Movie Review: JOKER (2019)
[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Reviewed By: Derek McNeil
Joker (2019): Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
I had some doubts about seeing this movie. Were they really going to give Joker a clear, defined origin story? The Joker is one of those characters where giving him a concrete origin spoils the mystery. That would be as bad as showing Judge Dredd’s face or revealing the name of the Doctor.
Also, the trailers and publicity imply that Joker’s origin is the somewhat cliche story of an everyman being beaten down until he’s finally pushed a little bit too far and snaps.
But Todd Phillips gives us a much subtler story than that. Arthur Fleck does not have a sudden psychotic break. Instead, it’s a slow descent into madness. When we first meet him in Joker, he is already on the path to insanity.
Although he seems relatively normal, if somewhat socially awkward, we start to see signs of deeper mental issues. First off, while watching an episode of the Murrary Franklin show, he imagines himself in the audience being singled out by the host. This fantasy is presented to the viewers as if it’s really happening, and it isn’t until the scene returns to Arthur in front of the television that we realize it’s his fantasy.
The same thing happens again when Arthur becomes romantically involved with his neighbour Sophie. They have an awkward encounter in the building’s elevator, then she catches him stalking her. When she confronts him about this, she makes the strange decision to flirt with him instead of telling him to back off.
I had some suspicions that this relationship wasn’t really happening because I noticed that Sophie’s young daughter seemed to totally disappear entirely. I found this to be an ingenious subtle clue that this was a fantasy of Arthur’s – a fantasy that didn’t include a child.
After seeing the girl on the elevator, we don’t see any sign of her at all until the fantasy is broken. Arthur enters her apartment, looking at the child’s drawings before Sophie discovers him there and reveals that to her, Arthur is only the strange man who lives down the hall.
With two such demonstrations of Arthur’s delusions being presented as if they were real, the audience is left to wonder what else we have been shown is also unreal. Perhaps none of it.
The movie ends with Joker talking to a therapist or psychologist in Arkham, presumably having related the story we have just finished watching. Could the entire story have been a delusion that the Joker made up? In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker stated, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Perhaps Phillips origin story is just one possibility and not the definitive answer.
I was also somewhat doubtful about how there could be a Joker origin story with no Batman in the movie. While the comics never gave us a definitive origin, Batman was instrumental in the story of how the criminal previously known as the Red Hood became the Joker.
But movies have played around with Joker’s origin before. Tim Burton’s Batman gave the Joker a name (Jack Napier) and a backstory as a mobster. Burton also inserted the Joker into Batman’s origin by making a young Jack Napier the killer of Bruce’s parents.
Phillips connects Arthur to Batman’s origin, but in a subtler way. Arthur reads a letter of his mother’s and learns that he’s the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne. At this point, I was thinking that this was a rather ham-fisted plot twist, making the Joker Bruce Wayne’s older brother. Then I thought that maybe it was an obscure reference to a story in Worlds Finest Comics #223, where Batman discovers that he has an older brother named Thomas Wayne Jr., who was committed to a mental hospital.
But Phillips’ story is simpler and subtler than that. It turns out that once again this was a false premise. But this time, it turns out that it wasn’t Arthur’s delusion, but his mother’s. She had adopted a son of unknown name, but her mind was lost in the fantasy that he was the product of her illicit affair with Thomas Wayne.
Phillips has claimed that he didn’t draw from the comics at all for this movie, but there are some parts of the movie that seem to put the lie to that claim. For instance, Joker’s appearance on the Murray Phillips show seems eerily reminiscent of his appearance on the David Endocrine show in The Dark Knight Returns. This is especially evident in the unwelcome kiss he gives his fellow guest, Dr. Sally.
Also, the murder of the Waynes is almost exactly as shown in the comics. The Waynes are coming out of a Zorro movie and are gunned down in a nearby alley. In this version, however, the gunman isn’t a petty robber, and unlike Burton’s version, it isn’t the Joker. But it is a Joker-inspired rioter. Batman and the Joker’s origins are intertwined, but in a less obvious way that Burton connected them.
I also have to note that the movie does a great job of evoking the feel of 1981. The very first thing we see on the screen is the Warner Bros. logo of the era. The hairstyles, fashions, and even cars are all accurate to the period. The sets and cinematography make it look almost like a crime movie from that era. Even the Zorro movie that the Waynes go to see is 1981’s “Zorro, the Gay Blade.”
There has been a lot of controversy in the media and on the Internet about the violence in the movie. There are claims that the movie is hyper-violent, as well as claims that the movie glorifies violence or even incites people to violence.
I have to say that I find these rumours mostly unfounded. Yes, there is a fair amount of violence in the movie, but many horror or crime movies far surpass the level of gore presented here. In fact, this movie would have been unremarkable in terms of violence during the era that it depicts.
As for whether it promotes or glorifies violence, I don’t really believe that to be the case. Arthur Fleck finds his descent into insanity freeing and this gives him licence to kill and inflict pain. But Phillips does not present Joker as someone to be idolized or imitated. The Joker is a very sick individual and Phillips gives us a disturbing look into his insanity, which is more of a cautionary tale than an example to be followed.
DC has managed to turn their luck with movies around, producing a string of fun and entertaining hits, like Wonder Woman, Shazam!, and Aquaman. But with Joker, we see that DC’s characters can also be used for valid artistic expression. This has been achieved in comics, but Todd Phillips has now successfully managed to do so in the medium of film. Now that he has proven that it’s possible, I look forward to seeing other directors taking other DC properties and following suit.