It is the first live-action Batman film to receive an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), due to its violent and disturbing content
Joker, one of the most anticipated films of the year, has started a debate among critics and journalists since its premiere at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on August 31. The film finally hit theatres around the world on Thursday and in US theatres on Friday. I went to see the film myself at the capital’s Star Cineplex in Dhanmondi’s Shimanto Shambhar yesterday, in order to understand what all the debate was about this film, which is based on a DC comic book.
Though being intensely debated since its Venice premiere as a film which celebrates and promotes nihilism and anarchism, it received an eight-minute standing ovation, along with the Golden Lion award which is the highest prize given to a film, at the Venice Film Festival. It also received positive reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Before we talk about the film itself, let us look at why it has created such a huge debate across the globe. The film is based on the character Joker, who is Batman’s arch nemesis in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). The United States is currently going through a lot of things, including the continued occurrence of mass shootings in recent years.
The film did not play at the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre where the 2012 mass shooting occurred during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, another Batman adaptation directed by Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros, the film’s production company, restricted the press access to the red carpet at the United States premiere to photographers only. Many US theatres prohibited moviegoers from wearing Joker costumes or clown masks during its run, while the Los Angeles and New York City Police Departments increased police visibility around movie theatres which are running the film.
Joker, written and directed by Hangover director Todd Phillips, paints a completely different origin story of Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker, set in the fictional Gotham City during 1981. In Gotham, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. There is an ongoing rat epidemic and some parts of the city are in worse condition than slums.
Arthur, played by three time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix, lives in the shabby part of Gotham City with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). He is a part time clown and a part time stand up comedian at a small talent agency for professional clowns.
Arthur is mentally ill and coping via meds and court-ordered therapy at a shabby public health office, which does not offer comfort or represent caring. He is constantly beaten and abused by people around the city.
The whole situation of Arthur’s health and financial condition mirrors the current lower middle class in the United States, who are also suffering to afford healthcare or decent housing and a basic and good living conditions.
Produced by Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, the film has been strategically released to depict the similar socio-economic conditions in the US, ahead of their next presidential elections. The ongoing election campaigns are filled with the same debates about a broken healthcare system, the mass shootings, gun debate and rising income inequality.
Thus experts are saying that releasing Joker at a sensitive time like this will steer unsuccessful and frustrated white Americans towards more gun related violence in the US.
The film also has an interesting role of late-night TV host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. It also portrays a very different storyline of Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne/Batman’s father.
Thomas (Brett Cullen) is portrayed in a negative light as a billionaire businessman who wants to run as the mayor of Gotham City and talks about his plans to change the city for good, but takes no action to do so. Some fan theories have even claimed that this version of Thomas Wayne is not a philanthropist as the original comic books, and has similarities with US President Donald Trump.
In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the Joker, played by Academy Award winner Heath Ledger, was a dedicated agent of chaos who was desperate to prove that people are terrible. Nolan’s storyline took a firm stance and portrayed the people of Gotham refusing to head into complete anarchy and refusing to kill each other. The Joker was clearly condemned and proven wrong.
Yet, Philips' film, by contrast, does not seem to have any clear message or conclusion. Even the Joker said in the film: “I don’t believe in anything.”
Arthur is indeed a disturbed and violent individual, but everybody else around him seems cynical and cruel. Joker, based on the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke , portrays a very linear image of the rich and famous as horrible people whereas poor, helpless and unfortunates are true rebels and lead a riot against the system and authority.
Debates aside, Joker is now out here in the world with its captivating cinematography by Lawrence Sher, along with a cello-heavy score by Hildur Gudnadottir which reflects the gravity and depth of the film’s dark and violent storyline.
With an estimated budget of only $60 million dollars, which is a very small number for a Hollywood superhero movie, the film features the tragic story of a sad clown with almost no Computer-generated imagery (CGI) or VFX.
It is also the first live-action Batman film to receive an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), due to its violent and disturbing content.
So, with all the issues and details around the new film the audience will have to go watch this iconic villain come to life on screen with the incredible performance by Phoenix, and pick a side of the ongoing debate by themselves.
Siam Raihan is a film editor and a sub-editor at the Dhaka Tribune’s Showtime Desk