A new route to a familiar evil…
While this may, arguably, be the most truthfully-realized version in cinema, a Joker without Batman misses an important ingredient.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Directed by Todd Phillips
It wasn’t until the final moments of this Scorsese-obsessed, comics-inspired character drama that I truly began to recognize its title character, and that was probably what was most unnerving about the whole experience.
As different as the lions’ share of the specific details are, Todd Phillips’ Joker nonetheless managed to successfully replicate the absolute dread that most embedded comics fans feel at the mere mention of Batman’s notorious arch enemy, to say nothing of the horror that the man is capable of when he wants to be. While this version of the character doesn’t have the means to pull off the brand of mass murder we’ve seen the Joker commit on the comics page for decades, he almost doesn’t need to: the movie successfully builds an unpredictable and psychologically disconnected character that gets to the same destination.
It’s like consciously driving to a restaurant you hate for some reason. You can take the familiar dark and winding road, or you can take an alternate route that may be just as dark and winding, but will have some unexpected twists even though you’re going to the same place.
You see, Joker operates in a similar capacity to a kind of story that DC Comics fans call “Elseworlds,” or what Marvel fans recognize through the more plainly-spoken “What-If?” branding. While clearly lacking a mandate to stay close to the comics-based source material in terms of the specific details concerning who the title character has been over his nearly 80-year history, Joker still introduces us to a guy who gets to the same place as the iconic supervillain that this film is based on.
In that respect, Joker is scathingly effective. It’s also unrelentingly depressing, but while the journey of the character maintains an element of some tragedy, the story makes plain at a few pivotal points that this man could have chosen a different path. Would he have received any notoriety for doing the right thing? No, but he absolutely could have chosen not to become a killer. He just didn’t want to.
When we meet the man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), he’s trying to make a go of life by working as a clown for hire in a few different odd locales: the closing of a store here, a childrens’ hospital there. He has several afflictions that he tries to manage with different medications as well as through his regular patronage of a psychiatrist, but neither seems to be doing him much good and he is further ostracized from society because of a compulsive, uncontrollable laugh that bursts out of him at grossly inappropriate times.
In representing this, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is excruciatingly effective. Not only does he play each scene with the kind of strange flavor of disconnectedness that evolves into comfort with sadism, but his early turn in the movie is extremely uncomfortable to watch. He’s at his least natural when trying to fit in with other people, and becomes disturbingly more comfortable as he descends further and further into expressing himself through violence.
Arthur’s journey is one that could be construed as sympathetic, at least at first. Of course some audiences might take the whole thing as some kind of justification for the things that the character does, but it doesn’t appear that the movie really presents the character’s story that way by the time it reaches a certain, pivotal point. The core problem with that — and the reason why some people might think this is a lionization of an embodiment of evil — is because there’s no one that Arthur really remains accountable to. This is a movie about a villain, without a hero. Unusual, but also lopsided.
By the time he’s more Joker and less Arthur, he has already made up his mind concerning who and what he sees as figures of authority: he basically reasons that there is none — at least none that are legitimate — and it becomes painfully clear to anyone with more than passing familiarity with the traditional conception of the Joker (if you can call it that) that there’s a big, bat-shaped hole in this film in terms of giving Joker something that will bring him to account for his actions.
Of course, though, the movie doesn’t have “Batman” anywhere near its title, and while there are some larger connections that the film makes to the Dark Knight and the fact that Gotham is (or at least will be) his domain, Joker is very plainly about a breed of evil that is conceived by a society that allowed it to come into the world, but didn’t really concern itself with managing the possibility of that evil’s creation.
He tries to explain to his employer what led him to lose a sign he was waving in front of a closing store, but the employer instead berates him for his incompetence and doesn’t take his concerns seriously. Arthur goes to a psychiatrist, but the city cuts funding to social services, so in one fell swoop his professional psychiatric help and medication are deprived from him.
He also learns he’s been lied to his entire life, and without the proper mechanisms in place at home, at work and in medical care to help people like him, he goes in an angry, vengeful direction that is explained, which is not the same thing as making it justified. It doesn’t take a decorated mental health professional to understand that nothing justifies what Arthur does when he puts on his “happy face.”
Also interesting is that in a couple of key spots, the movie manages to nail something that has only really been achieved in the comics: something objectively awful happens but in a comedically surprising way, and if you laugh at these moments, you may kind of hate yourself for doing it. Regardless of what some may think about this movie overall, that is the sign of a well-written Joker scene.
Joker is a good movie. It’s an interesting exercise in terms of how to adapt comics characters, and it does so relatively truthfully in terms of the spirit and tone of the character it represents. One viewing may be enough, though, and people walking into the theater likely shouldn’t expect a film that gives them anything more than a feeling that the Joker was originally designed to give comics readers back in 1940.
The Joker in his original conception was a stone cold killer, dragging the audience down with him in a nightmarish, colorful spiral of hateful evil. Without that stoic, virtuous hero pulling us back up from those depths, Joker will understandably leave most in an unsettling place when they walk out of the theater.
An interesting experiment? Absolutely, and worth watching. Still, while I prefer my Joker to be as vicious and sadistic as this one, I much prefer that evil to be balanced out with a dark hero who matches every inch of that viciousness with a brand of heroism that we can only get from the Batman.