As if enough things haven’t been written about this movie, here comes another one. Ever since the announcement of this movie, I’ve been skeptical. The Joker is a character who has, historically, never had a definitive origin story – nor has he ever needed one. The entire point (and fun) of the character is that he has no origin. Various stories have hinted at one (The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight) but all have shied away from suggesting any of those origins is the definitive one. So, this movie being entirely about how the Joker became the Joker worried me a bit, though that worry was squashed a bit when they made it clear this movie wouldn’t tie into the larger DCEU and would be the cinematic equivalent of one of DC’s Elseworlds stories. With that context, it was a bit easier to get on board with a film like this. Then came all of the controversy surrounding the film – the articles about how it was irresponsible, the security concerns, etc – and the whole thing began to get a little messy. It was difficult to know what the film was actually saying versus what people were accusing the film of saying. The big question, now that opening weekend has come and gone without much incident, is whether Joker is a good movie that gets across all that it is trying to say. The answer? Yes, mostly. (NOTE: This review will contain some light spoilers for the movie, but this is one of those films where you pretty much already know how it ends; it’s not filled with surprises, but the enjoyment comes from the journey it takes you on.)
Joker (written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips; directed by Todd Phillips)
“Joker” centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.
Joker is a good movie. Several elements contribute to just how good it is but, perhaps, the most important one is Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker. Phoenix is what brings this movie to life. He’s in nearly every scene and your eye is never drawn away from him. He’s captivating in ways that make you sympathize with him while also revolting you as he slowly slips into the madness that is the Joker. Phoenix so embodies this character that you almost forget you’re watching an actor pretending to be Arthur Fleck and that you’re not literally watching this real person completely snap. At times, it’s almost scary seeing just how committed Phoenix is to the role – for example, like many actors before him, he lost a shocking amount of weight in order to give Fleck more of a skeletal look. Phoenix is wholly believable in this role as he takes the audience on a journey through the mind of a man who might become the Joker and, though it’s certainly a scary journey, it’s also an extremely captivating one and I won’t be surprised to see Phoenix get award recognition for his performance.
While Phoenix’s Joker has the vast majority of screen time in the movie, there are actually other characters, all of whom are portrayed with an equal level of reality by some very talented actors. Frances Conroy is brilliant as Arthur’s mother, a woman who turns out to be just as broken as Arthur. Robert de Niro turns in a surprisingly good performance as the mean-spirited talk-show host, Murray Franklin, and he’s a joy to watch in every scene. Zazie Beetz, though underused, is very effective as Sophie, Arthur’s neighbor (and sort of love interest, though all is definitely not as it seems there). Lastly, Brett Cullen gives a solid performance as Thomas Wayne, more of a typical corrupt capitalist politician than usually seen. All of these actors (and the rest of the cast), led by Phoenix’s excellent performance, completely bring this movie to life in ways that are surprising and devilishly interesting.
Most superhero films since the conclusion of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy haven’t really felt like they were coming from directors and writers with a real vision; instead, they often feel as if they’ve been created by a committee of producers – Kevin Feige, for the MCU, and a revolving door of people for the DCEU. As such, most of these movies all feel similar. Many of them have similar visuals and similar tones. This isn’t an inherently bad thing; a lot of comics are exactly the same and this kind of visual similarity helps create a universe that audiences will immediately recognize as belonging to a specific franchise. But when it’s a constant onslaught of this sameness, it can also feel a bit tiring. So, it’s always exciting when something comes around that feels like it was actually made by someone with a specific vision who had something to say about these characters. We saw this with 2017’s Logan, a dark film about X-Men’s Wolverine, and we see it again here with Joker. Joker is unlike any comic book film made in the past decade, maybe even longer. Its closest comparison is probably Nolan’s Batman movies, but even those aren’t as grounded in reality as Joker is. Here, there are no costumed vigilantes patrolling the streets, no over-the-top plots and villains; just one mentally-ill man facing a society that doesn’t care about him.
Phillips and his co-writer, Scott Silver, really explore these ideas in their script. What would it take to make someone snap? What kind of society might produce a villain like the Joker? Phillips and Silver’s script take certain ideas from other Batman media – most notably that the Joker was a failed comedian who eventually snapped after living a life of constant abuse and unpleasantness – but they mix all of that with their own version of the character and their own set of circumstances that lead to his creation. The script, though definitely a very slow burn, is an extremely effective look at the mindset of a character like the Joker. We are given time to understand him and see what he’s like before he becomes the monster that he’s destined to be. It’s always good to understand why a person does the evil things they do – no one is born evil, after all – and this movie does an excellent job of creating a situation that might birth someone like the Joker. Couple this strong script with some really striking directorial decisions from Phillips and you’ve got an interesting film.
