposed mental afflictions.

The most obvious subversion in the film is the climax of the film. Typically in superhero films, the climatic final fight takes place in a large public place for the world to see — a fact that Mister Glass is clearly aware of as he advises Kevin Crumb on how to battle David Dunn. Moments like this demonstrate that the film is overly aware of the expectations of the audience in terms of how a story should go. Instead of delivering on the promise of a stereotypical superhero fight, viewers are given is a small intimate fight in the middle of a parking lot. 

Despite the film’s clever subversions and thought-provoking questions regarding superheroes, it succumbs under its own weight. The final reveal that Dr. Staple is a part of an ancient Order designed to suppress individuals with superpowers by either forcing them to believe in a nonexistent mental illness and thereby confirming them into societal norms, or by murdering them, is a major stretch from left field. Almost no ground work is laid for this reveal and leaves the viewer numb at this revelation. However, the implications of this Order make for a more interesting discussion that the film skirts around. One starts with asking the question: Who is the hero of Glass?

Walking into the film, viewers expect that David Dunn will be the one who defeats both the Horde and the titular villain, Mr. Glass. Instead, the film has a much more bleak and unfulfilling ending for David Dunn. In lieu of walking away from a climatic cathartic battle, David Dunn is held down and drowned in a shallow puddle by members of Dr. Staple’s shadowy organization. (Oddly enough, the villains of the film, the Horde and Mister Glass, are allowed to die in the arms of their loved ones.)  Due to the existence of this organization, David was never able going to walk away from the events of the film if he was able to defeat both the Horde and Mister Glass. Even if David Dunn had succeeded in stopping the Horde and Mister Glass, the shadowy organization would have won. The only person who is actually able to defeat the organization was Mister Glass. 

While Mister Glass was previously  a villain in Unbreakable, by the time of his death at end of Glass he has transformed into a more ambiguous character. There is no redemption arc for Mister Glass; he is a man who orchestrated the deaths of thousands in domestic terrorist attacks — a fact that the film doesn’t shy away from. However, the goal Mister Glass is fighting for by the end of the film is oddly admirable. At its core, Glass is a film about visibility and demanding that the world see you for who you are. After years of being sedated, locked away and kept away from the public light, Mr. Glass (an elderly disabled African American man)   fights for the right to have his existence acknowledged. In order to complete his goal, he pairs with the Horde (who at one point proclaims himself to be the voice of society’s broken and discarded) and convinces him that the world needs to know of their existence. The only person standing in their way is Dr. Staple, the person who is actively trying to sedate them and keep their existence hidden away. Dr. Staple is a personification of societal factors that attempt to subdue and repress the extraordinary qualities of individuals. In order to conform Mr. Glass to her agenda, she attempts to essentially lobotomize him and remove his super-intelligence. Although David Dunn opposes them, Mr. Glass is also fighting for David’s betterment as well. At the beginning of the film, viewers are briefly introduced to David Dunn’s lonely existence as he is forced to alter his daily routine to avoid encountering law enforcement.  If the main characters had survived and lived to see the world Mr. Glass was fighting for — a world in which society was forced to acknowledge their existence — David’s life would have drastically improved. Despite dying, Mr. Glass ultimately wins by uploading the security camera footage of David Dunn & the Horde’s fight to the Internet, thereby proving that superheroes do walk among us and defeating Dr. Stable’s attempts to repress and hide the extraordinary.

In addition to having Mr. Glass challenge stereotypical narrative norms, Shyamalan uses him as a way of challenging critics of the superhero genre. During the film, Dr. Staple actively tries to explain away all of the supernatural events of the previous films by offering possible theories of how the characters are able to do the incredible. Her practical theories are so incredibly persuasive that both David Dunn and the Horde start to doubt their own extraordinary existences. Mr. Glass is the only individual who consistently challenges Dr. Staple throughout the film. “You can’t explain away everything” he defiantly tells her as he holds onto his belief in superheroes. In conjecture with the other subversions in the film, Mr. Glass’s statements are not only a challenge to Dr. Staple, but to real world critics of the genre. The statement can be used  a challenge to film critics who constantly berate superhero films for not having the emotional heft of a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and believe them to be nothing more than a soulless CGI fest to sell merchandise. With this statement it is evident that Shyamalan believes that over analysis of the spectacle of superhero films takes away from the experience. When comparing the mixed reception of the introspective and over analytical  Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to 2018’s cartoonish Aquaman, Shyamalan may be ahead of the curve by posing the idea that over analysis of the genre will be the death of it. 

As much as Glass attempts to shatter the expectations and tropes of comic book films, it falls victim to the very stereotypes it tries to defy. The final line of the film proclaiming that a “universe” is about to start falls flat in a media space that is currently dominated by shared universes. Fifteen years ago the line would have been so much impactful, but with at least three MCU films being produced a year at this point, the idea of another shared universe film franchise is eye roll inducing for most audience members. However, the most important takeaways from Glass should not be the final moments but instead the self reflecting journey it took to get there. Just as Unbreakable explored and deconstructed what an origin story was, Glass deconstructs and subverts the audiences expectations of what a superhero film should be. As superhero films are continuously mass produced, hopefully Glass has set the groundwork for what comes next — more thought provoking, reflective films that refused to adhere to what came before.