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.’

Spoilers ahead.

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To begin, a short explanation of ‘Joker’…

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

Point of comparison #2: on the Jokers themselves

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

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

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.

Writes about tech, business, jiu-jitsu, and personal stories worth sharing. MIT MBA+Princeton alumna. Former baker and podcaster working in product management

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