In the 2009 movie Observe and Report, out-of-shape, mentally ill loser Ronnie Barnhardt (played by Seth Rogen) has found a self-inflated means to alpha-maledom as a mall security guard. He has deluded himself into thinking he deserves the time of the women he berates and the authority figures he disrespects. At times, he stretches himself too thin in his quest to infiate a system that doesn’t want him, in a society that has only ever told him he wasn’t good enough.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the main character of 2019’s Joker, shares a number of similarities with Ronnie Barnhardt. The difference is that Joker depicts its outcast male lead as a triumphant antihero, a martyr of systemic resistance, while Ronnie is portrayed as an unfortunate, empathetic casualty of oppressive social standards as well as an equally reprehensible perpetrator. This is why I firmly believe that Observe and Report director Jody Hill should have also helmed Joker.
If you’re familiar with Hill’s other works as a writer and director, the connection between Observe and Report and Joker isn’t actually all that surprising. From his Taekwondo-centric debut feature, The Foot Fist Way, to his acclaimed HBO comedy series Eastbound and Down, Hill has explored masculinity and male entitlement – how men (white men, specifically) are negatively affected by the patriarchy that they’ve been conditioned to appease, and how this creates monsters borne out of fragile insecurity. His protagonists are always disgraceful but exceedingly empathetic, towing a delicate critical line that could be mistaken for endorsement.
But Hill is always clear in showing that his protagonists are nobody to be mirrored. Instead, secondary characters tend to reflect the viewpoint of the audience. In discomfort, anger, and general unease, we take cues from those around the male lead in order to understand that their actions are truly not to be admired. Even so, these protagonists’ deep-seated insecurities spill out of their own accord, like Fred Simmons (Danny McBride) of The Foot Fist Way bringing the emasculation he receives in his dysfunctional marriage to his Taekwondo dojo, or the fears of fatherhood held by Kenny Powers (McBride again) in Eastbound and Down being reflected in his “humorous” detachment from his son, a way to skirt around his own crippling abandonment issues. We understand that outside forces turn these men into who they are, but this doesn’t excuse their actions.
That is what Joker needed in order to succeed as a thoughtful commentary on the way a patriarchal system works against those who fit outside the mold: empathy for the downtrodden, but also criticism of the way these men still benefit from the system and thus perpetuate the negative behavior borne out of it.
Observe and Report centers around Ronnie’s quest to join the police academy amidst his lackluster job as a mall security guard, which he abuses to the fullest degree. He’s fixated on attractive makeup counter saleswoman Brandi (Anna Faris) and shows contempt for the detective assigned to the case of the latent flasher terrorizing the mall. Ronnie has inflated his ego enough to believe that he not only has what it takes to be a cop but that he could do his job better than a seasoned professional. He also believes that his bravado has earned him the respect he doesn’t deserve, from both a disinterested Brandi, whom he manipulates into a date and ultimately sexually assaults while she’s dangerously intoxicated, and the men he looks up to.
Ronnie’s attitude is, of course, a cover for the unfortunate realities of his real life. His father left him and his mom when he was young because he couldn’t handle Ronnie’s special needs, and his mother is a raging alcoholic whom he still lives with. He’s conventionally unattractive, awkward, boorish, and relatively poor. He’s a man who’s been living in a society that’s working against him.
This is very similar to Arthur in Joker. He’s a failed clown-for-hire and stand-up comedian who is mentally ill, abused, and impoverished. Being on the fringes leads him to criminal nihilism; he’s an empathetic outsider who becomes the titular Batman villain we’ve known all along. He lives in a version of Gotham plagued by poverty, crime, unemployment, and social unrest in a ramshackle apartment with his mother, who also suffers from physical and mental disabilities. Arthur’s rise to becoming the Clown Prince of Crime is depicted as a kind of battle cry for all of the disenfranchised of his city.
Both films portray an array of similar themes or issues for their main characters relating to masculinity: body image, romantic entitlement, mental illness, and existence in a society that rejects them. Ultimately, both Arthur and Ronnie learn that the only way they can succeed is by working outside of the system. For Arthur, that’s total anarchy, for Ronnie, that’s accepting his position as the head of mall security as opposed to being a police officer, his dream job.
Due to Ronnie’s bipolar disorder and his worsening delusions (as diagnosed by the administer for Ronnie’s psychological examination), he is rejected from the police department, despite passing the physical exam. However, he ends up finding success in his unorthodox methods to finally take down his mall’s serial flasher. But Ronnie being promoted to head of mall security for shooting and nearly killing the unarmed offender in front of a swarm of mall shoppers is no cause for celebration, no more than is Arthur’s murderous uprising. Instead, it’s concerning that an inadequately trained, unstable white man can be rewarded for failing upwards.
The difference between the portrayal of these two men’s realization hinges a lot on the filmmaking and the subtext of the film. One man comes out positioned by the camera as a messiah, a towering figure, a beacon of radicalization against the powers that be, smiling manically over a crowd of worshipping onlookers without the slightest hint of irony. The other is shown as still, on the whole, the same loser that he was at the beginning. Albeit, one with a greater sense of self-acceptance, as he relays his conquest of the flasher to a female news reporter whom he inconvenienced earlier in the film, and simultaneously embarrasses his new love interest (Collette Wolf) on live television. For Ronnie, it’s all internal; he believes himself to have won, but the film still positions him as a bombast egomaniac. And that’s what Joker is missing: an outside knowingness of its lead character’s moral failings.
Although Ronnie now understands that the police force is a corrupt boys’ club filled with macho, dick-swinging deplorables engaging in an endless pissing contest, as opposed to public servants who genuinely care about helping people, his realization that he’s “better” than them does not lead to him disavowing public service entirely. It leads to him becoming a brute-force mall cop. Even in the end, when we understand that Ronnie has come out triumphant against both the mall that fired him and the cops that mocked him, he still isn’t positioned to be admired. He’s positioned to be pitied and even feared. Ronnie is dangerous.
So is the Joker, but in Todd Phillips’ movie, this aspect of the character is portrayed in an entirely different light. In Joker, Arthur’s murderous proclivities are depicted as unironic victories, having spent much of the movie believing that a personal resurrection was owed to him, culminating in the execution of his once-beloved comedy hero (Robert De Niro) on live television. This leads to city-wide riots against Gotham’s rich and powerful, of which Arthur has come out at the forefront. We, the audience, are also left to believe that this was entirely owed to him.
Arthur and Ronnie are both disenfranchised and empathetic, but they are not owed anything. They are outliers within a system they still benefit from and can abuse as able-bodied white men, a system that operates under patriarchy built to benefit white men like them. However, neither character understands this. A sad backstory isn’t an excuse to be an asshole and, thus, Joker lacks a necessary self-awareness. Without this, the film comes across as tone-deaf for being unable to interrogate the privileges of its own lead character.
The framing of Arthur Fleck was key in creating a smarter story, something similar to what Hill afforded Observe and Report; Ronnie Barnhardt is empathetic, but he’s misguided and abusive. And, yes, Arthur is downtrodden, but he’s oblivious. He isn’t a martyr. He isn’t a messiah. Just like Ronnie, he’s a dangerous white man, rewarded for feeling entitled enough to think he’s a hero.