One of the biggest hot-button issues surrounding this movie was whether or not its messaging was irresponsible. I’m not really gonna address whether or not I think it was responsible – I tend to reside in the camp that believes we shouldn’t look to cinema for our moral compass and that there are numerous studies that suggest no correlation between violent movies and real-world violence – but I will address what the movie seems to be trying to say and how well it says it. Joker has a lot to say, but it doesn’t always really say it exactly the way I suspect it means to. The film is filled with critiques on how society treats the mentally ill and how the growing divide between the 1% and the 99% is leading to a lot of pent-up resentment, but it never really does anything with those ideas; it raises the issues but offers no solutions. I’m not saying this is the kind of film that necessarily needs to offer any solutions to these problems – after all, these problems are really just setting the scene for Fleck’s eventual descent into madness – but it does work to create a sort of muddled message. The film is trying to say something about these things, and the message it seems to be trying to say is a good one, but it doesn’t quite get its message across.
The same rings true for how the film treats the Joker’s violence. From the moment the film begins, it’s extremely ambiguous. Phillips and Silver set up Arthur Fleck as a very unreliable narrator – at no point are we ever really sure if what we’re seeing is actually what’s happening. The film, perhaps, is too ambiguous, though. It never goes so far as to glorify, or even justify, Fleck’s eventual violence, but it also doesn’t really criticize it as much as it perhaps should. It’s easy to say that this is down to the fact that what we’re seeing is what Arthur remembers, so why would he bother critiquing his own actions, but it does leave the film open to some unfortunate misinterpretations. Most of the Joker’s crimes throughout the film are directed at people who have wronged him – the men who attack him on a train, Murray Franklin, etc. None of these people deserved to die, but all of them did deserve some kind of justice. In this light, it’s alarmingly easy to paint Fleck’s actions as that of a misguided vigilante – along the lines of someone like The Punisher. Sure, logically, someone like the Joker probably would start out their criminal career by killing people they thought deserved to die before eventually segueing into just killing whomever they pleased, but in light of everything going on in the real world, it does leave the film open to some criticism it doesn’t really deserve. At no point does it ever feel like Joker is condoning or excusing Fleck’s actions, but it also doesn’t entirely feel like it’s condemning them either. It just presents them as things that happen and allows the audience to take their own meaning from it – which, in all honesty, is a good thing. It’s mature filmmaking – we don’t need the film to spell out to us that murdering people is bad. But in this environment, it might not have been a horrible idea for the film to include just a little bit of something that really hammers the nail home that this behavior isn’t acceptable. As written, people who want to misinterpret what this film is trying to say are going to have a fairly easy time doing so, but the movie could have – and maybe, for the sake of keeping the conversation about what the movie actually says instead of what people want it to say, should have – done just a little bit more to stop those interpretations before they could start. None of this really hurts the quality of the movie, but it is hard to ignore it as you watch it and live in the world that we live in.
All in all, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed Joker. I wasn’t ever completely sold on the idea of an origin film for the Joker – he’s a character I don’t think should ever have a definitive backstory. But, thankfully, it seems that Phillips also doesn’t believe he should have one as he delivers audiences a movie that’s extremely ambiguous and allows us to really consider what it might take to turn someone from a regular citizen into a mass-murderer like the Joker without really committing to a definitive explanation for how the Joker came to exist. This is just one possible explanation for the creation of one of pop-culture’s greatest villains. And it’s a pretty engaging explanation. The film is very well-made; it’s a bit uncomfortable at times as we’re drawn into Arthur Fleck’s mindset at the beginning of the film, but as he fully begins to slide into the madness that is his Joker, that discomfort pays off as we’re given the chance to condemn the Joker’s actions while actually understanding how he’s arrived at this point. Carried by an excellent performance from Joaquin Phoenix, a solid script, and some really good direction, Joker is a movie that feels unlike any other comic book film currently being made. It’s a character study that will hit you really hard while still entertaining you. Joker isn’t a popcorn flick and it’s not a masterpiece of cinema, but it is a pretty thought-provoking, very engaging, very well-made film that all fans of Batman or serious character studies should look into.
4 out of 5 wands.