A character study that excels, even without the Joker mythology.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
Comic book characters often go through many iterations of themselves but they all retain a foundational trait. Wonder Woman is raised by Amazonian women; born out of tragedy, Batman is a man who betters his mind and body to make sure no one else suffers the pain he has gone through. The Joker… well, he's certifiably crazy but while that is a constant, there's not much known about the villain.
But wasn't he a common hoodlum who fell into a vat of chemicals that rendered his skin to be lily-white and his hair a garish green, you asked? Well, that's the common origin story; as common as a radiated spider biting a teenager or an alien being adopted by a pair of kindly farmers. But his history before his fall into the chemicals? Not much is known about that.
For writers, the obscurity of the Joker's origins is a perfect blank slate for stories. Recently-retired comic book scribe, Alan Moore, told an origin tale where the Joker started out as a struggling stand-up comedian who had one very bad day that led him down towards his criminal career; that's the version that inspired the movie by Director Todd Phillips. If you think Christopher Nolan brought realness with his Batman trilogy, Joker ups the ante with the realism with nary a sight of a cape or cowl.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the disenfranchised really well. He has always been a tour de force in many of his roles (Joe from You Were Never Really Here; Freddie Quell from The Master) but this portrayal of Arthur takes it to another level. Phoenix developed a personal language for his character in the movement—the stiffness in the walk, his slouching posture; whenever he trudges up the long flight of steps to his home looks to be an ordeal. Then, there's that laugh.
Plagued with a neurological affliction of suddenly bursting into laughter, Arthur's cachinnation occurs in unexpected moments. Phoenix adds that perfecting the laugh was a labour. He trawled through videos of people with 'pathological laughter' and the physicality of the act looks like a mix of pain and forced relief.
Throughout the movie, you can see Arthur's transformation through the outfits, which starts out Earth-toned and drab and hang off large from his skeletal frame. Then, as he finds himself as an unwitting icon of a brewing revolution, he dresses up in garish colours, he dyes his hair, he proudly dons warpaint.
Stiffness gives way to a fluidity in his movements as Arthur starts finding his place in the world. There's a song in his head, a spring in his step, he found the love of his life; it almost feels like a musical and you're glad for him—things are looking up for Arthur Fleck!
And then the bad things, the violence follows and you realised, of course, this happens. Because life.
Phillips, who is known more for his past work of comedies like Due Date, the Hangover trilogies and that one role where he turns up for an appointment:
He has directed a slow burn of a film that explodes with the ferocity of a rage that's pent-up over the years but credit is due to the cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, for the movie's look and feel. It's no secret that Gotham City was modelled after New York City—it is filthy, seedy; porno theatres and graffitied trains were the norms. Gotham City is as much a character as Arthur.
Joker looks to be a film that's unlike any other in the superhero genre. The superhero genre is a different cousin from the comic book movie genre. For the latter, there have been other films adapted from graphic novels like Ghost World and A History of Violence. Without the capes and the superpowers, these movie adaptations were taken seriously. With the superhero genre, there's always a derision from the Hollywood Academy when it comes to the heavily-CGIed films. Sure, it might rake in millions at the box office but they were never seen as 'art'.
Joker skirts between being a drama or a superhero movie; though the latter might be pushing it. Remove the Batman from the equation (and you don't actually see any sight of him) and you've a drama that stands on its own as an outcast who is abandoned by the system and forced down the only rational end to madness.
So, here's hoping that Joker will win a ton of awards at the next Oscars, or at the very least, for Best Actor (Heath Ledger won posthumously for his role as Joker in Nolan's The Dark Knight.
What we didn't like
I could delve into the controversies surrounding this movie but those are already covered by other publications. But there are two things we want to touch on:
One, despite Todd Phillips' insistence that Joker is apolitical, it reeks of it. Arthur Fleck accidentally becomes a symbol for the poor rising up against the rich and a broken system, while we're focused on the man who is affected by it, maybe more attention could be placed on the bigger picture. If you think about it, the shit happening in Joker is somewhat repeated in our own lives. It was a missed opportunity to examine the healthcare system, about how the mentally ill aren't getting the aid needed or about wealth disparity.
Two, Joker's cause célèbre is that the film might inspire incels or lionise his violent actions and his status as a cult hero. Because of that, people are being encouraged to boycott it. That would be premature, a disservice even. Is the Joker portrayed in a flattering light? Sure, maybe a little too positive (I actually think that in his wake of violence, his body count should include an innocent child or two; that should take that cool factor down a few notches… unless you think it's cool to kill children) but watching it means you're privy to the social issues the movie raises.
Is there a chance that certain viewers might see Arthur as the hero? Probably. But if we're savvy enough, we can see him as a cautionary tale, someone who needed help when there was no one around to help him.
But a film, like many medium, is a mirror held up against society. Maybe you'll recognise Arthur Fleck; he could be you or someone you know. Maybe you'll be empathetic to how he had ended up. Maybe there would be a dialogue raised about the issues you've watched. Who knows?
This is the film that we're presented with, now what will we do with it?
What to look out for
You can see influences of other films that Phillips put into Joker; homages that add to the world of Gotham in the 80s. Sure you can spot overt references of The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver but there are also echoes of other Batman films. Take the scene of Arthur in the back of a police car, which calls to mind The Dark Knight.
Or other references from Phillips' other films like the shop, 'Helms Pharmacy', which is a nod to Ed Helms who was in the Hangover trilogy.
Joker is out now in theatres.