Hey, quick programming note. This is more of an analysis than review of the 2019 movie Joker. So, if you’re sensitive about spoilers, you might want to look away until you see the movie. Or, if you enjoy complaining, feel free to read and complain in the comments. I’m not really here to ruin your good time.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Joker. With most villains, whether they fight a billionaire who has the money to buy a bat-shaped carbut not his own private police force, have some kind of motivation. The Penguin wants money and to make egg puns. Catwoman wants to draw out her R’s and steal things. The Riddler wants to be useless, but with a question mark cane. Each one has their own motivations that extend beyond Batman in some way. The costumes and cool nicknames are there, but even if Bruce Wayne was say, using his money to bulldoze crime alley and put up a series of condos, they would still exist.
But the Joker doesn’t seem to have those motivations. He wants anarchy, but only if he can control it. He seems to want Batman dead, but only if he’s the one to do it. He wants power and money, but doesn’t really know what to do with it. Most versions of the Joker explore the dichotomy of the man who laughs vs. the traumatized dude who never quite got over his parents’ death. The reversal – the hero wears black and broods while the bad guy is colorful and quippy – is a fascinating way we look at heroism, vigilantism, and what trauma does to us.
So, when I heard that they were making a movie that not only gave us an origin of the Joker but without Batman, I was intrigued.
Many artists have been interested in exploring the origins of the Joker. The most famous, the Killing Joke, asks us to accept that one bad day can make us capable of doing unimaginable things. Batman, the 1989 movie, points to a madness born from chemical cocktails and revenge. The Dark Knight just makes the whole thing multiple choice, but even then fan theories abound about how Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker appears. And good ones, too, not the typical fan theories that usually just try to justify that it’s all in someone’s head.
This Joker is an interesting, gritty look that plays with the idea of the “multiple choice” origin that was introduce in Alan Moore’s a Killing Joke. I’m going to try to get through this without using any combination of the words “Taxi” and “Driver”, but let’s see how successful I can be with that.
Joker directed by Todd Phillips stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire who is put upon by society until eventually he snaps, puts on the clown makeup, and turns to pure evil, much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. What can I say, this movie doesn’t quite wear its influences so much as it pours all of its influences on the ground like a bucket of Legos, and builds a movie around it.
That’s not a bad thing. This movie feels gritty. The opening scene is Arthur working as a clown, smiling until he’s jumped by that crime that Gotham is pretty known for. This leads to an interesting parallel scene. In one, he’s attacked by a gang in an alley. Later, he’s attacked again, this time by Wall Street (or the Gotham equivalent) dudebros who are harassing a woman then turn their sights to Arthur, who has just been fired. The framing of the scenes is almost exactly the same, as if the director is trying to pull together that crime is pretty much crime.
I do want to clarify here: there was a lot written about this movie, after the initial predictions that it was going to be terrible and right after it received good reviews out of festivals, about how people were worried that it would portray Arthur in some kind of positive light. The thing is, it doesn’t. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur in a very unsettling manner. He’s someone who wants respect, but isn’t sure how to get it. The character is put upon – some of the more interesting moments is the class commentary in the movie – but I don’t know that we’re ever supposed to feel empathy for Arthur. One through line for this entire movie is that he is the most unreliable of narrators. We see this in his disastrous stand up set which suddenly goes beautifully, or when he has a whirlwind romance with the neighbor down the way who suddenly had a lot of free time despite having a kid, then both turn out to be a figment of his imagination. We even get a great glimpse of this early on when he retreats into the world of a talk show host played by Robert DeNiro. We also see this with his relationship with Thomas Wayne.
Yes, the movie heavily implies that Batman and the Joker are brothers.
This is not a new theory. Some people have speculated that one of the origin stories for the Joker was that his real name is Thomas Wayne, Jr, and that he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne because he’s the only one in Gotham to realize that there’s just the one person who can afford a bat shaped airplane. It’s one that this plays with, as it sets up Thomas Wayne as the primary antagonist of the movie. Really, what he represents is what one of the main themes of the movie is, which is that the rich are pretty much doing their best to wipe out the poor. This whole movie is essentially a class warfare movie, with the Joker leading the charge as he becomes more and more murderous and more and more deranged.
We never get much of who Thomas Wayne is in the comics. Bruce looks up to him, so we get his unreliable narration of who his father was to an 8 year old kid: a hero. This movie runs with the idea that he uses his wealth for evil, or at least rich people evil things. It’s pretty realistic so he’s not building a death ray or anything. Again, though, we see this through the Arthur, and he’s an extremely unreliable narrator. I think that’s one of the strengths of the movie, to be honest with you. There’s a sort of cruelty that comes to Arthur from everyone. We know that Gotham is supposed to be a terrible place, and this movie is so gritty that even the rats seem to live in homes with smaller, more vicious rats, but since it’s through Arthur’s eyes we can’t trust anything. Even the end moment when he’s standing triumphantly being cheered by the crowd can’t be trusted. It raises a lot of questions, not the least of which being: how did anyone know that he was the one in that particular police car. The film is purposely disorienting.
Of course that’s a lot for the basic question: is it any good? Yes, it is. But it’s really more of a horror movie than anything else. The Joker is the Joker. He’s a criminal who thinks he has something to say, but is somewhat aimless without someone to fight, and he needs to put that aim somewhere. He has a cruelty that’s insidious, because he thinks he’s being a kind person, but he’s pushed. But again… we don’t know for sure.
Make no mistake: This is a dark film. It may be the darkest film about an evil clown since… well It Chapter 2. At some point in society we just kind of agreed that we hated clowns, didn’t we. Regardless, this movie is worth a look. I don’t know that it really knows that it wants to say, but it says a lot. There’s a lot to explore in the themes, there’s a lot to explore in the Joker without his most famous enemy trying to stop him from doing whatever it is he does. I did come away realizing that the Joker does need Batman to exist, sort of, because he needs to strike back against something that’s not society at as a whole. But this is an interesting look at how monsters get started. And I don’t mean “are created.” Arthur is dangerous long before he decides to go full Joker. This is a movie about how monsters finally flip that final switch, and the delusion they are under finally become a standard.
Hamlet T. Wondercat says
out of Five