As a comic book and movie fan, I enjoy when source material is stretched; attacked from different angles to give a fresh perspective on a story. Upon hearing that a super-villain would be getting his own film, I was intrigued. Especially considering he is one of the most iconic villains and fictional characters ever created.
Unfortunately, Joker is anything but a laughing matter.
This review will be spoiler-free.
An origin story set in 1981, this film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed stand-up comedian who descends into madness and turning to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City.
If you know anything about the Joker, part of his mystique is that there is no core “origin” for the Clown Prince of Crime. He’s always been an unreliable narrator (as excellently portrayed by the late Heath Ledger), uncertain of how he came to be. Depsite the fact that Todd Phillips’ film is an origin story, we know approximately where it’s all headed. We’re just unsure about how he’ll get there. Arthur, a lonely failed party clown, lives with his mother in a crumbling apartment in Gotham City. From there, we watch as the seeds are sown for his downfall: the romantic rejections, random beatings by teenage street punks, along with the countless small humiliations that make up his daily life. The one bright spot is Arthur’s blossoming romance with his neighbor, single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz).
Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population impoverished and forgotten by those in charge. It’s a perfect powder-keg and the fallout from an incident involving Arthur lights the match for an already on-edge Gotham, sending angry mobs into the streets to take action. The other plot threads to follow largely concern Arthur’s past and the Wayne family. That’s right, you can’t have the Joker without the Waynes being involved somehow. Arthur also seeks to make it big as a stand-up comedian and find his way to meet the man he pictures as a pseudo-father figure, late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But, as the city falls more into chaos, so does Arthur’s already fractured mind.
Phillips’ story is very self-contained; a narrative structure of allowing the viewer into the nightmarish world Arthur’s tortured mind occupies. He seems to revel in every rung of madness that Arthur hits on his descent into the darkness as the fame and adulation grows in the eyes of the public. Instead of a villain, Fleck is seen as a hero of the people; the embodiment of their pain and anger into a weapon of chaos to shake the system. The story was mainly inspired by the character study films of the 1970s, but the image it reflects could be a mirror to the anger and class disparities that have shaped the world we currently live in today.
A big positive is Joaquin Phoenix himself. He’s stunning in the role: a figure adjacent but completely apart from the shadows of past Jokers: Jack Nicholson’s leering cartoon or Heath Ledger’s gaga, commanding anarchist. The manic laughter and mood swings and demented dancing are enduring; which makes it hard to watch him to become the “hero” of Gotham City. Arthur just wants to be noticed and respected, which he doesn’t really get until he dances in his underwear, dyes his hair, and puts on the white facepaint to make his mark. The chaos he triggers seems to be a cure for hopelessness, giving him what he’s looked for all his life.
This movie could have worked as just an engrossing character study without the DC Comics trappings , but considering the popularity of the genre, you have to put butts in seats.
What polarized me with the movie was how slow Arthur’s decent took. From the first incident, you thought it could be a fast track but ended up being a false start. By the time we are rolling along, I feel like there was a missed opportunity. The dark tone didn’t bother me too much, but the portrayal of mental illness and handling of violence were the parts that disturbed me. I’m all for a film putting the spotlight on the issues of mental health, especially in today’s climate of speaking out about it, but this film didn’t feel like the right message to send. The impact of this movie in those two categories made me wait to see this movie in the light of day on a Wednesday afternoon. The impact of Joker could be far more dangerous because one viewer – even one – might take the convictions of the title character at face value, and then act on them, is a terrifying thought.
Thanks for reading, everyone!
What are your thoughts about Joker? Is there a chance Joaquin Phoenix has a Best Actor Oscar in his future? Should there be more super-villain based movies?
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