Who is the Joker? It’s a loaded question. The Joker is a mysterious force, a compelling comic-book villain with no history or name. There are multiple origin stories for him and not one of them is definitive; he is identified solely as Batman’s archenemy and a freak that wears clown makeup and wreaks havoc with chaotic enterprises and laughter. Todd Philips (The Hangover movies, War Dogs, Old School) attempts to portray the Joker’s history and humanity on screen for the first time, borrowing heavily, as everyone knows by this point, from Scorsese gems Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as well as Lumet’s Network and Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Joker matches The Dark Knight in its realism, grittiness, and boldness but not in its hope for Gotham. Where Nolan’s Gotham shows Heath Ledger’s Joker that it’s full of people ready to believe in good, Philips’ Gotham is desperately searching for good people and according to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, there is none. After watching Joker, you’re liable to long for the optimism of the The Dark Knight. Even though the Joker does win in Nolan’s film too, it’s only Batman that takes the fall and not the people of Gotham. In Joker, Arthur Fleck (his name) and the oppressed citizens of Gotham win while the elite, who are also guilty, are scolded and punished, some even killed (Thomas Wayne, in front of his son Bruce). Hell, you even long for Ledger’s Joker, who was actually intelligent and conniving while Phoenix’s scrawny, circus-body-twisting Joker is an isolated, self-pitying loser. However, he is mentally ill, even writing in his unsettling journal relatable things like “the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as though you don’t,” and alas, besides having a name and a mother, the Joker’s humanity has never been more evident. Unfortunately, the world is too much for him, too hard on him and when the final straw is finally unleashed, the only thing left for him to do is stir the pot of chaos and very intense violence. But he doesn’t care about watching the world burn, he just wants to be noticed, to be seen and while the world does start burning because of him, he takes joy in it.
What’s interesting about Joker is that it’s not unique in its mediocrity. There are a countless number of films that are neither great nor bad. What makes Joker stand out amidst the crowd of middling movies is that it is telling an edgy, literal origin story that demands ambiguity for the mystery that is the Joker. It’s safe in its narrative familiarity but dangerous in its gritty realism. The highlights include Phoenix, who is basically an amalgamation of his characters in Her, The Master, and You Were Never Really Here; production design (Gotham City has never looked more Gotham, as great as The Dark Knight trilogy was, NYC and Chicago were as plain as day as the stand-ins for Gotham); Lawrence Sher’s immaculate cinematography, Gildur Guonadottir’s score is chilling in all the right ways; and I have to hand it to him even though he took a lot from other work, Todd Philips’ direction is steady.
If only the content was handled a little more responsibly with a little bit more hope or optimism, maybe even some moral ambiguity. I know, the Joker is a villain and he’s pure evil but in all honesty, while I actually liked this film and enjoyed my time with it, this isn’t the origin story we need. Gotham is so messed up only a person as messed up as Arthur can rise to power. While the film doesn’t demand reflection of real-life in its mediocrity, it threatens to reflect any sick, downtrodden individual’s life and dark aspirations. We didn’t need to see how the Joker gets his blood-red smile, we already know from the two different versions Ledger’s Joker (“You wanna know how I got these scars?”) tells us, and we don’t really know because in that movie he’s lying, we don’t know his background, his history, his life, his humanity. He’s the Joker, a mystery, an enigma. I wish that could be enough but it isn’t and we got his story anyway. And it’s decent, it’s fine. It has every right to be a movie.
Movies don’t promote violence or instigate it, art is meant to be challenging but in our messed up world, a movie like Joker could wrongly persuade in its toxicity. When the movie ends on a happy...? Bad...? Happy for the Joker, bad for Gotham and the film’s many disturbed viewers, it definitely lingers but not necessarily in the best way. I guess that’s still something though. There is no hope (except waiting for Bruce Wayne to grow up and become Batman), no happiness. Only darkness and chaos. But that’s probably the point. The Joker is a tragic, dark and chaotic villain wearing a comedic, happy mask. “I thought my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a f***ing comedy,” he quips right before doing another horrible deed.
There’s really no right or wrong in how Philips decided to go about the origin of the Joker, there’s only just things that could’ve been handled differently. It’s a well-crafted film, straightforward in its approach but intriguing; a comic-book blockbuster that Marvel naysayers can point to when Disney unveils another line-up of spandex, CGI inundated superhero films 50 years from now. Though I’ll be pointing to The Dark Knight.