Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker, is easily the most iconic comic book villain of all time. He may not possess super powers, but the Joker’s more real-world sense of evil of being a straight-up murdering psychopath has made him, unquestionably, the most infamous of super villains. The Joker is probably the sole comic book villain whose mainstream recognition matches (if not surpasses) that of iconic comic book heroes Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. He’s even had multiple acclaimed transitions to the silver screen. Mark Hamill famously voiced Joker in animation and video games, while Jack Nicholson’s take on the character in Tim Burton’s poorly-aged 1989 Batman film still receives praise. It was the late Heath Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime in 2008’s The Dark Knight that remains the most lauded depiction of the character.
The Joker’s indelible mark on pop culture, as well as his undefined backstory and identity, made a movie entirely dedicated to him an inevitability. And that came to pass in 2019, with director Todd Phillip’s bluntly titled Joker, which cast Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role. Despite the big (clown)shoes to fill in the role, Phoenix delivers an unforgettable and haunting performance that carries the film, even if it does suffer a few hiccups in other areas.
As stated, the Joker has never had a definitive backstory. While the origins of Batman are set firmly in stone – a young Bruce Wayne being traumatized by the murder of his parents, who then seeks to avenge them by bringing justice to a corrupt Gotham City – the Joker is a blank slate. Joker has had various origin stories and former identities in various comic books, movies and other media, but they vary depending on the creators of each individual work. The Joker, on the whole, is an enigma, with his super villain identity being his only consistency.
While I’m on the side of the fence that prefers the Joker as an unexplained evil (such as in The Dark Knight), it’s always interesting to see how different artists paint the origins for such a dark figure in their own way. And Todd Phillips’s film does give the Joker one of his better origin stories.
Phoenix’s Joker begins life as Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck party clown and aspiring standup comedian suffering from several mental illnesses. Along with his inability to empathize, Fleck also has a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times. Fleck lives with his mentally ill mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), whose manipulative ways do Arthur no favors, despite his best efforts to help her out. Arthur idolizes talk show host/comedian, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and befriends his neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). These relationships often become obsessions for Arthur, which only further magnify his instability.
The film is an old-fashioned character study. Using such a film to focus on a comic book character is a novel idea, and there’s perhaps no better suited subject from the medium to focus such a concept on than the Joker. The film is clearly using Martin Scorsese’s character studies for inspiration and reference, which is a good place to draw from, though it does make Robert De Niro’s casting a bit on-the-nose.
We witness firsthand Arthur Fleck’s downfall from being a troubled man disenfranchised by society into a cold-blooded, heartless maniac. Throughout it all, Joaquin Phoenix’s perversely mesmerizing portrayal of the character makes it all scarily believable and real. This is a very different Joker than what we’ve seen in the past, one that’s a bit more grounded, more troubled. Pardon me if I sound hyperbolic, but Phoenix’s performance might just be an all-time great. His presence makes every scene unnerving and hypnotic. In a weird way, the performance draws you in and scares you away at the same time.
If the film suffers from this origin story at all, it may be that its tone doesn’t always run with that of Phoenix’s portrayal. The film far too frequently tries to paint Arthur Fleck in a sympathetic light. And while that works for a while, as Fleck slowly transforms more and more into the unflinchingly evil Joker, the film still seems to think of him as something of a victim.
Fleck’s life is filled with hardship after hardship, and it seems everyone who crosses his path is as remorseless as the Joker is destined to be. He’s beaten, mugged, emotionally abused, deceived, mocked, marginalized and screwed over multiple times over at every given turn. Again, that works for a while, and gives us some understanding as to how a broken man like Fleck could be pushed over the deep end. But even after he goes over the deep end, it seems as though the film is still trying to shed a sympathetic light on a resoundingly unsympathetic character.
That might be a controversial statement on my part, since it seems we live in a time in which everything is always conveniently society’s fault, and individuals are somehow not responsible for their crimes. But while Joker is all too willing to show us the ugly side of society and how the Joker is the result of its corruption, it almost fails to acknowledge that he ends up being a worse threat than anyone or anything else he came across to get there. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter who made the monster, the monster is the monster.
Perhaps the story’s biggest drawback is that it’s so focused on justifying Arthur’s descent into madness and his eventual transformation into the Joker that it comes at the expense of everything around him, including the foundations of the Batman mythology itself.
During the events of Joker, Bruce Wayne is still a child (Dante Pereira-Olson), his father Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is a mayoral candidate. Thomas Wayne – like Murray Franklin – plays an indirect influence in Arthur’s life. Penny Fleck was once an employee at Wayne Enterprises way back when, and retains an unhealthy fixation on the company’s owner. Issues with the story emerge with Thomas Wayne’s portrayal in the film. He’s depicted as a pompous, condescending and unsympathetic jerk, and only that.
