SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR WARNER BROS.’ NEW FILM JOKER
In order to fully enjoy Todd Phillips’ new movie, Joker, you have to put aside any ideas you might have that it’s a prequel to any sort of Joker anything that you’re aware of. It isn’t.
I’m looking at this movie as a sort of alternate reality project that’s taking the idea of a character that is well-known and exploring a different way of using said character. If you know your DC comics, then you know that’s pretty much what their Elseworlds imprint did for years and to me this is basically an Elseworlds Joker movie.
You might, as you’re out and about on the internet, see people mention the bizarre concept of “Joker’s origin”. Thye might claim that there is one and that this story of a man named Arthur Fleck isn’t it. Those people are wrong – there has never been a definitive Joker origin, though many writers have presented possibilities or suggestions. The most widely adopted origin is probably the one in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. While that’s a fantastic story and the original presented is compelling and believable, the origin and, indeed, the entire story occupy shaky ground in DC continuity.
But people like it, so they adopt it.
I’m all for as many variations on characters as creators want to provide, as long as there’s a certain amount of clarity as to where they each fall in current canon. In my opinion Warner Bros. and company did the best job they possibly could at emphasizing Joker’s uniqueness and standalone (for the time being, anyway) nature.
I was excited for this movie, mostly because of Joaquin Phoenix. That guy can act. But I was also excited because I felt like it was a bold decision for Warner Bros. to strike out in a new direction with their DC Comics characters. I didn’t necessarily believe they had found a new path to success, but at least they recognized that what they were doing wasn’t working. Something fresh and new might not be great, but at least it would be free of expectations tied to the existing film franchises.
Was what Joker delivered worth diverging from the set course or should WB have stuck to their guns? Read on and find out!
1 – Bright Phoenix – I almost just didn’t devote a spot to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance because it was the one thing that seemed guaranteed, regardless of the quality of the rest of the film.
I had to talk about this performance, though.
Phoenix is one of those performers that you cannot take your eyes off of. His devotion to character is top-notch, with every second counting for something. That characteristic is especially important in Joker, as there are stretches where the movie has very deliberate pacing and if another actor were in the lead role the audience’s attention might wander. But Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck does not allow that to happen. Even in quiet, low-key moments he is a character that demands full attention.
Much of that is due to Phoenix’s physicality. Even when he is not dancing – which, by the way, he is for much of his screen time – his movements are rhythmic and entrancing. Whether tapping his foot in a doctor’s office or applying greasepaint, there’s a calculated energy in everything he does.
And when he is dancing it’s a confounding mix of movements that are at once balletic ad frenzied. This dancing occurs when Fleck is at the crescendo of his moods; as he goes through tumultuous ups and downs over the course of the film. By the time the final, exultant, full-on Joker dance at the end of the film the audience has come to recognize when it is time for Arthur to let loose and what it means when he does. It’s a brilliant storytelling device within a deceptively subtle film, and I’ll attribute it to Joaquin Phoenix.
Arthur Fleck is not a hero. He’s barely a protagonist. While this movie certainly wants the audience to feel some degree of sympathy for him, it also establishes that, while he is mentally ill, he has the agency to make the evil decisions that he makes. His condition affects him, but it does not rule him. I think there’s a fine line there and for me Joker tread it well. But I would be curious to know what actual trained professionals think of the movie. I’m not saying it’s an accurate portrayal of mental illness or anything, but I do feel that it did the work to differentiate a villain from a victim.
2 – Bits and Pieces – Joker doesn’t utilize any single “origin”, but instead pulls a few scenes and moments from various Joker stories over the years. None of these feel gratuitous; they’re simply touchstones to reward the more informed members of the audience.
Fleck’s attempts at stand-up comedy strongly resemble scenes depicted in the aforementioned The Killing Joke. There’s a moment at the end pulled directly from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Rises, where Joker makes a show of kissing a sex therapist.
3 – What Needs to Happen – There are a few times when the movie jumps to plot points in a manner that seems less than honest and things happened in very convenient ways without the burden of actually telling the story.
Bruce Wayne just happens to be playing, unsupervised, right next to the laughably low walls surrounding Wayne Manor when Arthur decides he wants to pay Thomas Wayne a visit. It’s very unlikely, but I went with it because the circumstances surrounding the scene are so outrageous that I was hooked.
Similarly, despite being a wanted man, being pursued by authorities, then hit by a car, Arthur is backstage at Murray Franklin’s talk show when he needs to be.
There’s a lot of convenient timing in the film, but the progression of the plot and the storytelling are so engaging that I was able to wave the contrivances away.
