RETROSPECTIVE: "I Don't Believe In Anything" - Joker and Lazy Screenwriting
Believe it or not, I was excited for Joker. As in, really excited. As in oh-my-God-this-looks-great-I-can’t-wait excited. So many aspects of it appealed to me: its anti-hero protagonist, its new take on the comic book movie genre, the sight of Joaquin Phoenix giving it his all. But most importantly, I was excited about its politics. You’re telling me you’re going to make a film where a mentally disabled person leads a revolution? Where the poor are given real power? Where the "Waynes" of the world - the obscenely rich and powerful - are finally held accountable by the oppressed masses? Yes please, sign me up.
- This review will include major plot spoilers for Joker -
But that’s not what we got, is it? At least, it wasn’t what I got: while many seem to have watched a deep, brilliant film, what I got was a thematically-confused mess, a film with a couple good performances and some notable scenes, but all around juvenile, edgy, and thoughtless.
Unfortunately for my peace of mind, The Academy’s voters seem to belong in that first group of viewers. In fact, the only reason why I am thinking about this movie again is that Joker just got nominated for 11 Oscars, “Best Picture”, “Best Director” and “Best Actor” amongst them. What really gets to me, though, is its “Best Adapted Screenplay” nomination. As someone who deeply cares about good writing - for the screen or otherwise - this made my heart drop.
Now, I will not pretend that I am an expert screenplay writer. With this little opinion piece of mine, I am not trying to tell Todd Phillips and Scott Silver how they should have written Joker, or even what makes good writing at all - if such universal statements are even possible. Instead, what I aim to outline here is what makes Joker’s script, in my opinion, lazy.
Guys, Joker is a half-baked script. Its themes and ideas have not fermented enough. In this sense, it reminded me of a rushed essay, the type that ends up becoming little more than a randomly assorted set of thoughts, ideas, quotes and linking words kept standing upright - barely and quivering - by a vague theoretical concept like “power” or “gender” or “class struggle”. The type of essay that gets marked a 60 if you’re lucky.
Let me ask you something: What is Joker about? What is it trying to say? What does it mean? Answering such a question can be hard when this film has been memed to hell and back. “We Live in a Society: The Movie” is pretty much what Joker has been reduced to in many online circles. Alternatively: “Incel: The Movie”. But I think Joker has only become a joke for some people because they - and, probably, nobody - knows what Joker is about. I don’t even think Joker knows! And that’s because it’s not about anything.
Let’s take its treatment of the masses as an example. What is one to think of the people of Gotham? Well, on the one hand, they are a downtrodden lot. While the city’s rich hold most of its wealth and resources, Arthur Fleck (the titular Joker) and other disadvantaged people live in small, dreary apartments. Work is hard to come by, and social service spending is being cut down by the minute. “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” his therapist tells him, in a nutshell. “And they really don’t give a shit about people like me either.”
So, we have an oppressed public. Poor and dejected. Got it.
Or do I? Because this very same public, one that I would otherwise sympathise with, is also absolutely awful. Cartoonishly so, actually. The film opens with a senseless act of violence - a bunch of hoodlums beating Arthur on the job for no reason - and, as far as I’m concerned, this beat-up defines the masses for the entirety of the film. They are angry animals, bullies and, ultimately, even murderers.
So, the masses are oppressed and disenfranchised. And they are also very mean. Alright. In a way it makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, I would also be pretty mad if I was out of a job, going hungry every night, and having to hear the wealthy Thomas Wayne call people like me “clowns” on the local news. I might even take my anger out on people just like me, sometimes. I’m still not sure about the whole murder thing, though, but I guess we all have bad days.
Is this what Joker trying to say about the masses, then? That they are poor and angry? That the rich don’t care? Class Struggles 101? Maybe. But I think something else is going on here. In fact, I think that Joker itself wants you to think there’s something else going on here. If it didn’t, why make the public revolt? Why make everything so political? Are the masses poor, and angry, and right?
