I hardly ever see a movie in theaters, but Joker was a rare instance of me feeling compelled to see a movie in the theaters. Do not be mistaken thinking otherwise: the platinum standard for comic book movies is The Dark Knight not any of these cookie cutter Marvel movies. Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker also set a platinum standard, one Jared Leto failed to come close to. Today, I want to set the record straight and say that Joaquin Phoenix held his own as a formidable Joker in a movie that relied on him to covey the character in a most realistic light. This will be a spoiler free review.
Joker is not the first attempt to dive into the origins of the character. The movie most closely resembled Batman: The Killing Joke. In that movie, the Joker is a failed comic driven to insanity by an extremely bad day. Similarly, in this story we see a man, Arthur Fleck, who begins the movie with obvious mental illness and ultimately descends into villainy. Throughout the movie, we follow the mind of Arthur Fleck. He is early on established as an unreliable narrator. This writing strategy is employed masterfully by Todd Phillips. The viewer is quickly introduced to the idea that not everything that is taking place is really taking place. This allows for not only levity but also an extra discomfort. The demise of Arthur Fleck is performed with multiple mysteries that are captivating as Arthur Fleck is constantly getting the rug pulled out from underneath him, destroying his identity and his world. Yet with all of this insight into the mind of the Joker, he is not portrayed as an antihero, rather he is understood.
These mysteries put him in an intersection with Thomas Wayne, Murray Franklin, Arkham Hospital, and Gotham City Police. The story is deeply entrenched in the source material. In the beginning, Gotham City is a complete dump. It’s lack of trash removal has led to a Baltimore level outbreak of super rats. It’s worth noting that in Batman lore, Thomas and Martha Wayne are held to be benevolent figures. In Joker, the Waynes are portrayed in a rather plain light because the perspective is that of the Arthur Fleck and the world around him which after a Bernhard Goetz style scene is eager to ramp up their Jacobinism.
And this is where the film became hated by the American left. The film felt extremely real, in large part because of how historically inspired Gotham City was. Aside from a clear reference to the aforementioned vigilante, the world of Gotham was thrown into deep political disarray resembling the riots inner cities in America have suffered from. But Arthur Fleck, despite arguably being an incel, is an undeniable victim. Like many others in the film, he forgot he had white privilege. In addition to intersectionality having nothing to do with people’s victimhood, the movie delivers a scathing critique of Jacobinism while also making clear the disconnect of the rich and powerful with the rest of society. The message is solidified by the end of the movie where the clowns are holding up “Resist” signs while acting like Antifa. Despite the obvious statements about contemporary society, Joker, again, signals a strong respect for the lore, as the plot of Batman Begins was the people of Gotham being so retched that Ra’s al Guhl wants to destroy it. Thomas Wayne merely delayed his plans. In Todd Phillip’s rendition of Gotham City, total depravity is fully activated.
And with all this said, the Joker himself is extremely apolitical the entire time. This is in large part because of the disconnect between him and any other person in the film. The man is desperate for a human connection, he never receives nor goes far to obtain. It’s critical to note the performances in the movie. Joaquin Phoenix wrote a textbook on acting performance. The viewer is made uncomfortable with the lengths he puts his physical body through to become Arthur Fleck, who is extremely underweight for his stature. Robert De Niro once more proved he can play a complicated character after a series of questionable movies roles. Perhaps all his time on late night television was research for his role as Murray Franklin. The movie also bared similarity to Taxi Driver.
There’s a lot to say about this movie. The symbolism of stairs, the excellent soundtrack, and the multiple allusions to other Batman canons that the film ultimately chooses to differ from. This is the first serious cinematic movie written and directed by Todd Phillips, and all I can say is: more. This movie is a dark thrilling drama, and I give my highest recommendations. Joker is a resounding success because of perfect use of the unreliable narrator paired with the upmost respect for Batman lore. This was then combined with stunning execution on all fronts.