4 – The Reality of My Surroundings – My favorite tricks that the movie pulled involved pulling the rug out from under the audience or playing with how we received information.
Even though I warned of spoilers at the beginning, I’ll do it here again:
My two favorite moments from the film involved massive revelations that changed everything we thought we knew about what was happening.
The first involves Arthur’s relationship with a neighbor in his apartment complex, Sophie Dumond played by Zazie Beetz.
We see what appears to be a quick and unlikely romance play out over the middle portion of the film. Sophie takes to Arthur’s weirdness in a way that’s, again, somewhat reminiscent of The Killing Joke. In that story the unnamed character who would go on to become the Joker is married to woman who frequently reassures him that she thinks he is funny. There’s an element of that to the relationship between Arthur and Sophie.
Over the course of Arthur’s personal tragedies we see that Sophie is his anchor, comforting him through a difficult stand-up performance, job issues, and his mother’s stroke and subsequent hospitalization.
But then, in one of the best-executed twists I’ve seen, the movie reveals that this entire relationship is in Arthur’s head and Sophie barely even knows his name. It’s a scene that is both gut-wrenching and terrifying, as we don’t know what the result of this revelation will be. And looking back, I’m still not sure. But I fear the worst.
I had minor issues with the relationship as it went along, because it seemed to me that Beetz’s Sophie became emotionally invested in Arthur far too quickly. But I’ve seen relationships in films established on flimsy premises before, so I went with it. Fortunately the filmmakers behind Joker knew exactly how much audience belief they had to play with and used it right up to the end, when a dejected Arthur enters Sophie’s apartment for comfort only to have her nervously ask who he is and what he’s doing there, sending an almost painful shiver up my spine as the plot point became clear.
I think this twist was so effective because it worked in service of the narrative and not the other way around, as such things often do. The same story could have been told without that massive moment; it didn’t change the events, merely our perception of them.
5 – Brothers Gotta Smile – The other major twist that I loved was a little easier to see coming. Or rather, I knew something wasn’t kosher, but the movie had so successfully planted seeds and doubts that there was no way of knowing where, exactly, the pieces would fall.
Early in the movie we are introduced to the idea that Arthur might be Thomas Wayne’s son. More on Wayne later.
Arthur’s mother, played by the incredible Frances Conroy, has been sending letters to Thomas Wayne on a regular basis. She worked for him years ago and thinks that he’s a good man who would be willing to help her and her son with their dire financial straits.
As these threads come together, you wonder if the movie is really going to pull the “Bruce’s illegitimate brother” trigger and if it’s ballsy or just stupid. By the time we get to the payoff, the movie has fully shown its balls, so I had no idea which way they were going to go.
It turns out that not only is Arthur not Thomas Wayne’s son, he isn’t even his mother’s son! Arthur was adopted by his mother, who turned out to herself be mentally ill and allowed her boyfriend at the time to abuse her and Arthur pretty horribly. Once the authorities intervened to find Arthur chained to the radiator, beaten and malnourished, his mother was sent to Arkham State Hospital for Crazypants Individuals.
Arthur had been repressing all of this and it’s a heck of a one-two-three narrative punch because all he was trying to determine was if Thomas Wayne was his father. Everything else is a landslide of misery.
6 – One Bad Day – Another theme lifted from The Killing Joke (did Moore get a writing credit for this? If not, I look forward to his ire) is that all it takes is “one bad day” to drive a normal man insane. Arthur actually speaks those three exact words at one point during the film.
Now, Arthur Fleck is hardly presented as a normal or average man, but from his perspective – which is how we’re seeing events unfold – he is a normal man and very much a victim of this black, awful joke of a world. And he certainly has a bad day. The worst.
He is assaulted, kills three people, loses his job, finds out his girlfriend is only his girlfriend in his head, gets mocked by the only father figure he has on live TV, thinks a billionaire is his dad and then finds out not only is he not his dad but that he’s adopted and his mom is fruit loop bonkers, and kills a co-worker in front of a little person.
I think there’s more, but isn’t that enough, really?
7 – No Laughing Matter – Oh, RIGHT! I almost forgot – Arthur has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times, complete with a little disability card to hand to strangers to explain.
When this first occurred I thought it might be dumb. I was pretty sure it was dumb. But the movie doesn’t use it as a gimmick. It’s a narrative device and one aspect of Arthur’s illness. By the end of the movie it felt like a crucial part of his character and not just some dumb, “He laughs, so he’s gonna be a JOKER, GET IT?” thing.
