Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Opinion | What Joker should learn from real-life supervillains

Film critics appear to have done Joker a big favour by mistaking its farce for anthropology

Sometimes we can see the precise moment when an exquisite story collapses into ordinariness. In The Vegetarian, a novel by the South Korean writer Han Kang, a woman stops eating meat. This might seem unremarkable for Indians, but as the woman is located in Seoul, where eating meat is so sensible that it borders on sanity, her decision shakes the foundations of her life. Bonds break. Her family does what families are very good at—punishing. As her world falls apart, she is resolute in her decision, and she calmly watches her own destruction. This is what makes the novel exquisite; the reaction of people to a woman’s simple decision. But then, late in the novel, she begins to imagine she is a tree. This reveals her as an insane lady and here is where the novel falters and it releases us forever from its power.

The madness of the sane is powerful; the madness of the mad is merely a freak show.

I believe that writers who have great material on the insane should not ruin it by being too earnest and plainly presenting the protagonist as insane. Instead, the hero should be presented as “normal" with an abnormal trait. If a writer describes the mental condition of a character too much, he or she will deny the reader an opportunity to play his or her most important and underrated role in literature—to misunderstand.

Through misunderstanding, a reader makes convenient political and emotional assumptions, and in that way, deeply “identifies" with the character.

Misunderstanding is highly influential in the real world too. Across centuries, the insane have created revolutions because people did not know them to be insane, or did not wish to know the facts.

Misunderstanding is a good conductor of ideas, and of the fables of not only heroes, but also of villains. This is why Joker, which is a fantasy of darkness like all superhero films these days, fails in its ambition to be an exquisite film. It explains too much. We are told, in many ways, that its protagonist is mentally ill. A man whom we could have otherwise misunderstood as the Che of our times prances along as a freak. Director Todd Phillips appears to have learnt nothing from a way of the modern world: a Muslim who goes on a shooting spree is a “terrorist", a powerful story that even defines global politics to an extent; but a White man who does the same, in fact more frequently, is merely a nut, which is a dull story.

The hero of Joker is a no-talent comedian who could have made up for his limitations by becoming a conscientious leftist comedian. Instead, he begins to express his rage at his own failures and calls for total anarchy. He becomes a leftist who is not a comedian. Other losers then make him their leader because, in an unfair system, order is surrender to injustice, and anarchy is hope. Unlike us, the masses in the film do not know of Joker’s madness. So they think he is a revolutionary, a visionary, a super activist. A sad clown thus becomes a hero. In that regard, Joker has some parallels with the real world, a world whose revolutionary heroes are in reality evil, celebrated by a clueless pall of unhappy people.

Joker lives in Gotham, a fictional adaptation of New York (I will never understand why New York needs a fictional adaptation). His apartment is small and bleak, and to emphasize that he is a “loser", he is shown to live with his mother, an emphasis many Indian men may not comprehend.

By the standards of Mumbai, Joker’s flat is a commodious upper-middle-class dwelling for a family of just two. In every respect, the people of Mumbai may say Joker has a very good life.

That is the triumph of American capitalism—it is hard for its storytellers to show a poor urban White in a setting that most of the world would recognize as poverty. I wonder, though, why Phillips did not want to locate Joker as a homeless clown in a subway station. It would have been fascinating to follow the life of a sane but flawed clown who begs for a living in New York, who then wages a war on the city. Instead, we have a man who lives better than most people in the world calling to arms a fortunate affluent city, and a fellowship of privileged losers responding.

Seen in that context, most of the world might see the point in a statement made by a billionaire in the film: “Those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t, and see nothing but clowns."

The most comical aspect of Joker is accidental: in Gotham, no African-American man is ever a part of a crime. It is always Caucasians. It is as though the film is terrified of real-life vigilantes who will accuse it of racism. This is surprising cowardice for its creator Todd Phillips, who wrote the brilliant comedy Borat, which disrespected everything that mainstream society holds sacred, and wrote and directed The Hangover comedy trilogy.

Phillips has been rewarded, however, for his Joker. Even before its release, the film was guaranteed success by a network of festival-critics and cinema entrepreneurs who loved it or hated or, who saw in it “metaphors" and “commentary" and “incels".

Perhaps the biggest favour they did the film was to misunderstand it. They appear to have misunderstood its farce for anthropology. I hope one day Todd Phillips will reveal that the film was a prank—on serious people who see serious things in Marvel and DC Comics merchandise.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss laila, Armed and Dangerous’

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