WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for Joker. For spoiler-free thoughts on the film, head on over to our initial review here.
When it comes to iconic comic book villains, few of them are as unhinged and enigmatic as the Joker. Across various forms of media, the character exudes insanity that makes for a great adversary to the heroes. If there is anything that distinguishes each incarnation, it would be in their origins. With 1989’s Batman, we have a man who falls into a vat of chemicals and loses his sanity. By contrast, 2008’s The Dark Knight sees someone delivering different backstories to various people. In turn, the lack of details makes this particular Joker more mysterious.
So it should not be surprising that we have Joker, a film all about how the Clown Prince of Crime came to be. Of course, this is the same character that once remarked in the comics about how he prefers his past to be multiple choice. Because of that, it would be unwise to consider this as the definitive origin story. Not to mention, there are no current plans to integrate this Joker in future movies such as 2021’s The Batman. Instead, it would be better to evaluate the film as one of the possible multiple choices. Here’s the good news: what director Todd Phillips and company have conjured up is a rather terrific choice indeed.
This time around, the Joker is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a day-to-day clown and struggling stand-up comedian. While he may be juggling between two professions, he is actually doing one thing only: survive the hellhole that is Gotham City. As a clown, he continuously comes across people that abuse him physically and psychologically. As a comedian, the only laughs he gets are the ones intended at him than alongside him. He barely scrapes by on a daily basis thanks to his friendly co-workers and his loving mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Also, Arthur’s only coping mechanism is a hearty laugh that may or may not reflect his true feelings.
In these early sections, the film meticulously crafts the image of a broken man who gradually breaks even more. Therefore, it is rather easy to connect with Arthur as more people reject him as a person. Keep in mind, the script by Phillips & Scott Silver is wise enough to give him enough violent acts of crime so that he remains a malevolent force of nature. In fact, Arthur kills three young men in a subway, leading to a mass panic across Gotham City. Still, it goes to such lengths with developing Arthur that it is impossible for him to be a generic villain.
Along the way, Arthur strikes a relationship with his apartment neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). At first, it seems like this is his way to maintain a sense of humanity. After all, these moments allow him to connect with someone who shares similar thoughts on the status of lower-class Gotham. However, it turns out to be yet another element in the downward spiral. As Sophie becomes more aware of Arthur’s violent tendencies, their interactions become more emotionally distant. Admittedly, the writing becomes more two-dimensional in these scenes between Arthur and Sophie. It also does not help that Beetz gets little chances to make an impression. Still, the thematic core works well enough here that it balances things out.
Of course, the plot thickens as it drops more details about Arthur’s past. Arguably the most significant aspect is his connection with the affluent Wayne family. Midway through the film, it reveals that during his childhood, Penny made several negative allegations towards Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Some of which, mind you, involve him being largely responsible for their place in poverty. This is due to Penny’s countless abusive episodes during her time working with Thomas. Eventually, her violent bursts involved Arthur himself. With this bit of information, Arthur shifts into a tragic figure that no one can save. Maybe if he found someone early in life, he would not have to deal with so many terrible people. But as we learn more about him, it becomes clear that all signs point otherwise.
What makes Arthur’s transformation into the Joker especially interesting is that he gets to maintain some form of moral compass. True, the actions that result from his morals may be unjust from an outsider’s perspective. But looking at the people he kills in the movie, there is one common element: each of them has done Arthur wrong to some extent. Whether that involves emotional abuse or getting him fired from a job, the film does not suggest that Arthur only chooses innocent bystanders as his targets. In fact, he goes out of his way to not attack his fellow co-worker Gary (Leigh Gill) since he never inflicted anything bad on him. This is one of several elements that help this Joker feel like a full-fledged character, which only does huge favors to the overall product.
Outside of its main character, the movie is great at depicting a world that never stops being morally gray. This film’s Gotham City, brought to grimy life by production designer Mark Friedberg and cinematographer Lawrence Sher, is a place where all kinds of citizens do shady things. Moreover, the script never hints that this status quo will change. Even local talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) only brings Arthur on as a guest because he previously ridiculed his stand-up routine. Despite Arthur being a regular viewer of Murray’s show, it is clear that the respect is not mutual. In fact, the scene where Murray’s representatives ask Arthur to come on the show almost plays like a ticking time bomb because of how no one ever laughed with Arthur during his stand-up.
Inevitably, the tension reaches its peak in the film’s fantastic climax. This is where Arthur, now using the Joker persona, makes his first public appearance on Murray’s show. Not only does the audience reject Joker’s attempts at humor, but the Joker also lays out his frustrations at the world around him. If that was not enough, he even admits on live television that he killed the three men on the subway. In a few short minutes, the talk show transitions from somewhat awkward all the way to downright horrifying. This is because while the Joker becomes more confident in who he is, no longer does he shy away from what makes him unpleasant. Top that off with Phoenix and De Niro tossing around snide comments with blazing speed, and you have a confrontation that is both exciting and scary to watch.
For most of its 122-minute runtime, Joker is an enthralling origin story that dives deep into its dangerous protagonist. It is also nice to see a mainstream comic book movie in 2019 that primarily functions as a standalone piece. So it is a bit perplexing to see it stumble every now and then. Most of all, the significance of the Waynes does not stop with Arthur’s upbringing. In the film’s final ten minutes, it hastily connects the clown riots to the origin of the Caped Crusader himself. Given the lack of references to Batman lore elsewhere, it feels jarring to see the single most famous element of Batman’s backstory – the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents – close out the film.
Another stumbling block seems to be Phillips & Silver’s inability to end the story at its most natural point. A perfect conclusion would involve the Joker embracing his newfound identity along with masses of people dressed as clowns. And in all fairness, this scene is very much present in the final product. When the Joker begins to smear blood across his mouth, we get to see an absurdly satisfying end to his villain arc. But instead of transitioning to the end credits, there is an extra scene of Joker in a mental hospital. Although the scene itself is well-executed, it has little purpose outside of showing him as a more assured villain.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to claim that the final scenes invalidate all the strengths that preceded them. What Phillips and company have created is a moody character piece that peaks during its most unpleasant moments, which is a rare breed among films based on comic book characters. And to make things more fascinating, the film’s setting practically nurtures its inhabitants to act on their worst impulses.
Considering the history of Batman-related movies that prioritize its villains over its heroes, Joker feels like a natural progression of what already worked before. Only this time, it holds back not one bit when it comes to the depraved nature of its subject matter. At no point is it a source of profound and divisive social commentary like the film’s controversy would have you believe. Not to mention, its exploration of mental instability is far from what one would call groundbreaking. But as a character piece, Joker is discomforting in all the ways that a villain origin story should be.
Joker is now playing in theaters.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, and Bill Camp.