While I can kind of understand what the film was going for by showcasing Thomas Wayne in a less-idealized light than most depictions of the character, the problem is it undermines the very essence of Batman, who is – in a roundabout way – vital to the very essence of the Joker. By reducing Thomas Wayne to being just another negative force in Gotham City, it makes Bruce Wayne’s inevitable transformation into Batman seem like nothing more than a quest for revenge. While it’s true that Batman does exist because of Bruce Wayne’s longing to avenge his parents’ murder, he is ultimately something more than that because of Thomas Wayne.
If Batman were solely driven by revenge, he’d probably not have an issue taking the law into his own hands and killing his adversaries like the Joker. But Thomas and Martha Wayne imparted ideals of justice into Bruce, ideals that, ultimately, are what Batman is really fighting for. It’s something more than Bruce Wayne’s personal quest for vengeance.
I’ve heard some people defend Joker’s depiction of Thomas Wayne as simply being from the perspective of the Joker himself, thus justifying the negative portrayal. While that may be true to an extent, the film never gives the audience a glimpse that there’s anything more to Thomas Wayne than “corrupt billionaire/politician.” Because of that, it unintentionally foreshadows Bruce Wayne’s eventual creation of Batman as being about nothing more than personal revenge.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker existed as the antithesis of Batman’s belief in justice. Chaotic, destructive, and nihilistic, the Joker was everything Batman fought against rolled into one insane package. Their clashing worldviews was the ultimate conflict of the film. But here in Joker, even though Batman himself has yet to exist, the way in which it rewrites Thomas Wayne and, by extension, Bruce Wayne’s backstory means that Batman’s eventual creation has no deeper meaning. He’s a figure who is to exist within the Joker’s world, as opposed to his philosophical opposite.
Some might say I’m reading it all the wrong way, seeing as this is Joker’s movie. But I have to reiterate that there is a difference between telling a story from Joker’s perspective and altering the moral foundations of Gotham City’s mythology just to fit the narrative. It just comes across as the film trying too hard to be edgy and different with its negative depiction of a character who is usually at the moral heart of the story, that the film ends up suffering fundamentally from it. Again, if Batman lacks meaning, why does it matter that Arthur Fleck is the Joker? He could be any madman at this point. I get that the filmmakers wanted Joker to draw real-world parallels, but at some point it would have been nice if the film didn’t seem like it was embarrassed by the fact that it’s a comic book movie and allowed the idealistic foundations of the Batman mythos to still have a place in this iteration of Gotham City.
Joker seems a bit confused as to what it wants to be saying then. It acknowledges its titular villain as just that, a villain, while simultaneously trying to justify his actions through sympathy. Aside from its identity crises, however, Joker is undoubtedly a well-made film in other areas.
I can’t stress enough how great Joaquin Phoenix is in the title role. Watching Arthur Fleck’s downfall play out is as entrancing as it is unnerving. Because of the Joker’s acclaimed past portrayals, comparisons are bound to be made to past on-screen iterations of the character. While I don’t want to crown a definitive winner due to the different takes on the character, I will say that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a worthy successor to Heath Ledger’s indelible version. It also begs the question: when was the last time the same character created so many different iconic performances?
The film also has a great look to it. The Gotham City of Joker is a much more realistic take on the setting than any other screen representation so far. Set in a gritty 1980s backdrop, Joker’s Gotham City creates a number of memorable locations and shots. The “Joker steps” featured in one particular scene have become a landmark due to the film. The scene in question, which sees the demented clown dancing down the steps to the music in his head, has already become an iconic scene in its own right. And one of the film’s final sequences, which sees Fleck finally meet Murray Franklin face-to-face, is truly bone chilling.
There is a great movie here in Joker. It provides a fresh take on the super hero/villain genre, turning its origin story into a grounded, realistic character study. Helmed by Joaquin Phoenix’s unforgettable performance, Joker has to be the most haunting comic book film ever made, and creatively the most ambitious since The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, the great movie that is here is drowning in the film’s indecisiveness as to what it wants to say. Is it a commentary on the ugly side of society, or just a blatant example of it? If the Joker is a maniacal mass-murderer, why does the film relish in the opportunity to paint him as a kind of political martyr for the working class?
The Dark Knight saw the clash between Batman’s idealism and Joker’s nihilism. But Joker absorbs us into the Clown Prince of Crime’s dark mindset alone, and still expects us to feel empathy for him despite his inhuman crimes. The Dark Knight’s Joker was similarly evil, but at most we saw him as a pathetic creature. But Joker’s take on its titular character feels like it wants us to root for him, even after there’s nothing left to root for.
Joker is undeniably a mesmerizing character study. But when the character we’re studying is a monster, don’t expect me to see him as anything but.