Comp Lit, Revisited: A Brief Analysis of ‘Joker’ and ‘The Dark Knight’
I’ve been out of the broader academic realm for over three years (when I graduated from business school) and out of the literary academic realm for over 7 years (when I left college with a degree in comparative literature, which was eminently unemployable out of undergrad but unexpectedly useful in my longer-term career). But I haven’t quite given up being a student of media and storytelling, and I have been hungry to dive into an exploration of different themes, genres, and characters and analyze something more profound and esoteric than e-commerce metrics.
The topic on my mind in the month of October, with everyone dressed in costume for Halloween, is that of heroes and villains. Over the course of the month, I binge-watched ‘The Boys,’ re-watched much of ‘Breaking Bad,’ and thumbed my way through ‘Watchmen’ for the tenth time. But the piece of media that stuck most with me in the month of October was a film I saw at the beginning of the month — and merits every bit of its zeitgeist: ‘Joker.’
Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was read the borderline-literary movie reviews and television show recaps on Entertainment Weekly. Indulging the temporary dream I had of writing those reviews, I wanted to write about ‘Joker’ and all its inevitable comparisons to ‘The Dark Knight.’ While both movies are well-made, entertaining, and do well in distinguishing themselves from the bloated, overwrought, dime-a-dozen comic book movies, I’d argue that ‘Joker’ is scarier, more unsettling, and significantly more haunting than ‘The Dark Knight.’ I think it’s one of the most interesting films that has been made in my recent memory, specifically in how it differentiates itself from ‘The Dark Knight.’
To begin, a short explanation of ‘Joker’…
It’s a creative take on the origins of Gotham’s most notorious villain that goes beyond the usual backstory of a man dropped into a chemical vat who emerges as Batman’s archnemesis. Unlike the average comic book movie that is only as valuable as the number of fight sequences or big explosions it features, that can be associated with it, ‘Joker’ appears to be made to stand alone. It’s the anti-blockbuster blockbuster, just as its protagonist is the anti-hero hero (if you dare to call him one).
The easiest comparison with ‘Joker’ is ‘The Dark Knight,’ given that both have star directors at the helm, have stellar actors playing the role of The Joker, and effectively distance themselves from the current comic book movie canon by their focus on drama over action (or at least as much as action). Yet the movies are strikingly different in the ways they portray the city of Gotham, the Jokers’ raison d’etre, and the level of ambiguity in terms of who and what are good or evil.
Point of Comparison: on the portrayal of the city of Gotham
Christopher Nolan’s Gotham is uber-noir, unrelentingly dark and brooding. The pressure and sense of foreboding is constant throughout the ‘The Dark Knight.’ Todd Phillips’ Gotham is less cinematic and more familiar to us: true of many cities, there is a middle- to working-class, commercial downtown and an underbelly of poverty and disadvantage just a short bus ride away. Gotham’s darkness is so present that it could be considered its own character in the 2.5-hour drama of ‘The Dark Knight,’ whereas in ‘Joker,’ it’s merely the background setting. The focus of our 2 hours in ‘Joker’ is Arthur Fleck more than it is the drama of Gotham (though the drama of Gotham and the social unrest is what makes Joker into a movement and elevates him to infamy). Perhaps that’s a reason for the difference between the two city portrayals, as well: Gotham in ‘The Dark Knight’ is as dark as it is because it is a world where the Joker looms large and his criminal influence is well established. Gotham in ‘Joker’ still has its light because ‘Joker’ is in his early days, still coming into his own as the super-villian he is destined to be.
Point of comparison #2: on the Jokers themselves
I’m sure Joaquin Phoenix was under a lot of pressure (both external media and personal artistic) when he accepted and attempting to play the role of The Joker. ‘The Dark Knight’ came out over a decade ago, Heath Ledger’s award-winning performance as the Joker remains a far-from-forgettable and difficult act to follow. I’d say they’re both great Jokers, but different Jokers. Ledger’s Joker in Nolan’s world has a fully-baked brand to his madness and identifies as “an agent of chaos.” He is a well-spoken madman, able to articulate his philosophies in full to whoever will listen. Joker’s modus operandi in ‘The Dark Knight’ is perfectly summarized by Alfred: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Ledger’s Joker wants to watch the world burn. Why? Likely because, to him, order, structure, and progress are an act and therefore a joke. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s Joker in Phillips’ world shoots from the hip (literally — or at least drops the gun out of it) and stumbles unwittingly into his infamy. Arthur Fleck can barely gets by in taking care of himself, understanding social cues, and stringing together an existence. Unlike Ledger’s Joker, whose fierceness and intensity compels you to immediately take him seriously, Phoenix’s Joker is childlike and clownish (literally — his day job is acting as a clown).
Both Phoenix’s Joker and Ledger’s Joker can be said to be sick, mentally ill, unstable individuals, but I would argue that Phoenix’s Joker is more terrifying. While both Ledger and Phoenix’s Jokers are scary because you can’t figure out what they are going to do next, Phoenix’s Joker is more dangerous because, we don’t know exactly what he wants — and, it seems, neither might he. The menace of Phoenix’s Joker is his apparent lack of willfulness. In contrast to Ledger’s Joker, who knows what he wants and communicates it clearly on more occasion than one, we can only guess at the motivation of Phoenix’s Joker. The best guess I have as that he wants to be something other than the butt of the joke in his career, in his relationships, and in his life. He wants to be the one telling the joke and, even if no one thinks his sense of humor is appropriate or funny (which comes up more than once in the film), he wants people to laugh with him, rather than at him.
