Movie Review : Joker (2019)
* This is a pretty thorough review featuring mild spoilers *
It’s been a while since a movie freaked people out before release like Joker did. Although it was showered with praise through its entire festival run, allusions to incel culture and alarming comments by director Todd Phillips created a moral panic around the movie’s release and real fear of another Batman-related theater shooting. So, I HAD to see Joker. I’m a Batman enthusiast, so I had to see it even before that and it already scared me for reasons unrelated to public safety. But Joker is very good. It’s not the masterpiece promised in Venice, but it’s original and daring nonetheless.
It’s also kind of harmless. But only kind of.
Joker boldly offers an origin story for a character who never needed one to be terrifying. In this iteration, he’s named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man suffering from a debilitating disorder that prompts him to laugh uncontrollably whenever he’s nervous or upset. Arthur works for a clown-for-hire company and cherishes dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. He’s going through life marginally, taking care of his unwell mother (Frances Conroy) until a series of traumatic events usher him into a world of violence and sparks a social uproar he doesn’t understands or cares for.
I don’t remember a movie before Joker that features a protagonist that is (physically and philosophically) unseductive, uninteresting, mentally ill and so profoundly unhappy without offering him a redemption of some sort. It’s a heartbreaking movie in its own way because there’s no way out for Arthur Fleck, except institutionalization and back in 1981 (the setting of the movie), de-institutionalization was a thing: in Reagan’s America, psychiatric patients were put on the streets and left to fend for themselves. Arthur tries to create something positive with his life and turns to violence when he fails. That’s where… yes, he’ll actualize himself. But please, read the following paragraph before prepping the torches and pitchforks.
The Joker is an alter ego created by Arthur, who would revel in the mockery and humiliation he suffered. It’s born from two occurrences: 1) the first time Arthur resorted to violence and 2) the worse possible humiliation he faced. He’s a nihilistic construction based on the idea that not a thing matters if you don’t let it. That every problem can be resolved with a recourse to extreme violence. No, the movie doesn’t lionize this violence like certain critics say. Arthur doesn’t turn into a criminal mastermind overnight and the violence he exerts has no existential meaning. It’s the people of Gotham who lionize his action and construct meaning from them, although Arthur is clearly brittle and unstable.
One thing I really enjoyed in Joker was the radical reinterpretation of the entire Batman lore. It’s not just a Joker origin story, it reinvents everything and does it quite well, I might add. In Joker, there’s a rational explanation for everything, ranging from his hatred of the Wayne family to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. It’s so surgical, that it sometimes feels like a Netflix documentary explaining the truth behind an urban legend. It’s perhaps the strongest thing Joker has to offer. A radical modernization of DC Comics’ monolithic caped crusader.
I’d take… welp, other Todd Phillips movies set in Batman universe?
Of course, I wouldn’t write a Joker review without addressing the slew of criticism the movie faced over the last couple weeks. It faced an impressive amount of unfair backlash. No, it’s not a movie about an incel turning to a life of crime because he can’t bone his neighbor (the sasstastic Zazie Beetz). He doesn’t try to kiss her. He doesn’t make a move. He’s just being very creepy around her because he’s mentally ill. No, Joker doesn’t lionize violence. It exposes it as grotesque, meaningless and only romanticized by opportunistic ideologues.
Could it be misinterpreted? Sure. Could it inspire young incels to violence? Sure. But so did Scarface and The Dark Knight. Joker is not more morally reprehensible than these two. But it’s a little more rotten than John Wick indeed. Sorry, Todd Phillips!
Joker is not a masterpiece like the Venice Film Festival triumph sold it. It doesn’t have the emotional nuance to be. Arthur Fleck gets hit with absolutely every terrible ordeal and he’s not granted a single moment of clarity. The ending monologue is jumbled, pathetic and deprived of a revelation moment. But it’s not a bore, an exercise in shallowness or a danger to society, like it’s been made out to be. It’s a very interesting modern reinterpretation of the entire Batman lore. What it lacks in nuance, Joker makes for in originality and boldness. It’s very much worth seeing.