The star of Joker is New York as Gotham City
How Todd Phillips' finally made the familiar setting feel real
It is astonishing that in over half a century of making Batman movies, Todd Phillips' Joker, out Friday, is the first to have been shot almost exclusively on location in New York City.
Of course, Batman and his arch-nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime, don't actually live in New York as we know it; they occupy the Big Apple's seedier cousin, Gotham, which is possibly located somewhere in New Jersey. Yet in addition to cribbing New York's nickname, the fictional Gotham has long been associated with the five boroughs: their architecture, rivers and bridges, screeching subways, grit and graffiti and grime. Over the years, this Gotham has been constructed in sunny Hollywood back-lots, smelted from London, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles, or born of glittering CGI. But while Phillips' Joker has plenty of faults, the film's devotion to real New York locations is what gives its Gotham such a convincing pulse.
Phillips' Joker is being marketed as an antidote to the modern comic book movie, functioning as a stand-alone feature divorced from the rest of the DC Universe (sorry, that means there's no Aquaman in the East River). Although it is based loosely on Alan Moore's comic The Killing Joke, and Moore's fingerprints are certainly on the script, this version of the Joker's origin story is entirely original. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a "mentally ill" wannabe stand-up comedian who pays the bills by dressing up as a clown — at least until his misery and degradation become too much to handle. As if to cement the message that this is a serious movie for grown-ups!, Joker was given the first-ever R rating for a Batman franchise film.
Funnily enough, Joker's failed ambition to say something profound about the current political moment — its wishy-washy bothsidesism will leave people pointlessly debating who was the real villain? — ended up relying on a technique that works. In attempting to make the Joker feel recognizable, Phillips and his team discarded Gotham as a backdrop in favor of Gotham as a character. Director Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight Trilogy used Chicago as its most frequent Gotham stand-in, has said that he intended to make a vague composite city because "it's not real life. You're dealing with a heightened reality. You're not dealing with Chicago or New York; you're dealing with Gotham City." And while that worked great for his trilogy, it's true; that Gotham was slickly anonymous. Phillips catered to the opposite impulse: "[Joker], in every way, tries to be grounded in reality as much as possible," he's said. Amazingly, it also works.
To achieve this effect, Phillips and his team recreated the grimy New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s (clueing viewers in: Blow Out and Zorro, the Gay Blade are on the theater marquee). Admittedly, 2019's luxury towers, outer-borough gentrification, and soaring rent prices mean that few corners of New York have real vintage filth anymore. In such cases, Joker's team traveled just outside the city to the preserved dilapidation of New Jersey, as with a scene shot outside the Newark Paramount Theater. "[Surrounding] storefronts were changed to look like New York City stores like a version of Papaya King, the famous hot dog and papaya drink store, and windows were painted over temporarily in graffiti to mimic a 1980s version of the city," Untapped Cities reports.
New York is otherwise ever present, even when it's not showing its most well-known face. Some of the movie's most pivotal scenes take place not in the more cinematic Manhattan, but on, say, a public bus crossing the RFK Bridge, or in public bathrooms in Brooklyn. The Bronx has many exterior appearances, including shots beneath the elevated tracks and on the street steps between avenues. The Joker team went as far as to get specifics exact, like using real vintage MTA buses (swapping in "Gotham Transit Authority," or "GTA"), or having Arthur make a geographically-coherent turn on to Jerome Avenue after fleeing down the Bronx street steps. Even when such scenes could have been more conveniently shot in a studio, the specificity of the New York locations gives credence to the movie's otherwise fictional world.
Of all the on-location settings in Joker, though, by far the best are the use of the subways. While instantly familiar to anyone who's ever been to New York, Gotham's subways still exist in their own place and time: The trains have more graffiti, there's a "0" line, and the cars' lights always seem to be on the fritz (those overflowing trashcans on the platform, though, seem about right). By using real, working subway stations like 18th Avenue, Church Avenue, and Bedford Park Boulevard, Gotham's subterranean transportation system feels both menacing and possible. In a particularly inspired turn, even the abandoned 9th Avenue station was revived for a role in the film.
In nearly every sense, this is the best Gotham has ever looked; Phillips has created a city you can not only step into, but navigate once you're there. The question, then, becomes why. Clearly Phillips wanted the Joker's Gotham to feel not so far removed from our own world, to be a sort of cautionary tale about what happens if we neglect of the downtrodden or vilify the rich.
Joker's enjoyment begins to break down from there, but it is as Arthur Fleck's tormentors tell him at the beginning: "If you're going to be a clown, at least you should be a good one." If you're going to be the umpteenth director to try your hand at building Gotham, you should at least make it feel alive.
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