Todd Phillips “The Joker”: Is Gotham City located in the post colony? – Olajide Salawu

When Todd Philips’ The Joker was released in the first week of October, it was like a much awaited joke of the year. But then it arrived and there was almost nothing to laugh about because of the political leaning of the film and its foreboding of a Hobbesian future.

The film is a vast dry land of humor gathering storms of reviews.

By October 6th, it had generated more than 3,000 comments from audiences. The pattern of these reviews appear to toe the same tectonic lines, that the film is a big screen movie which rides on a cocktail of wit and serious themes but ends up being witless, that the film desires too much that it crystalizes into nothing, that the film traipses the path of nihilism and sympathy, that the film is “an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing”. With such remarks and controversies greeting a film in its first week and leaving in the mind of future audience a sour taste, it would seem that the film was devoid of any trace of grace. Ironically, it has trafficked more debates and discussions and even more patronage. Not only that, it returned from Venice Film Festival with a top prize.  

The Joker [tropes] around subjectivity, depression, psychopathology, urbanity, the future and social class struggles through its noir scenes. Its technical details and the sound score are aesthetically dropped in the film to decorate the rotten life of the protagonist, a role played by Joaquin Phoenix. The experimental issues of the film make its genre classification harder. Even with its strings of allusion to other satirical pieces such as King of Comedy and other classical humor such as Chaplain’s Modern Times, the film reels out the life of a beleaguered figure who is supposed to produce something to laugh about, but whose life ends up being a joke itself. Quite clearly, Philips’ nihilism and cynicism are at play here, and The Joker makes little or no attempt to mask it even with the grotesque, cartoonish face of the supervillain who puts the placard out that, “Everything must go!”

Right from the beginning, the film lures its audience attention through its acousmetre. There is an announcement on the radio of an impending tempestuous future and revolt that will centre on the hero, Arthur Fleck. This overture would soon balkanize into different tragedies which gross Arthur’s life into a failure. After he is bullied and his placard broken, he is told by the boss to pay back. From there, the film keeps raising self-pity and sympathy for the protagonist until his career as a joker approaches its end after a gun drops mistakenly from his clothes at the children’s health facility, and he is eventually fired. Arthur’s life thus becomes a joke-within-joke by Murray Franklin, a role played by Robert De Niro.  

In his unkempt room, Arthur writes his jokes and still believes that he has a future in the comedy world, yet he possesses zero capacity as a comedian. He is likewise mentally unstable and notes that, “The worst thing about mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” His laughing and mental condition consistently reminds one of his emotional incontinence. His mother, who understands this, becomes his motivation gear. He is loved by his single-mother neighbour who promises to attend his stand up event. As the film swings into Arthur’s paternalistic chase, the socio-economic undercurrents of the film becomes more solidified. His life becomes an emblem of the chaos one sees later in the film, but he constantly rebuffs his link to it. Arthur’s life is not only a reflection of the internal struggles of individual, but it is also an interrogation of the social class struggle and the emotional poverty of the neo-liberalists of the current world. However, the film’s apocalyptic tone of might leave one to conclude that it is an attempt at propagating a leftist ideology, nonetheless its lack of a balm shows it is not a serious enactment of social change but violence and anarchy.

To situate Gotham city somewhere in the post colony might amount to overstretching the joke yet, when one follows Arthur around Gotham, one is welcomed into Eliot’s wasteland fraught with black bags of trash, broken elevator and roads with torn papers. Gotham reminds one post-colonial cities and politics. Given its impact on the meaning of the film, the abject landscape of Gotham and the fringe opulence of its ruling class calls for a re-examination of our perception of what constitutes trash from the urban subjects represented by the masses of Gotham to the unhygienic space of the city itself. Through this prism, one realizes the true meaning of trash as a way of showing “the face of oppression and of worthlessness that has never been because of the maids, the servants, the lower class, the laborers’ hardscrabbles’ in the words of Harrow (2013).

This cinematic imagery is an interesting artistic tool that makes it easy for one to remove Gotham from the other side of the Pacific and to reconfigure it as Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Accra. Todds’ imagination might have had African urban space and subjects as its butt, nevertheless it is a crumbling reminder that Arthur Fleck and his mother exemplify the faces of many postcolonial subalterns on the one hand, while Thomas Wayne recalls the political elite of postcolonial Africa on the other.

The gritty images and characters in The Joker force us (in the germane term of Achille Mbembe) to rethink the mind-set and the effectiveness of post-colonial power relations; it also cajoles us to see beyond the binary of the subalterns and their masters as well as the violence that pervades the African political space.

In all its dry humor it seems the only cathartic effect the film has is located in a short scene where Gary (Leigh Gill) struggles to reach the door’s knob.  In the end, even as the masses attempt to rewrite the mythologies of power as Achille Mbembe might have reminded us in On the Post colony, the film’s dalliance with violence and human abjection leaves us with no hope.

Salawu Olajide was a British Academy mentee. He is the author of Preface for Leaving Homeland published by African Poetry Book Fund.

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