A new Joker is in town
Warning: Spoilers ahead, but only midway through the review. I’ll tell you ahead before they come up but consider yourself warned. Also, while I sympathize with the character of Arthur Fleck, I do not condone his actions
I have to admit that I’ve been waiting for this movie since it was first rumored. Being a fan of Joker (the character), I couldn’t help but set my expectations high because of how important this character is to the DC franchise and because the bar has been set high before (sorry, not by you, Mr. Leto). The Joker is arguably DC’s most iconic villain and it can only stand to reason that Mr. J gets the treatment that the Clown Prince of Crime deserves.
The film comes at a sensitive time: gun violence has gained (arguably) more notoriety than ever before. The movie itself is riddled with disturbing levels of aggression, which are not meant to be taken lightly. We follow a seemingly normal movie subject, Arthur Fleck, whose life we see unravel. What makes it awkward for us, the audience, is that Arthur doesn’t start out as a bad guy, but we see so much emotional filth and human darkness in his story that we don’t know where to place ourselves.
Do we turn away and look for rainbows and butterflies or do we keep following him?
We knew very little about the movie’s premise before the actual release—except for what the trailer shows us: You don’t need to drop a man in a vat of chemicals to make the Joker; society will do the job just fine.
A new Joker
Joaquin Phoenix is perplexingly excellent. From his own signature laugh to his Joker dance, I can go on and on about how he took the character and made him his own. In my mind, there is a three-way tie for the top Joker actors in Jack Nicholson, Health Ledger and—now—Joaquin Phoenix. (Don’t worry, DC fans, Mark Hamill is definitely part of my exclusive Joker society, too.)
A hallmark difference is the previous incarnations of the character have been handed to us pretty much as a whole and out of nowhere (in true Joker fashion). Alternatively, Phoenix’s performance here takes us through the journey of Arthur Fleck turning into The Joker. I’m not mincing words when I say the ride is both amazing and depressing.
Was he good as The Joker? Almost perfect. Would I be in a hurry to see him do it again? Maybe not—because I felt every betrayal, every bad joke, every pain that Arthur felt. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix is just that good, folks.
Too much reality?
There’s something about the story that hit me while I was watching the movie. I definitely wanted to see the film through, but I was squirming in my seat. Maybe it was that the subject matter of the movie hits too close to current events? Maybe it’s because what Arthur goes through is a bit too relatable? Or maybe it was the copious amount of uncensored violence? In truth, it was all three and it was a recipe that made for an engaging two hours.
What ends up burning me as a viewer is that I actually feel for Arthur. Sure, he did things that were wrong, but am I the only who tried to understand the violence that was the product of the injustices against Arthur? I’m going to say: probably not. Again, his violence can never be justified, but the way the story is told explains his madness well. Maybe too well.
Comic book appeal
The one thing that I like and dislike all at once.
While there is a connection to the Batman story as we know it, we knew going into this movie that it wasn’t really meant to lead to a larger Batman story arc. I love it and hate it at the same time. On the one hand, I can change the names of the characters and rename the movie to Evil Clown and it will stand, completely devoid of all super hero and villain implications—and it would maybe still be as good as it is now. It would still be dazzling as a standalone, even without the Joker name, and this is something I feel no other comic book-related film has really pulled off. Hats off to director/writer Todd Philips and writer Scott Silver; the movie is relevant when stripped down and fantastic when given the Joker license.
On the other hand, there’s the spoiled nerd in me that is hungry for awesome DC films. Fans know that DC has been trying and has had little concrete success in putting together something united in terms of a DCverse (not like the guys across the pond, Marvel). Could DC have started something with this film? Maybe, maybe not. Do I wish they did? Yes, because I want the DC movies to catch up. Wishful nerd thinking, I know.
Warning: This is when the spoilers kick in.
Was it real?
Arthur Fleck is not the best storyteller; he hallucinates and he imagines things that never really happened. As a viewer towards the end of the film, you don’t really know what’s real or not.
Did he really shoot Murray Franklin on live TV? Probably, because the clown uprising had to have been triggered by something. But then again, he could’ve aimlessly fired a gun on live TV and it would’ve had the same effect. Rioting in the streets, the eventual death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The red footsteps after his therapy session even imply that he killed his therapist, but did he? Was that really blood on his feet? Maybe.
You end up questioning the entire movie. What really happened? What was real? What was imagined? I’ve turned things upside down thinking about some detail or another that might point to an answer that I haven’t found. Is it out there? Probably. Will I look for it? Probably not.
Why not, you ask? Well, I remembered a part of the ending when Joker tells his therapist that he thought of a joke. But when she asked what it was, he replies to her: “You wouldn’t get it.” And I took this as a deliberate sign. As much as I want to dissect every nook and cranny of the film, I’m happy with, “Yeah, maybe I won’t get it.”
In the end, maybe I’m not supposed to understand it, this masterful insanity of a movie.
Masterclass from end to end. A slice of the dark side of life. Joker is disturbing, fascinating and unsettling all at once. You sympathize and condemn the character all at the same time. It’s an awesome retelling of a comic book legend that is its own story, complete with powerful social undertones.
I still wish that this connected to a bigger DC universe. But since it doesn’t, I can only wish that all DC films were this powerful.
Writer's note: While I loved Joker (it is, in all technical aspects, a brilliant film; let me be the nth person to say that Joaquin Phoenix beautifully and disturbingly melts into a character of his own making), a little bit of a trigger warning: the film takes the mask off mental illness and gives you a raw look at it, so be self-aware.
Words Yosu de Erquiaga
Art Alexandra Lara