Just why was Joker set in 1970s/80s New York?

At long last, I got to Joker, the much celebrated origins story movie starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role.  And it left me feeling baffled in some ways.  And I also found it troubling, though not for the reasons that SJWs seem to cite.

No, I did not see it as a movie that glorified or condoned violent and deplorable behaviour.  I did not see it as celebrating toxicity or creating excuses for bad behaviour by white males.  I am not saying those who feel that way are wrong.  Maybe if I lived in America, I might share that perspective, who knows.  Just that from my vantage point, no, I did not find it troubling for THOSE reasons.

Instead, what I felt was never satisfactorily explained was why did the film have to be set in 1970s/80s New York City.  See, it isn’t set in that mileu in the way Batman films usually are.  This looks very authentically like the NYC of that period, with bags of accumulated garbage lying around and the subways overrun by graffiti. Like the NYC of Taxi Driver, basically, from which this film derives a lot of inspiration.

The question again is, why.

Taxi Driver does not play to the gallery in the way this film does.  It does not cast the protagonist as the neglected and ill-treated underdog pitted against the unsympathetic powers that be.  In fact, in those respects, Joker seems to evoke and capture the pathologies of today.  MAYBE these were equally true in the 1970s too, but the fact that they are relevant now begs the question why it couldn’t be set in contemporary America.

I will get to that in a bit but let me dwell on how it evokes the America of today.  In a brilliant subversion of the Batman origin story, Thomas Wayne is revealed to be not such a nice guy behind his noble facade and his disdain for the 99% is unwittingly exposed when he makes a tone deaf comment.  That seems to evoke politicians like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney.  The comedian Murray Franklin, whom Arthur (Joker’s birth name) idolized at one point, turns out to be rather unsympathetic in his search for the barb and to have no compunctions about punching down.  In some respects, it evokes Stephen Colbert’s disquiet with Bill Burr’s rage comedy.  When Arthur as Joker points out to Murray that they (the elite) make up the rules of what is right and wrong just as they decide what is funny and what isn’t, he could as well be talking about the political correctness imperative and the backlash to the same.

So where exactly was Todd Phillips going in painting this as a tribute to Taxi Driver AND Dark Knight at one and the same time?   I think Glenn Kenny writing for Rogerebert.com has hit upon exactly what.


Quoting the relevant excerpts:

“In mainstream movies today, “dark” is just another flavor. Like “edgy,” it’s an option you use depending on what market you want to reach.”

“Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like “Taxi Driver.””

“Do you think Todd Phillips really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society?”

Yes, sort of this.  But to go a little further, Phillips was both playing safe and hedging his bets.  By evoking the Taxi Driver aesthetic, he appeals to those Boomers and Gen Xers who DON”T want yet another Disney remake and are sick of it.  He also appeals to millennials and Zoomers who seek a gritty tone or aesthetic (a flavour, as Kenny put it).

The rhetoric unleashed by Joker in his appearance in the Murray Franklin show appeals to those who dislike the political correctness imperative (it would verily fulfill a wild fantasy for those in his contingent to get up on the Colbert show and get him to ‘STFU’).  By going so far as to have Joker kill Franklin, Phillips slyly reduces the verisimilitude to reality and reminds us, just in the nick of time, that this is Joker we are talking about.

Speaking of which, Batman fans would most certainly have been lured into watching a Joker origins story.  Seeing as there would be overlap between this contingent and the above ones, there wouldn’t be too many angry Batman fans telling their acquaintances not to watch this film.  It was a risk, but a calculated risk.  And it clearly paid off, bigly.

There is another purpose to thus evoking the 1970s aesthetic.  It gives Phillips an alibi to deny he wanted to be political.  While at the same time, there is enough polemic that appeals in a political way without really being political.  A sly dog whistle.  In a meta moment, Joker himself denies being political when asked about it in the Murray Franklin show, moments before he will launch into his tirade.

But while this Houdini act spares Phillips the lightning rod of cancel culture (though it didn’t dissuade the SJW brigade from trying all the same), it dampens to some extent the impact of the movie.  When Bane plots an insurgency in Dark Knight Rises, it made more of an impact BECAUSE the mileu felt contemporary even if a little too hi tech and not entirely resembling the real NYC. But in Joker, we find ourselves in a period that neither corresponds to the present day nor what could roughly be the origins of Joker himself in an authentic comic book heritage sense (say the 1940s-50s).

Instead, Joker invents a crossover of mafia/Scorsese genre and superhero films.  As one review predicted, Joker could potentially change superhero films forever.  Similar to the effect the Nolan trilogy had on other superhero films, Joker could potentially make your typical high FX, super-unreal superhero films look very shallow in comparison.

The problem, as Kenny astutely observes, is what Joker leaves us with too is an aesthetic, a tone, a flavour.  Marty’s films (or Coppola’s for that matter) were so much more than that. To draw a parallel to a cultural event from earlier this year that appealed to the right wing and the non PC left alike, it’s like Ricky Gervais throwing sharp jabs at Hollywood aristocracy from the Golden Globe awards stage.  It’s just a show, end of the day.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: