The Joker is easily one of the most recognized pop culture villains of all time. His colorful personality and devious nature have elevated him to a status few other baddies can rival. Writers and actors covet the opportunity to inhabit his mind for both the fun and the prestige it allows. On the same token, fans of the character judge harshly those who fail to deliver a satisfying turn. These factors more than any other have largely played into the release of JOKER being met with both excitement and caution.
If you’re a fan of The Joker and the Batman universe, you likely have an idea in your head of how the Clown Prince’s first solo feature is going to go. I certainly did, and let me tell you right now, I was completely wrong. Every assumption I made about the narrative was quickly turned on its head within the first few minutes of the movie, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.
I didn’t think I would care for Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in the way I did. I fully expected him to be an average joe down on his luck, pushed too far by the world’s evils. Someone sympathetic, but ultimately whose identity would be inconsequential once his hair went green. Someone forgettable that the audience could project themselves into in order to play devil’s advocate, in similar fashion to the protagonist of FIGHT CLUB. Instead what I witnessed was perhaps the most grounded and sorrowful take on a comic book character that I’ve ever seen.
Arthur Fleck is not a normal man. He’s a heavily medicated oddball with a nervous and off-putting demeanor who laughs at odd things and writes ramblings in his diary. He’s the kind of person you avoid sitting next to on the bus, and get tense around when they try to talk to you. He’s someone we have all encountered before. That more than anything, is what makes this story work. We as the audience are forced to sit with something uncomfortable, and in that way, we are brought closer to Arthur. Arthur is a party-clown-for-hire who lives with his sick mother and dreams of doing stand up comedy. He wants nothing but a little recognition from his fellow man. But in a dirty, 1980’s New York inspired Gotham, he’s just another smear on the sidewalk. His coworkers tease him, his boss is overly harsh to his mistakes, and strangers who don’t outright ignore him treat him with disdain. In spite of it all, he remains a passive individual, at least on the surface. It’s a chilling experience seeing the slow demise of Arthur Fleck. Yet much like watching TITANIC, futile to hope the ship won’t hit the iceberg. Eventually he does succumb to the darkness of his soul, but in typical Joker fashion, it’s not all you’d expect.
There was a lot of media scrutiny leading up to the release of JOKER, with many fearing it would be a rallying anthem for the lonely anarchist in a time when the threat of such things is all too real and common. Upon viewing the film for myself (twice as of writing this review) I feel that may be one of the most profound examples of meta irony in pop culture I’ve ever seen. For as the narrative unfolds we are witness to the rise of a Joker who is very much, as a certain Stooge might say, “a victim of circumstance”. Arthur’s journey from miserable nobody to agent of chaos is rather incidental, with the unfolding madness of Gotham’s citizens taking place almost entirely in the background as he struggles to make sense of his life. It’s a very deliberate choice, I feel, on the film’s part to ensure we never see anarchy as glamorous. In fact, by the time Arthur finally steps out onto the world stage as Joker, it’s downright heartbreaking. In the end, JOKER is not the mad-cap romp of dark comedy and escapism one would assume, but rather a cautionary tale of what can happen when the people we ignore finally lose all hope. It’s a lesson in empathy, and it honestly struck a chord with me. It made me think about how I view those oddballs on the street who I normally walk right over, and it made me consider being a little more kind to them. I never thought I’d get that from a movie about a super-villain.
Now you may be curious as to how this holds up as a piece of Batman lore. Quite frankly I think it’s great, ironically for just how little Batman is involved. While of course the Wayne name plays an important role in the story as you’d expect, the rest of the Caped Crusader’s world is virtually invisible. You’ll find very few easter eggs, if any, while watching this film. No paper advert for The Iceberg Lounge, no green question mark graffiti splattering the subway walls, and no TV spots endorsing a district attorney. Again, this choice feels very deliberate, as if the film wants to make sure nothing distracts or pulls your attention away. It was a smart choice, and I think the right one, for a story determined to keep you focused and on edge. It also means that the view winks to the mythos we are given have that much stronger an impact.
I do hope that Warner Bros. and DC continue to experiment like this more going forward. While they have obviously struggled to find a groove with audiences in contrast to Marvel’s beloved MCU, I have a feeling the passing of AVENGERS: ENDGAME has closed the chapter for this era of comic book cinema. JOKER has proven there’s more than one way to strike gold, and I predict more moviegoers in the future will start to take notice. DC has been chided for not having a clear direction, but perhaps that was the answer all along. Instead of seeing the madness as an issue to overcome, perhaps they should smile and embrace it.
*Art by Mike McG