I was very interested in the Joker film, even if I didn’t rush out to theaters on opening-day for the Todd Phillips directed film. Maybe it’s because, as interested as I was, interest doesn’t always result in enthusiasm or expectation. I fondly regard my memories awaiting The Dark Knight film, seeing it on its opening weekend Saturday because the local theater was overcapacity for the superhero blockbuster. The superhero-industry was very different back then. The Marvel Cinematic Universe hadn’t run roughshod across the cinematic world and DC films weren’t in a state of repair from critical misses like Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, or critical and financial disasters like Justice League. After the initial installments in the DC Extended Universe, I was convinced that Warners Bros. had learned all of the wrong lessons from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, failing to capture its influence beyond the surface-level grit. The Dark Knight succeeded through the way it blended other genres and etched out something unique for itself.
The Joker film felt like the first honest evolution of that formula. The film shows Gotham as corrupt and broken, with as many criminals in high-society as on the street. Through the success of Logan and Deadpool, the film sees Joaquin Phoenix portray the Clown Prince of Crime in an R-rated film. All of it had my attention, but I was skeptical. One of the beauties in The Dark Knight film was the way Heath Ledger’s Joker “appeared” out of scenic nowhere and started to wreak havoc. My response to the film’s initial reveal could best be described as lukewarm, recalling Jared Leto‘s outing as The Joker and how much credibility DC films had lost with me over the years. Whether it be on film or the acclaimed Arkham game series, I’ve always appreciated The Joker whose origin story was multiple choice. This film offers a backstory on the Joker character, a tricky tightrope to walk, to say the least, but is it up to the task?
If you were to ask Warners Bros., they’d say Joker was a resounding success for them. The critical reception was mixed-to-positive, however, the box office strength was fantastic. Joker successfully out-grossed The Dark Knight (not accounting for inflation) and did so with nearly one-third the budget. 2019 was an important year for the DC brand. January still rode the wave (no pun intended) from Aquaman‘s breakout success in late-2018, and although Shazam didn’t reach the dizzying heights of that film, its critical reception did a lot to right the ship for the brand. Separated from the DC Extended Universe brand, Joker is more of an experimental film. It’s a lot more cut-throat and violent, and was allowed to take a lot more risks than the more mainstream, family-friendly helpings you can expect from the larger brand.
Joker follows a young-man named Arthur Fleck who suffers from mental illness and feels like he has been ignored by society as a whole. Arthur has aspirations to be a stand-up comedian, despite his illness, which includes a head trauma that makes him laugh uncontrollably, often in serious situations, and his soft, timid nature. He cares for his mother, as well, who has her own problems ailing her. The film largely sees him react to the world around him, offering his own perceptions and forming into an imagining of The Joker we’re familiar with.
The film is inspired by many different crimes movies, especially ones directed by devout superhero super-fan Martin Scorsese like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
Mental illness is a touchy subject. Some people might even think the superhero genre may not have the foundations to deal with such a subject. One of the largest worries many people had about Joker was that it would try to make you empathize with the nihilistic clown, although Warner Bros. assured moviegoers that it wouldn’t.
After having watched the film, however, I will definitely say that the film does, in-fact, offer an empathetic perspective on the titular character. Whether that offends you or not is subjective, but I can’t imagine not feeling at least a little bad for Arthur Fleck and his situation. Every other scene it seems like something bad is happening to him that it’s difficult not to want to see him overcome and seek out his own form of vigilante justice. Now, this isn’t meant to justify any crime his character might commit, but you can at least see it wasn’t a random act of cruelty that couldn’t have been prevented in some way. It doesn’t make us monsters for empathizing or trying to understand why people do bad things, in-fact, it’s one of the variables that sets us apart from them. I respect the bravado of the film showing an unhinged and unrelenting representation of its a character that needed to be unhinged in an unrelenting world.
This isn’t to say the film isn’t without occasional missteps and things I would have tightened or believe could have been executed in a different way. Something I was worried about heading into the film was that it’d feel like a prime example of something, and thereby, come off like it’s trying too hard. When Rob Zombie remade the Halloween movies, one of the most major complaints is that it took away the mystery of Michael Myers and reduced him to a dime-store origin story. The appeal of Michael Myers was that he was evil incarnate and, in a similar way, I believe the appeal of Joker has always been the way he encapsulates nihilism and anarchy. Seeing Michael Myers’ dysfunctional family and his troubled school-life, watching him abuse animals, all of it felt a little like they wanted to set everything in a very neat, tidy fashion. In The Killing Joke, an influence for Joker, it’s said that anyone can snap because of one very bad day, and that, in itself, is an interesting idea. The challenge is to make it feel organic and, as said, like it isn’t trying too hard.
I believe Joker offers more nuance than I feared, but it can still feel over-the-top on some occasions. Elements can feel cliched and, beat-by-beat, it doesn’t feel like I’m often surprised by the plot-elements as they unfold. I know everything’s on a descend. The film’s sense of self-importance may, at times, even feel unearned for those uninitiated in the character or the Batman myths. Although it’s among the most rewarding scenes in the film, the final scenes can feel particularly loud and epic-scale, in a film that felt quieter and more conservative. I believe the film could have ended about twenty-or-so minutes sooner and been more effective as a self-contained film. Although, I think the last twenty-or-so minutes represent a lot of the “superhero” genre in this film, always looking ahead and leaving ways to expand.
What I like best about Joker, however, is the way everything descends. Joaquin Phoenix kills it as The Joker in nearly every scene, capturing a soft-spoken, loud-thinker, and is able to shift from sympathetic to a maddening threat on a dime. I think Heath Ledger has become the measuring-stick for which all Jokers before and after are compared, and as much as I love Ledger’s portrayal, I sincerely believe Phoenix has given him a real run for his money as far as live-action portrayals are concerned (Hamill, you’re my number one).
Although I never was surprised by any scene in-particular, I was almost always surprised by the way it played out, either from the way it was shot, the reservedness of the camera-work, the ugliness of the violence as it was portrayed, or the black-humor it displayed. The film carries the influences of Martin Scorsese as a badge of honor, even if the director himself might be among its loudest naysayers, and I think it does so in a way that allows it breathing room and identity as well.
I enjoyed Joker a lot. It doesn’t escape criticism, but it does offer an engrossing superhero-genre film. I enjoy the genre itself unabashedly and a lot. I enjoyed seeing the Avengers pit themselves against Thanos and, even if they aren’t commentaries on the real-world, I don’t think that demerits them. Storytelling is meant to be imaginative and doesn’t have to have any elements of the real world in-order to justify it’s worth or prove its heart and soul. Still, it’s also nice when it does offer commentaries on the real-world, bringing things down to the ground-level. Joker is my favorite film received by DC since the Nolan Trilogy and is exactly what I’d like to see more from the brand moving forward.