I remember the first time I watched Tim Burton’s “Batman” from 1989, in which the character of Jack Napier falls into a vat of acid and emerges with clown makeup and a permanently smiling face. I couldn’t help but think, “how f****** stupid.” Not only would you instantly die from falling into a vat of acid, but you wouldn’t come out of some green liquid wearing white face paint. I hated Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker, and still do. Up until I saw “The Dark Knight,” I couldn’t understand the draw of the character. The Joker’s schemes in “The Dark Knight” were far more maniacal and devastating than Nicholson’s in “Batman.” I actually laughed along with the characters in “Batman” when that laughing gas was released. Oh my, how silly indeed. Now we have “Joker,” and an all new, thoughtful backstory has finally been crafted for the iconic villain. This is what I have been waiting for.
“Joker” finds an interesting juxtaposition in being distant yet connected to its source material. Although it has been branded as a standalone, there are clear indications that the door has been left open for a continuation. Walking in, I had no idea whether or not the Wayne family would be present in the film, but they are, and they play a much larger role than I would have anticipated. Some of them are quite jarring, and almost took me out of the film completely. I think Phillips could have easily cut all the Batman related scenes and had a truly one-off Joker movie, but surprisingly that’s not what he did. DC may have a difficult time in determining the direction of Batman going forward, given the popularity of “Joker” and the irony it lays out between Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck. I for one would like to see the studio continue with Phoenix’s Joker and play off the dichotomy between the two. Lord knows we don’t need another Batman origin story.
Speaking of Phoenix, he is downright phenomenal here. He will undoubtedly be up for an Oscar nod next year, and could have a serious chance of winning. Even though I thought that no one could bring anything new to the Joker’s laugh, Phoenix totally redefines that entire shtick. He turns it into something unavoidable and at times painful that [Fleck] initially tries to overcome. One thing I always worry about with character studies is whether or not we will get to spend enough time with the titular character. Fortunately, the camera is constantly on Phoenix, and we see his entire breadth of acting ability over the course of the two hour runtime. There’s no point in playing the compare game; instead, I’d rather appreciate how each actor who has played the Joker has brought something new to the role. Phoenix is so fierce in and committed to this role that he at times had me taken aback with his portrayal. I didn’t see Phoenix on screen at all, only Arthur and the monsters inside of him.
“Joker’s” social commentary has become a point of contention amongst critics and audience members. Some have said that Phillips’ depiction of violence in the film creates too much sympathy for such a dark character. Violence in art and media will always draw criticism, and this debate has been going on for decades. I honestly expected the violence to be much worse in the film, but it was pretty standard R-level stuff. There was only one bloody scene that shocked me. The violence is much more psychological here, and that is what has people concerned.
Some may feel disgusted at how they could feel sympathy for Arthur Fleck, and combat those conflicting feelings with outrage and rectitude. Phillips’ ability in creating such empathy for Arthur is one of the things that truly surprised me in “Joker.” Empathy is one of the greatest things a writer must have when drawing up characters. Without it, we could not have men drawing female characters, or blacks drawing white characters, and vice versa. The same goes for heroes and villains. Even though I knew that Arthur was doomed to turn into the Joker, I found myself rooting for him to find the mental strength and avoid going down that dark path. Yes, much of the film is psychologically unsettling, but that is how such a character should make us feel. The empathy only lasts for so long though, as the evil that is brewing inside of Arthur becomes more and more apparent. Disconnect turns into self-pity and nihilism, and eventually narcissistic rage. When Fleck decides to treat his life as a comedy rather than a tragedy (a most poignant line in the film is uttered), the result is truly chilling.
It’s interesting to have a character who is on such a journey be simultaneously both the protagonist and antagonist of the story. It makes the audience reflect on what their role may be in driving such an unstable person to insanity. Mental illness is not an easy subject to broach, and there were times where I actually thought the film could have gone deeper into Arthur’s personal thoughts. I wanted more visits with the social worker, and I wanted to see more of Arthur’s notebook. Interestingly, Ledger kept a notebook when he was preparing for the role of the Joker, and I wonder if that played any sort of inspiration for that prop.
Although I understand that some fans of the Joker may have liked the uncertainty of his backstory, I think mental illness, along with mental and physical abuse, was the only answer to his deranged behavior. It’s amazing how rude and abusive everyone is in this version of Gotham. It’s about as close to hell as I’d care to imagine. The 1970’s feel of the city is a clear visual callback to the setting of “Taxi Driver,” and there are many parts of the screenplay that borrow from “Taxi Driver,” “King of Comedy,” and even “Fight Club.” That’s not to say “Joker” feels like a copy cat of a film; it still feels wholly its own, in large part to the way Phillip helms the camera and Phoenix’s performance.
The last thing I’ll say about the controversy circles back to my point on empathy. “Joker” asks some tough questions of its audience. It wants us to seriously consider our actions towards other people, and the stigmas we hold for people we don’t understand. It wants us to picture our potential role in shaping the kind of people who become unhinged and resort to violence as a form of retribution. Even though we’re not the ones committing physical violence, can we hold ourselves responsible for causing some people to go down that path? Arthur views the world as cold, and thinks most normal people don’t care about the struggling folks like him. He feels detached and alone, and the way he is treated is made to make us feel gross about ourselves and our society. People like Arthur feel disconnected, and want nothing more than to be heard and understood. And while more responsibility may fall upon them to develop self-awareness and cope with their past, it’s helpful to take a minute to appreciate what the other person may be feeling and not act so callous or cynical towards your fellow man. Bravo for a comic book movie in having the guts to stage such questions.
As far as the violence in the film goes, if you didn’t like it, perhaps you went to see the wrong clown.