Joker has been a character on the silver screen for over fifty years, dating back to 1966 where the character was played by Cesar Romero in the Adam West-starring Batman. Since then, we’ve had four other interpretations of the character. We had Jack Nicholson’s clown mobster in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Mark Hamill’s legendary voice-work on Batman: The Animated Series and the subsequent movies tied to that show, Heath Ledger’s award-winning interpretation that is arguably one of the most iconic performances of the twenty-first century in The Dark Knight, and then Jared Leto’s neon, tattooed, L.A. crime lord in Suicide Squad. Though all very different in there interpretations of the character, they all kept the same spirit of the character, portraying a mad genius of evil.
Todd Phillips’ Joker is not a movie about the Joker. We might think it is because of the legendary name, the film being set in Gotham, and references to Bruce and Thomas Wayne, but this is not a Joker movie. This is a movie about a mentally ill man’s descent into madness and murder in a corrupt, ugly city. Using the title of Joker doesn’t mean a thing here as the film feels more like an origin movie about the man who wanted to start The Purge than about Batman’s most infamous villain.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man overlooked by society. He is constantly ignored, bullied, and brought down. He has an illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably loud at the most random times. He lives with and takes care of his mother who is sick, and works for a company where he dresses up like clown-for-hire. He also obsesses over a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host named Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and imagines that he will one day be on Murray’s show as a successful stand-up comedian. Even though Arthur’s life seems like it’s awful, his life gets even worse as the movie goes on, which leads Arthur on a path that would lead him to become a murderer wearing clown make-up.
Much like Fleck’s laugh in a quiet room, Joker isn’t subtle. This movie is as subtle as sledgehammer to the side of head. This is a movie that pummels you with its broody, dark, twisted attitude towards the world and people and does so from the opening scene in which Arthur gets jumped by a group of teenagers. There is no descent into madness here, this is a man who is already mad and we’re just waiting for the last straw to break. Arthur’s life is horrible and the film makes sure to really pile it on by making him mentally ill, a social pariah, and having a sick mother who is his world. There are other revelations that occur during the movie that just add more fuel to the fire, but it all seems unnecessary. It came to a point where I wanted to yell, “Jesus Christ! We get it! It’s all sad!” There are never any quiet or kind moments in the film. No moments of hope or happiness. The whole film is one note. One long, sad, grim, dark note.
Joker is also a film where you would forget was part of the Batman world if it weren’t shoved down our throats. Every time the film mentions Thomas Wayne or the Wayne’s is a cringe-worthy moment. A force-fed plot piece of the movie that felt like Phillips saying, “Hey! Remember, Batman is in this world! Oh? you forgot? Look, it’s his dad!” In the final scenes of the film, there is a moment that caused an audible sigh because of how forced it was and how stupid it was. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s ending that genuinely made me and angry, though not angry enough to rock clown make-up.
Even with this film being in the world of Batman, one of the major problems I have with this movie and this version of Joker is that this Joker wouldn’t stand a chance fighting next to Batman. One of the aspects that makes Joker so interesting and fun in the other movies is that whenever he was pitted against Batman, he could go toe-to-toe with Batman, a genius who was trained by ninjas, and could stay with him physically and mentally. Fleck as Joker would get his ass handed to him by Batman. This isn’t a crime lord. This is man who is sick of being walked over by society and wants to be noticed. He’s like the kid in middle school in the back of the class for causes a raucous just for attention. He’s not an evil genius, he’s just evil.
Through all this is a sensational performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is infamous for how immersed he gets into his roles and he goes all-in here. From the weight-loss to the haunting laugh to the emotional turn Arthur makes in the film, Phoenix gives it everything he has and is one of the only bright spots of the film (the score and sets being the other two). I don’t know what the future this version of this Joker will be, but Phoenix’s performance makes me intrigued about the possibilities.
The biggest question I have with Joker is wondering what the point of the film was. This isn’t an origin story about Batman’s most legendary villain, so what’s its point? A look at one man’s fight against the system? A movie about one man’s decent into madness? A movie complaining about society? For me, this felt like a movie made by an angry man who is angry with the world and just wants to get his aggression out, which is not why I want to see a Joker movie.
Every generation has its Joker. In the 60’s and 70’s it was Romero, in the 80’s and 90’s it was Nicholson and Hamill, in the 2000’s it was Ledger, and in the early part of the 2010’s it was Leto. But going into the new decade, this is the new Joker and it is a dark, sad Joker.
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