Point of Comparison #3: ambiguity
A critical differentiator between ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Joker’ is how open-ended and ambiguous each is on core themes and message. Nolan’s characters frequently spout platitudes and the an air of self-importance is palpable in eminently-quotable lines like Harvey Dent’s, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and, of course, Commissioner Gordon’s line about Batman as “…the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a Dark Knight. The moralizing around good and evil is exemplified by the existence of Two Face as a character, the “White Knight” of Gotham who is corrupted to darkness and driven to madness (as a result of the death of his girlfriend at the hands of one of The Joker’s schemes). Lines like, “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. I think you and I are destined to do this forever,” feel lifted from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. It’s all very literary, overtly philosophical, and heavy-handed.
In ‘The Dark Knight,’ we leave with strong certainty that Batman is good (even if Gotham doesn’t think so) and The Joker is evil. Meanwhile, in ‘Joker,’ it’s harder to determine how we should feel about Arthur Fleck. You can see him as both the hero and villain of the film, depending on which reality we base our judgment.
On one hand, this is the story of a social outcast who stops letting himself be steamrolled by society and finds himself in the process. Arthur Fleck is poor, mentally-ill man who has been ignored by the system. We witness Arthur be bullied by those who are wealthier (Wayne), more talented (other career clowns and aspiring comedians), more famous (Murray Franklin), and better off than he is in terms of their degree of privilege (the Wayne employees). He has moments of kindness, love, joy and earnestness: kindness in caring for his weak mother (before he ends up learning the truth about his adoption and turning a hard left and killing her); love with his next-door neighbor (the relationship with whom was never real and whom my boyfriend suspects ends up dead off-screen); joy in his ecstatic dancing and the entertainment of sick children in need of a smile (before a gun slips out of his pants mid-dance); earnestness in writing jokes in hopes of becoming a real comedian (before he goes viral for how bad his jokes are and ends up shooting a late night TV host). He experiences very relatable frustration at wanting to do the thing he loves (make people laugh, whether as a comedian or as a clown) and having no support or validation of that path for him — instead getting his therapy resources removed and prescriptions cut. We find ourselves wanting justice for him and wanting him to fight back, and then, when his actions turn irrevocably bloody, we become aghast at ourselves for wanting him to have stood up for himself because he ends up going too far, and once he’s gone too far, there’s no hope of coming back. That said, the process of Fleck stepping into his new identity and carving out his destiny as the Joker could be seen as heroic. On the other hand, this is a man whose hold on reality is tentative, at best, and who ultimately turns to crime in fulfilling that destiny.
Why I think ‘Joker’ is the more artistic (and more terrifying) movie
I could find a number of reasons why I think ‘Joker’ is the more artistic film, but the most poetic reason that stands out to me is the beginning and the ending of the movie. When Arthur is medicated and sedated, ironically, he is most out of control of his life. He is chasing a bunch of kids for the sign on which his livelihood depends. Indeed, as the sign says, ‘Everything must go’ — in order for Arthur to become who he is meant to be. By the end of the movie, Arthur has more control than he’s ever had. People have lifted him up and cheered his name. The people that were laughing at him is now laughing with him as the face of a movement. He’s on the move, eluding capture from the authorities, and it’s interesting to me how the movie begins with chasing and ends with being chased. At the end of the movie, the Joker is running away but not running away. He is running through his new world, unmedicated, treacherous, empowered, victorious. He has successfully created meaning in his own life by embracing his feeling of meaninglessness. There’s a sinister self-actualization that has completed as the medication wears off, the makeup goes on, and the madness takes hold. ‘The Dark Knight,’ while it features great music, is highly scenic, and has some great acting to boot, the movie overall lacks this kind of artistic nuance and depth. When characters speak and act, what you see is what you get. The whole doesn’t exceed the sum of its parts.
While we can understand why Ledger’s Joker is doing what he is doing (to cause chaos for the sake of chaos), but we can’t fully understand or relate to why Ledger’s Joker is the way he is (and we aren’t given a real reason to). Conversely, we can’t really understand why Phoenix’s Joker does what he does, but we can understand (and even sympathize over) why Phoenix’s Joker is the way he is, because the entire movie of ‘Joker’ is spent building that narrative. Perhaps that’s the most fearsome piece of all about Phoenix’s Joker. There’s something relatable about him — whether he evokes your empathy or sympathy, for all but the final half hour of the movie, he’s strikingly, pitifully, and unforgettably human.
We find ourselves either empathizing or sympathizing with him because we or someone we love has been a victim in a comparable circumstance or otherwise beaten down by some cruel force of life or fate. It’s hard to watch because Arthur’s humiliation (in the literal sense) is significantly more abject (and if not more abject, then at least more consistent) than any kind of humiliation most of us have encountered in our lives. The word that comes to mind is ‘disenfranchisement’ in a connotation that’s broader than the consideration of a citizen’s right to vote. Arthur, through much of the movie, is disregarded or otherwise stripped of what things we’d consider rights and needs of being human.
How are you supposed to feel after a movie like that? Amped? Empty? Depressed? Conflicted? Is it relatable for those among us who are depressed, not in life where we want to be, feeling like freaks — no, clowns? Who try tentatively, at first, then more confidently to find and pursue justice? Who finally learns to stand up for themselves, to resist and to fight in the small ways they can in hopes that they aren’t as alone as they feel? Who isn’t like Arthur Fleck in wanting to be seen, heard, and understood, to have someone laugh with us instead of at us? What is he laughing about all this time? Are we to believe it’s a part of his illness or a coping mechanism? The only thing that’s clear is in a city where Wayne has billions of dollars to clean up the city, Arthur’s life makes no “cents” until he takes a stand.
Do yourself a favor — if you think you can stomach it, see this film. Be gloriously unsettled, unresolved, conflicted, joyous, disgusted, and puzzled. It is absolutely worth it.