Where does one begin with a film like Joker? When I first saw the trailers for it, I was not impressed. It looked like an indie arthouse movie to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with indie arthouse movies, but coming from a big studio like Warner Bros. with a major DC character like the Joker, it seemed so unnecessarily pretentious. Like it was trying too hard to be edgy. While I like Joaquin Phoenix, I even scoffed at the thought of him being the centerpiece of this “hip” Joker. It felt lame.
And no offense to DC fans, but outside of a few bright spots like Wonder Woman, DC has become lame. At least its movie and TV shows have. The Justice League movie? Lame. Super Girl? Lame. Live-action Teen Titans? Lame. Suicide Squad? Interesting, but lame. Shazam? Well, it wasn’t bad – but yes, still lame by today’s standards.
It wasn’t always this way. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy re-wrote the book on what ‘comic book’ movies were capable of. Those films were anything but lame, which is hard to pull off with a crime-fighting protagonist dressed in a rubber bat suit.
Still, The Dark Knight was released over a decade ago. Enough time has passed that I almost forgot how I also scoffed when Heath Ledger was originally announced to take on the role of the Joker back then. Like Ledger before him, Joaquin Phoenix has left me gobsmacked with his performance as the titular villain. I won’t say which actor is better than the other in the role. They both set out to accomplish different things and made the roles their own in different ways. But the fact Phoenix’s turn as the Joker can even be seriously referenced in the same sentence as Ledger’s tells you all you need to know.
In fact, Phoenix has left me a bit conflicted because I honestly don’t know if the film would’ve worked without him. The script is good, but it’s not particularly groundbreaking. Sure, there are enough twists involved to keep it from being entirely predictable. It’s a serviceable yarn. But Phoenix is the magic sauce that brings it to life and makes it work as well as it does. He’s in 98% of the movie, which has a 2 hour runtime, so it’s a testament to his acting skills that he can almost single-handedly carry the entire feature. He presents the believably progressive descent into madness of failed comedian Arthur Fleck who eventually becomes the homicidal maniac Joker.
The direction of Joker is also well-executed by Todd Phillips, who ironically was most well-known for comedy films like The Hangover before this. With Joker, he has created the best live-action version of the city of Gotham yet. The city feels real, but also feels like a place where even ridiculous Arkham Asylum tenants like The Penguin could conceivably exist with some character tweaks.
Speaking of character tweaks, there have been a lot of detractors complaining that the Joker shouldn’t have an origin story. That he should always be a madman with a mysterious background – no more, no less. The assumption is that explaining the Joker takes away from his appeal.
I understand the argument, but it doesn’t really hold water. For one, if you want a chaotic Joker with no background story, you already have one with Heath Ledger’s aforementioned spellbinding performance. That was the pinnacle iteration of that version of the Joker. And that minimalist approach worked there because he wasn’t front and center of that movie for 2 hours.
If you still insist on a more black-and-white interpretation of the character without any gray, you also have Jared Leto’s version in Suicide Squad. Or if you really prefer that style, Cesar Romero’s campy take on the character in the 1960s Batman TV series. The point is, the world is big enough for many different kinds of Jokers, and we already have plenty of live-action portrayals that lack any nuance. Arguably, this is the first time the character has been given any layers of nuance in a live-action setting.
While I appreciate the crazier and more impulsive madness of previous Jokers, I also enjoy villains with a backstory. I like watching villains slowly morph from normal to monstrous, like the mild-mannered Walter White in Breaking Bad eventually becoming the evil Heisenburg. Everyone has both positive and negative potential within them, and it’s important to understand that.
However, I agree that it’s also important not to sympathize with the villain too much. Especially one like the Joker. You don’t want to excuse, or worse yet, glorify his actions. Imagine the real-life serial killers Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. I don’t want to sympathize with them. They’re irredeemable monsters.
But honestly, I don’t feel like Phillips’ Joker does that. Even if it did, the Joker is not Homolka and Bernardo. He is not a placeholder for whatever real-life villain you think he is. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ villain.
Do I feel sorry for him at times? Yeah. Is there plenty of blame to go around in the experiences that shape him throughout the film? Definitely. Does that even once make me relate to him or forgive his behavior? Absolutely not. Once he crosses that point of no return, there is no going back in my book. No redemption. Not in this life, anyway. If you think there is, that’s your problem that you brought to the table.
While the film is violent and certainly earns its mature rating (definitely do not let your kids watch this), it wasn’t as violent as most other R-rated features – it doesn’t even come close to Quentin Tarantino’s work. To further put things into perspective, it wasn’t even as violent as other R-rated comic book features like Deadpool. If you’re worried about violence looking cool, Deadpool should be a far bigger concern than Joker. Not that I’m concerned about Deadpool either, I’m just saying.
Part of the reason some people are having a more visceral reaction to Joker is because unlike Deadpool, it doesn’t desensitize you to the violence. It takes itself very seriously, and it picks its moments wisely. While not being as over the top as other films, the deaths in Joker have more impact because of the way the film treats them. I think that’s a good thing though. Too many movies make it easy to feel comfortable while you chomp away at your popcorn detached from the disturbing imagery on screen. Joker doesn’t let you off easy. You have to confront the imagery and its consequences. It holds up the proverbial mirror to society better than any other film in recent memory. That will make some viewers uncomfortable, but… that’s art.
I understand the point of the detractors though, and I will agree with them somewhat. There is a brief scene where the Joker dances to the ‘Hey Song’ after committing a violent crime. Honestly, it was the only point of the film where I felt like they came dangerously close to glorifying him. That song should have been cut, it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film and it sends the wrong message. A message that I don’t think was intended at all because I never got that vibe anywhere else in the film. I got the exact opposite vibe overall.
In the end, Joker achieves everything it set out to do and possibly more. By the end of the movie, I wanted to see more. I want the story to continue, because the world Phoenix and Phillips have developed is so rich and full of potential that it’d be a shame if this is merely a one-off. Send in the clowns indeed.