Seemingly out of nowhere, we get Joker – a movie that explores the damaged psyche of a disturbed white man whose anger will justify horrible, horrible actions, at least in his mind. We haven’t seen this type of movie before. Yep, this trope has not been over-analyzed to death. Not at all.
Of course, just because people have done these films doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these again. Filmmakers will always create fresh new takes on classic and even tired old tropes. This might be the reason why despite the (suspiciously manufactured) controversy for Todd Phillip’s Joker, I decided to give it a chance. The Joker endured being Batman’s most famous villain throughout the last 80 or so years. He’s even ranked as one of the Top Villains for All Time for so many people. As such, there might be something to be found when we examine this character in a context without the Dark Knight.
Curiously, to my knowledge, popular media has never explored the Joker this way before. The comics have even gone out of its way to avoid giving him a definitive origin. In fact, fans viewed the few times he received an origin with disdain, to the point of being quickly scrubbed out of continuity. I believe this comes from two reasons. First, people always saw the Joker as a force of chaos to Batman’s order. A backstory removes that mystique. Second, the Joker’s committed so many horrendous acts over the years. If we ascribe a reason, or a method, to his madness, we run the risk of endorsing his point of view.
In fact, the most famous exploration of his origin – Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke – initially posits that any good man needs just one bad day to become just as twisted as he is. The then he puts Commissioner Gordon through hell. He cripples Gordon’s daughter Barbara. Afterwards, the Joker tortures Gordon physically and mentally. However, in the end, Gordon stays true. The Commissioner still managed to stop Batman from killing the Clown Prince of Crime. Plus, the Dark Knight squarely puts responsibility back on the Joker. That, maybe, that “One Bad Day” won’t break any person. Maybe it’s just the Joker.
Exactly why I approached Joker with trepidation. The movie dives into the mind of Arthur Fleck, who suffers Tourette’s-like symptoms that makes him laugh uncontrollably whenever he’s overcome with any emotion. Fleck, who is a clown for a living, staying with his aging, dying mother. On top of this, he’s also suffering from an unspecified mental illness that makes him an unreliable narrator for the movie, often fantasizing about being in power and in control that it detracts from the truth.
Then the movie puts us through a horrible gauntlet of the shame, humiliation, and torture he’s put through on a daily basis. And somehow, we’re supposed to sympathize with this man. At least, up until a point where he discovers some unsavory truths about himself, the people that make up Gotham’s upper crust, and how he’s been rendered invisible by his poverty and mental illness. Arthur considers himself a lonely man whom the world owes so much. This isn’t to say we should endorse or cheer for him, though – Joker lives in a World where he takes no accountability for his actions. As expected, he commits unspeakable acts to various people throughout the third act. And somehow these are done in a lurid, almost celebratory manner. The movie doesn’t go as far as to prop Arthur up as a hero. In fact, the film goes far from this perspective. However, since the movie relies on Arthur’s point of view, there’s a big uncertainty on what the movie is trying to say.
Yes, that’s my big dissatisfaction with Joker. It’s big, bold, with astonishing performances from Joaquin Phoenix and just about everyone else in the cast. Cinematography is amazing. The soundtrack is perfectly chilling and beautiful, and all at the right moments. However, you get a sense that director Todd Phillips is unequipped to handle the movie’s themes with the right nuance. It takes a big hammer to everything by way of using (and misrepresents) mental health as a blanket justification for violence. I can’t discount the care, work, and love they put into this movie. However, Phillips essentially created a lovingly-crafted and painstakingly-assembled movie that tries to say something about pain, anguish, and inequality… and falls short of making a grand statement. I’m still glad Todd Phillips made this movie, though. The film managed to get a visceral reaction out of me, as with any good piece of art should. However, was this story worth telling in the first place?