There are pop-culture products that can’t survive the current moment’s agitations — young-adult novels canceled by the online mob, movies buried because they starred Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey. But there are other products that successfully surf those agitations, riding on crisis-of-liberalism angst and think-piece addiction to make themselves seem essential, dangerous, or both.
That’s how Joker, a violent, noxious origin story for the most famous supervillain that features none of the usual superhero bells and whistles, managed to set an October record at the box office. Conceived as a DC-universe version of a Martin Scorsese movie, a Taxi Driver–type story about Gotham’s killer clown, it was a succès de scandale before it reached theaters, combining a Venice Film Festival top prize with a storm of online angst about its incel-era resonance, its sympathy for the psychology of mass shooters, its potential to inspire copycat violence among men who share its antihero’s alienation and resentment.
Much as sex-and-violence provocateurs once courted the ire of conservative moralists to get attention for their movies, Joker and its director, Todd Phillips, conspicuously baited the anxious puritans and censors of the Left — secure all the while in the knowledge that even a modestly budgeted comic-book movie is simply too big to be canceled, so any publicity is to the good. And so it proved: By the time the NYPD was reportedly stationing cops at Joker showings, its commercial triumph was assured.
I only wish that it had been earned. We could probably use a difficult, controversial movie about contemporary male alienation, a movie that follows an antihero through the wilds of pickup-artist culture and inceldom, a movie interested in the mutual antagonism of the sexes and the insufficiency of progressivism’s offerings to the male of the species, a movie populated by various archetypes of unsuccessful masculinity — the upper-middle-class failson, the unctuous crypto-misogynist male feminist, the porn addict, the video-game obsessive, the very online trad, and, yes, even the potential mass shooter. And Phillips might even be the right guy to make the movie, given his history of making bro-comedies such as Old School and The Hangover, in which the laughs come easily but the darkness hovers palpably at the edges of the frame.
But Joker is something entirely different. The sales pitch is all wrong; this movie has very little to say about America in 2019, mostly because it’s a slavishly faithful version of movies that were relevant to a very different America, a very different social crisis, that’s now 40 years in the past. The movie doesn’t just owe a debt to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy and various non-Scorsese portraits of ’70s/’80s urban decay. It collapses the characters of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin into a single part, (mis)casts Robert De Niro as the object of his antihero’s obsessions (because De Niro played Bickle and Pupkin, get it?), steals plot points and set pieces from the New York historical record — the emptying of mental hospitals, the Bernie Goetz shootings — and wraps it all in just enough recognizable Gotham City business to justify the DC tie-in. It’s not a pastiche, because pastiches have more originality: Instead it’s an homage that feels more like a rip-off, a repetition rather than a reinvention, a movie that pretends to be subverting the superhero-industrial complex when really without the superhero excuse it would just look like plagiarism.
At best Phillips has done for Scorsese what J. J. Abrams does regularly for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: make a high-caliber imitation that might send viewers back for another look at the superior original. But because Taxi Driver is so much harsher and darker than E.T. or Star Wars, there is something more depressing about Phillips’s superherofied imitation. His movie wants us to believe that Arthur Fleck, its Joker-in-the-making (played with gaunt, creepy gusto by Joaquin Phoenix), can be at once a match for Bickle as a mean-streets icon, a representative alienated man for our own times, and a rival to Heath Ledger’s and Jack Nicholson’s work bringing the comic-book villain to perfection. Instead the comic-book stuff is just commercial justification, the references to our own era’s discontents land with a thud, and the re-creations of late-’70s decay are handsome, impressive, and ultimately pointless save as a reference to real ’70s cinema, which had all the vitality and contemporary relevance that our own movies often lack.
The real Scorsese mixed himself into these debates last week with comments dismissing most superhero movies as more like roller-coaster rides than real cinema. I’m mostly with Scorsese on this point, but watching Joker made me fear that there’s something worse than the Marvel Universe theme park: a world of endless superhero-branded imitations of the classics, in which Marvel and DC pretend that their universes can contain the entirety of cinema, and audiences that once would have turned out for Scorsese turn out for a comic-book simulacrum instead.
What a joke.
This article appears as “Scorsese Simulacrum” in the October 28, 2019, print edition of National Review.