Well, maybe. But this is when Joker’s script really starts to become confusing. Could you make a convincing argument that an oppressed mass is right to rise up against its oppressors? Yes. Could you convince me that this uprising must necessarily be violent? Probably, with a strong enough argument. However, will I buy that such an outbreak is meaningful when the only encounters of note I have had with the people rioting have been ones of mindless cruelty, apparently fuelled by nothing short of a lust for blood? There, my friend, your chances are slim. The people of Gotham are shown to be so insensitive, so unkind, so reckless that, as I watched them set Gotham on fire, I almost wanted them to burn down with it. And that is not the response I should have while watching a group of oppressed people fighting their oppressors, is it? Yet somehow my sympathy felt unearned.
It was then, watching this scene, when an idea occurred to me: These people, the very same lifting Arthur victoriously onto a car, could very well be the same who beat Arthur up at the beginning of the film. Those hoodlums were, after all, definitely part of the Gotham masses. But crucially, they have not earned their redemption. There is no point in the film when the audience is earnestly asked to have sympathy for the crowd. The closest we come to that is having sympathy for Arthur himself, but I am hesitant to even recognise him as part of the masses given how often they are diametrically opposed. Not only does he never truly join the protest culture he (accidentally) helped create, but he even fails to relocate the target of his rage from ‘the people’ to ‘the powerful’. Even towards the end of the film, when his character has become fully realised, Arthur kills an ex-coworker, as well as his own mother. (Class solidarity who? Joker doesn’t know her.) So, lacking even a redemption-by-association, the rioting mass cannot reliably be read as some underprivileged troublemakers who have learned the error of their ways and turned to fight the rich instead of each other, but as a group of downright assholes who could very well be destroying Gotham for destruction’s sake, attracted to violence itself like a moth to a city-sized flame.
Even now, I don’t know what to think about the masses in Joker. Should I relate to them? Maybe. Should I just view them as bullies? Maybe. Should I do both, simultaneously? Well, maybe, but how? And why can’t I answer any of these questions with anything other than a “maybe”?
To me, the answer seems simple: lazy writing. And yet lazy writing that does something quite complex: Joker uses the aesthetics of politics - revolution, a vague “fuck the rich!” message, the backdrop of a mayoral election - and depoliticizes them. Paradoxical, I know, but hear me out. To start with, what are the masses in Joker fighting for? The end of austere politics? Free healthcare? An outright communist revolution? Again: Maybe, maybe, and maybe. I don’t know because the film didn’t tell me. Likewise, for how political it gets, it seems to endlessly want to distance itself from any message of real political value. Arthur Fleck says it himself when, instead of showing support for a cause he started (again ‘accidentally’), he deflects the association, claiming: “I don’t believe in anything.”
I know that many will cite Arthur’s final, impassioned speech as the film’s “thesis statement” of sorts. However, there is no other line in the film as accurate to its messages as “I don’t believe in anything.” As I touched on before, Arthur, like the film itself, aligns himself with no one. While the film credits him with starting a cultural revolution, he does not take part in it. While he is the most downtrodden of the Gotham poor, he refuses to be grouped in with the masses. Even his actions don’t need to be particularly aligned with any motivation, something demonstrated by the surges of anti anti-Joker criticism that defend his characterisation with cries of “Of course it doesn’t make sense! He’s nuts!” No, it’s not that he’s ‘nuts.’ He’s just a character on a script’s page, and this is all just bad writing.
Like an essay written the night before it’s due, Joker reads similarly vapid. At some points while watching it, I almost thought I had glimpsed a hint of some passable social criticism the likes this film seems to aspire to. But alas, it was there a minute and gone the next. In its place, we get the appearance of social criticism. The appearance that it’s saying something. The appearance of politics, of a message, of a nuanced take on class struggles. But once one tries to read the film, to follow its logic, one discovers that, like the Joker’s own laugh, Joker has absolutely nothing behind it.
Ainhoa Santos Goikoetxea (pronounced "I-know-ah") is a culturally confused third-year English student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England. Subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a post is published on the site.