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Review: ‘Joker’ Is a Manic Portrait of the Trump Era

October 15, 2019

Controversial film “Joker” reflects the political and societal issues occurring in today’s world.

By Andrew Warrick

Feature photo via Warner Bros Pictures

If “Joker” came out at any other time, it would be hailed as a cinematic milestone. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, a disadvantaged, mentally-ill man who becomes Batman’s famous nemesis, The Joker, is spectacular. “Joker” is wildly inventive, forgoing a grand superhero plot to instead tell a smaller story. It’s the most in-depth character study a superhero movie has ever attempted and explores the psyche of perhaps the most iconic villain of all time. Watching Arthur Fleck slide into madness is horrifying, yet simultaneously fascinating in its no-holds-barred hysteria. Nothing like “Joker” has been made before in this genre. It’s spellbindingly fresh. 

Yet this will certainly be the most controversial movie of 2019. Most of this outrage involves the movie’s violence. “Joker’s” graphic scenes, most of which involve a revolver, are being called inappropriate and nihilistic. Yet “Joker” is anything but exploitative. The violence Fleck commits is tame compared to any Batman comic published since 1970, and pales in comparison to anything on the nightly news. The Joker also isn’t glorified in any way. He is slimy, pathetic and completely out of touch with reality. The movie never excuses, celebrates or condones him. 

Others are lambasting “Joker” because it doesn’t offer any solutions or catharsis. But why should it? It’s honest — some problems have no answers. This movie depicts mass violence, poverty, the flawed health care system and other social ills in an unrefined, unrestrained way. It gives the viewer the naked, painful truth. The questions “Joker” raises are horrifyingly relevant to today, so much so that it can become uncomfortable. But isn’t that all the more reason to embrace this brave, unflinching depiction of what makes 2019 so terrifying?

The Joker has a callous disregard for human life, assaults and objectifies women, and unceasingly attacks the “establishment” while gleefully ignoring laws and common morality. Gotham’s TV news embraces the controversy he ignites, giving The Joker a stage to inspire chaos. He rapidly moves from a public joke to someone with a devoted following, all by insanely attacking the status quo. Sound familiar?

Yes, “Joker” is unabashedly about Donald Trump. Much of the uproar surrounding its guns have clouded this. There’s even a Hillary Clinton figure — Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) is seen in a whole new light, portrayed as an out of touch, liberal elitist up for election. He’s given his own “basket of deplorables” moment where, like Clinton, he alienates swathes of those he’s running to defend, and in turn radicalizes them. 

“Joker” is unafraid to grapple with the inexplicable, all in the safe place of the comic book genre. Like the best pulp fiction, it takes what’s worst about modern life and, throwing subtlety out the window, ratchets it up to 11. It may not be pleasant, but it certainly is vital. 

Andrew Warrick is a student at the University of Michigan. He is majoring in creative writing and history, and is a part of the Residential College. He also leads the RC’s Creative Writing Forum. When not watching movies, he loves hanging out with friends, especially in the spectacular Ann Arbor, becoming addicted to novels, and listening to Bowie records. Some of his favorite movies are “Cloud Atlas,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Alien.”

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