Plus, Phoenix’s portrayal of the affliction is so effective that you pretty quickly banish the thought that it’s a corny affectation. Arthur is clearly suffering through every chuckle and guffaw.
8 – Oh, Right – Gotham – This movie didn’t have to be a comic book movie. It’s a very good psychological crime thriller (I guess?) in the vein of Taxi Driver, just like the filmmakers said it would be. It’s actually a bit of a shock at times when you hear things like “Gotham City” and “Thomas Wayne” reminding you that this is, indeed a universe where one day a man in a bat suit will punch a man in a scarecrow costume.
9 – Wayne’s World – Here’s where a good portion of the necessity to see this as an alternate reality from what we’re used to comes in – Thomas Wayne is a dick.
Now, apparently your personal perception may vary, but in my eyes Wayne is a Trump analog, and there’s no way for me to take that other than he’s a less-than-virtuous character.
Bruce Wayne’s parents have most often been portrayed as honorable and heroic. It’s typically a critical part of why Bruce Wayne’s circumstances are so tragic. He didn’t lose a couple of distant, tyrannical megalomaniacs – he lost two loving parents who basically qualified for sainthood. As a matter of fact, some tellings even suggest that their deaths coincided with the downfall of Gotham City.
This one does, too, as a matter of fact, but there’s a different spin on that.
The Thomas Wayne of Joker, as played by Brett Cullen, comes off more like a mob boss. While there’s never a suggestion of actual criminal activity, Wayne is gruff and pompous in a way that this character rarely, if ever, is. He talks down to the people of Gotham. He has no compassion for the clearly troubled young man who approaches with questions about his past; as a matter of fact, he punches him in the face.
His bid for the office of mayor comes across more as a power play and less a noble act to save his city. He honestly doesn’t seem that interested in actually becoming mayor until the press gets ahold of the “kill the rich” concept and sets the citizens of Gotham against one another.
10 – THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY – I mentioned that Joker has some very deliberate pacing, and that’s true, but once things kick off they really get going.
In a scene that feels inspired by the real-life Bernard Goetz story, three employees of Wayne Enterprises assault Arthur on a subway and he ends up murdering them with a pistol. This sets the protests in Gotham City into motion, but is not actually where Joker relay comes out.
That happens later when the man who gave Arthur the pistol pays a visit. Supposedly he’s there to offer condolences for Arthur’s mother, who has been hospitalized, but he’s really pumping him for information about the shooting and how much the police have been told.
By this time Arthur is suspicious of everyone, so before the guy can even finish talking he’s stabbed in the eye with scissors.
And then the neck, and then the neck again, then the back, then maybe the neck again, then Arthur grabs him and slams his head into the doorframe maybe fifty, sixty times and the audience is like, “WHOA WHAT THE FUCK” because we just were not quite ready for that shit yet.
Arthur then lets the little person who witnessed the murder leave because he had always been nice to him. But not without messing with the poor guy a little bit.
After that we’re off to the races and the final portion of the movie just keeps ramping up the intensity. With all of the precedents for unpredictability and even outright deception, the audience feels so unsettled and unsure of anything that the final act, though inevitable, almost comes as a surprise.
That, to me, was some strong storytelling and deft weaving of a narrative. It’s hard to surprise me these days and while I saw everything that happened in the last part of the movie as a possibility, I truly didn’t know how things would end up.
11 – Wayne Mourner – Joker pulls off some amazingly ballsy stuff. By the time the finale comes around, I as an audience member was ready for just about anything, up to and including Arthur himself murdering Thomas and Martha Wayne.
I know, I know – that’s absurd. It would be completely ridiculous for a film to suggest that Joker, of all people, murdered Batman’s parents, right?
(Tim Burton and Sam Hamm would like to have a word with you)
That’s not what happened. Not directly, at least. We again get that alternate reality thing in that one of the criminals inspired by Arthur’s activities follow the Waynes into an alley and, well, you know the rest.
Yes. It is absolutely absurd that the Waynes chose to go and see Zorro the Gay Blade (and excellent film and time-appropriate for the movie) on a night when there were riots all over Gotham City. But that’s the kind of stuff that this movie earned a bit of hand-waving from me for by being very, very good in other ways.
I didn’t realize how much I liked this movie until I was telling the missus about it.
Due to some extenuating circumstances I wasn’t necessarily in the right frame of mind while I was actually watching the movie, but afterwards I realized it had engaged me much more than I had realized. Because of that and because a few days full of life stuff separate this review from the movie, I might have jumped around a bit and missed things, but hopefully I got some points across.
The main point is that I feel like Joker accomplished something cool and different in an environment where we don’t see as much of that as I’d like.
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