These are just my thoughts on Joker, a movie I didn’t think needed to get made in the first place.
Now, from reading the sentence above, you might think I hate the Joker or that I don’t feel a Joker story should be told. That’s a fair assumption, but it’s incorrect.
I love the Joker. How could I not? Here’s a character that embodies the chaos that lives within us all. Time and time again, he’s pit against the world’s greatest detective and his allies, and yet always has an ace up his sleeve and at least makes it interesting to figure out if his unpredictability comes from madness or genius.
Which is why I knew I wouldn’t like Todd Phillips’ Joker. Because this film embodies none of the traits that so define its protagonist.
Set in 1981’s
New York Gotham City, the film tells the story of one Arthur Fleck, who lives with his mother in a rundown part of the city and struggles with a mental condition that forces him to laugh uncontrollably whenever he feels nervous or socially uncomfortable.
The movie’s plot is a straight and narrow path, a fuse that gets shorter as our broken leading man begins to fight back against the many abusive situations he experiences, until the seemingly inevitable happens and he turns into the character we expect him to become.
Before I go any further, I have to applaud that the movie at least tries to tell a different origin story than the classic mobster falling in a vat of chemicals and losing his mind in the process. In fact, the Ace Chemicals factory is nowhere to be seen in the few aerial shots of the city we get before the end credits roll.
Joker is so close to the ground and focused on showing us a low-level view of its world, that it seems like this version of Gotham is solely and exclusively built to be crappy in every regard to its denizens, the kind of place where a guy like Arthur is almost guaranteed to become a homicidal maniac.
But that’s the thing. We never really get to see how this change happens because when the movie begins Arthur is already well on his way to becoming mentally unstable. The film has already made the choice of turning him crazy for him, so all that’s left is for us as an audience to witness how far (or fast) down the rabbit hole he’ll go.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the shit out of the character, there’s no arguing that. When I saw the trailer, I thought he was just basing his mannerisms and demeanor on Heath Ledger’s legendary performance in The Dark Knight, but once the movie took off it was clear the man did his homework and etched his own version of the Clown Prince of Crime, or a pleasantly insane prototype of that at worst.
And yet, a movie isn’t just one actor’s performance. Todd Phillips borrows every trick in the gangster film and crime drama rule books to depict a very gritty and realistic take on one of the most corrupt fictional crime cities in comic books. It’s great.
You have to wonder if Warner Bros. chose Todd Phillips as a sort of pun to imply that a comedy director can also make sad movies that put a smile on your face? I digress.
Joker has all the trappings of a solid piece of cinematography and yet, it feels empty because its plot represents the main character only at a surface level. It doesn’t teach us anything we didn’t already know about the Joker, nor does it explore a previously unseen aspect of the character in the way other recent stories like Batman: White Knight or Dark Nights: Metal did.
For an origin story, I was expecting more nuance.
Strong arguments have been made around the internet about how the film faithfully depicts how society treats mental illness in general, but I’d like to posit that Joker could work so much better as a study of this reality if it weren’t attached to a fictional comic book character and all the baggage that entails.
The fact this film could not help itself and had to drag not just Bruce Wayne’s parents’ deaths (yet again), but even include an entire scene where Arthur draws a smile on the would-be-hero’s face with his fingers is Hollywood pandering at its purest and a testament to how Joker can’t really be whole and meaningful unless some part of Batman, however small, is present in its creation.
This is a movie about a villain, and yet a villain without a hero is just a bully, which makes me feel this film’s protagonist is the kind of regular-ass thug the Joker I know would laugh at.