Audiences have been used to seeing the Joker as the laughing clown antagonist to the heroic Batman. Now they’ve been placed in a much different film with the most iconic villain of DC Comics. Batman’s top-tier villain of the Joker has an alternate origin. In this picture, he’s not the gangster turned clowned crime lord but a mentally unstable man who loses his mind. This ain’t no Suicide Squad. There’s no hero to come save the day, no funny lines to bring levity to the darkness, and no happy ending as the villain comes to be. There’s also no cohesiveness to a film that would rather tap dance around intriguing societal ills than ever tackle them with the same professionalism in the acting. It shares many of the same problems as Batman v. Superman but does a much better job hiding it within its artful take.
A Darker Joke
What the film presents most front and center is Joaquin Phoenix in what is undeniably a fantastic performance. He plays Arthur Fleck, a man who is extremely down on luck. He works as a street clown for local businesses but receives no respect from his boss who talks down to him or the city’s residents who feel an overwhelming urge to beat on him for no reason. His mental condition causes him to burst out into laughter at inappropriate times, making social situations very hard and requiring him to hand out special cards to explain his uncontrollable habits. His mental health worker isn’t very effective in helping him cope.
The bright spots in Arthur’s life are minimal. He spends his evening caring for his ill mother (Frances Conroy) as they indulge in their favorite TV talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). In the corners of Arthur’s mind, the parts not occupied by anxiety, he has hopes of being a stand-up comedian. He has taken constant notes and has a literal dream of being a guest on Murray’s program. But his humor is secretly vulgar and blue, spread out in a notebook of morbid thoughts and cut-out pornography. His life seems to doomed by forces either outside of his control and oblivious coursing through his chaotic mindscape.
A Chaotic Gotham City
But then something changes. While dressed as a clown, Arthur becomes a target of wealthy bullies and is beaten. He fights back and kills them. The elite of Gotham views this action as an act of cowardice by the unruly poverty populace. Everyone else who isn’t attending rich public events agrees with the clown killer, recognizing the major class struggle within the city.
Arthur doesn’t see that bigger picture, merely the one in front of him. People seem to like this mystery clown and even applaud him for his murdering of the rich. Holding such power brings a certain clarity and comfort to Arthur, a level of bliss that breaks out in a dance that builds further and further into public view. His masking sheds by the picture’s end.
While Arthur’s dance of delight certainly builds, little else does in the film’s dour progression. All of the big stuff the film seems to bring up rarely addresses them past being recognized as a mere ingredient for the extra-dark Joker stew. We watch Arthur become frustrated with his financial situation but rarely is it seen affecting him past the point of being fired. No landlord bangs on his door and no tough choices are made about food.
Arthur’s meds run out without refill. Given how little the medication does, this should lead to a rapid descent into more anxiety and madness but it just seems to keep progressing at the same rate. There’s also a questioning of the class structure in how a wealthy politician/businessman is seen as both a false-hope for Arthur’s mother and a direct cause of his descending faith in humanity. All of this seems like heavy stuff but it’s treated as mere set dressing for Arthur to go mad. Consider how the class structure has to remain for the coming of the tech-heavy Batman to save the day.
The Accidental Clown
This sense of distancing from the real issues and keeping the focus on the spectacle of Arthur’s downfall creates a real gross sensation. This isn’t so much a cautionary tale as so little of what leads to Arthur’s transformation into the Joker is of his own choice. Sure, he kills people but his first murder is brought on in self-defense from people who came after him. The act is also carried out with a gun that was given to him for just such an event.
One part of his life he does seem to have control over is developing a romance with his next-door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). But their romance is, much like everything else in the film, extremely surface level. We don’t see much of a progression that may or may not be a result of the chaotic editing. What we get on screen is a woman who all but falls into Arthur’s lap with very little chemistry shown between the two.
This lack of developing a meaningful relationship makes Arthur’s rejection mean so little. She appears to be the last line of empathy in the world as someone who hasn’t deceived him. Instead, it just comes off like a self-centered individual being so blind to his own sense of self-entitlement when presented. Yes, I know there’s a twist to their relationship. But it’s so sloppy because of this lack of focus that it never comes as notable sleight of hand.
Nothing Political, Except It Is
I have a real problem with being able to recognize the Joker as a villain in the way he is portrayed in this troubling picture. His constant obliviousness to the world around him makes his descent into terror more by accident than angst. He keeps spouting he believes in nothing political. Yet he is ignorant that the statement itself is political.
In his most cringe moment, he delivers a whiny rant about subjectivity and society rejecting him. It comes off like a selfish manifesto of a terrorist more than voicing frustrations. Instead of finding the fault within Gotham, Arthur’s mental state only allows him to see the lack of empathy and refuses to address class structures and lack of healthcare funding.
This is somewhat insidious but also lazy. The film goes more for nihilism to avoid fully recognizing Arthur’s distaste for capitalism and the wealthy being corrupt. Wouldn’t want any terrible hot takes about the Joker being right.
Joker has such a bitter mixed message within its swirling mess of societal commentary that ultimately comes off as mindless as most light superhero pictures. While I’d love to applaud the film more for taking a darker path and noting more real-world problems, it’s a sad case of style over substance. From an acting perspective, I can’t deny I enjoyed watching the performances which were all in top form but more from a scene-by-scene basis of appreciation.
Those coming into the film just watch the Joker’s descent with some fine acting will most likely be impressed. But when trying to figure what the film is really saying about issues of a damaged world, I found a more frightening aspect revealed. The very act of using class struggle more like set decoration was more shocking to me than watching Joker stab someone in the neck with scissors. This is mere divergence for the sake of divergence, disguising its thin script in layers of Joker makeup.
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