Searing onto the screen as both a revisionist backstory of an iconic villain character and a pointed commentary on the cuddlier aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the new Joker movie is bold, violent, and unnerving. There have been many exceedingly dark takes on the greatest foil of Batman’s through the decades of DC Comics, everything from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, but this one pushes even further. The origin story here finds a hapless soul, used and abused from his birth on, turning into a psychopath that society shares responsibility in. This isn’t a Joker who just wants to see the world burn. He’s a tragic figure who finally learns to hurt back.
Some purists will cry foul over what director Todd Phillips and his fellow screenwriter Scott Silver have done here with the Joker character, foregoing his gangster origins and that vat of chemicals that gave him his permanent grin. But what has been done here is not far off of what Christopher Nolan did in his movie where the Joker’s grin came courtesy of scarred cheeks. It’s a different take on tried and true material, as both strove to say something new and challenge convention in their big-screen efforts.
Phillips and Silver’s story takes place in 1981, and Gotham City, the thinly-veiled Big Apple, is being overrun with rot. There’s a garbage strike, and the rat population has grown so exponentially that the press is calling the predators “super rats.” Despite such surroundings, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to bring a little joy into this world. He’s working as a clown-for-hire and pouring his all into drawing attention to the “going out of business” sale at the electronics store employing him. He mimes, dances, and performs tricks, truly taking his clown role to heart, all to get people to notice him and his “Everything Must Go” sign.
Some teen gang members harass him and then steal his sign. Arthur chases them down, but he’s out-numbered and they beat the crap out of him. Battered and depressed, Arthur trudges home to the fleabag apartment he shares with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). She’s spending her days while he’s away writing her former employer, billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), to ask for financial assistance for her beleaguered family. The only joy that Mom and son share together is the enjoyment of the late-night TV series “Live with Murray Franklin.” Arthur even fantasizes about doing stand-up on TV for Murray (Robert De Niro) someday.
But those moments of happiness are fleeting for Arthur. Every day of his meager existence brings more and more humiliation. His unsympathetic boss demands that he replace the sign ruined by the gang with money from his paycheck. Arthurs’ snide co-workers make fun of his idiosyncrasies. And his nervous cackle, an inadvertent laughing condition that resembles Tourette’s, gets him in trouble time and time again in public. Randall (Glenn Fleshler), a fellow clown-for-hire, encourages Arthur to fight back against the abusers when he lends him his handgun.
Arthur forgets he has the weapon on his person while entertaining at a children’s hospital and its exposure gets him fired altogether. Depressed and broke, he gloomily rides the subway home in full clown regalia where he witnesses three Wall Street jerks hassling a female passenger. Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter draws the ire of the trio and they punch and kick him into submission the subway car floor. This time though, Arthur fights back, using his handgun to silence all three of his attackers permanently.
Not only does Arthur feel little guilt over his homicidal rage, but the public takes the side of the unknown ‘vigilante.’ The Gothamites feel the three brokers had it coming, and hordes of protestors fed up with the city’s conditions, turn these deaths into a “Kill the Rich” call to arms. Suddenly, Arthur’s mysterious killer clown is a folk hero, leading the disenfranchised to start wearing clown masks as they join in the anti-establishment movement.
Arthur is tickled by what he inadvertently created, but the story doesn’t become one of a reluctant messiah embracing the mantle of turning into a criminal mastermind. Instead, the film continues to chronicle his descent into madness. There’s something terribly off about Arthur, even in his quieter scenes, and the narrative fills in the blanks that explain his myriad of psychological problems. He eventually finds out the truth about his parentage and the cause of his many conditions. The film defines his ‘evil’ and in doing so, presents a much fuller portrait of psychopathy than you’d find in almost any other comic book adaptation for the big screen.
This is where Phillips’ film, despite being a period piece, makes its starkest commentary, editorializing on topical issues, everything from the political divide in our nation today, to the sunny and often silly side of villainy, often presented in the MCU. The Joker here serves as a counter to the cuddliness of certain Marvel villains like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. This movie was done years before Disney’s streaming platform announced its Loki TV series, but one can’t help but see it as a commentary on the limits of characters worthy of franchising.
Some may argue that comic books aren’t trying to be the I.D. Channel, and the Joker doesn’t need to be presented as a twisted monster that gets molded by an abusive childhood à la Charles Manson or Richard Ramirez, but indeed, that is how evil often starts. It takes a village, or at least awful parenting, to help set up the environment to breed such destructive personalities, and Phillips, et al. are reminding us that villainy shouldn’t be lovable.
Phoenix does incredible work here, as he always does, playing a version of abject loneliness and despair that could be the third part of a triptych along with his starring roles in The Master and Her. Even at his most malevolent or rageful, Phoenix shows the hurt in his hurting. We never lose sight that his Arthur is not a well man. He may be making bad choices, but a lot of his trajectory was chosen for him. It’s not sympathy for the devil, but merely recognizing how much damage mistreatment and alienation can do to a soul.
In many ways, Joker plays as more of a horror movie than a comic book adaptation. Everything from the slow camera movements to the deliberate score feels like those in a frightener. Still, Phillips manages to fuel this fierce tale with some fun too. He introduces young master Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) and Alfred Pennyworth (Douglas Hodge) in an exceptionally clever scene. Casting De Niro as the Johnny Carson-esque late-night host is cheeky in its intention to encourage comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. The director slyly makes hay of other elements from time period too, everything from vigilante Bernie Goetz to Times Square porn to state budget cuts that created the homeless epidemic.
This vision of the Joker will likely polarize audiences. Some will hate it for the chances it takes, for its dreariness, but the film deserves commendation for courageously mining the same bleak territory that comics like Watchmen, 101 Bullets and Y: The Last Man did in their day.
Such stories remind audiences that man is always the greatest monster of them all and that the mob often enables such evil, whether it realizes it or not. That’s a lot to contemplate here, so much so, it’s not even funny.
Check out the trailer for Joker below: