JOKER (2019) was for me one of those movies I had to take some time to process before I figured out what I thought of it. After Heath Ledger’s performance in THE DARK KNIGHT, I’d thought there wasn’t any portrayal of the character that could compete, but I was wrong. Drawing from THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel along with films like THE KING OF COMEDY and TAXI DRIVER, JOKER presents the grittiest superhero film yet, a thoroughly brutal character study of the creation of a villain. Overall, I liked it a lot, though the process felt like hard work. And while I love superhero films that take a gritty, more realistic approach such as LOGAN, I wished Joker had been a little more grand than self-aggrandizing. Let me explain…
It’s Gotham City in 1981, not a nice place as income inequality brings the working class to a boil, a garbage collection strike leaves the streets piled with garbage riddled with large rats, and budget cuts are decimating welfare programs that previously kept one Arthur Fleck, a professional party clown living in borderline squalor with his mother Penny, on the right medication to manage his mental illness. Arthur wants to make people laugh and be happy and fantasizes about making it as a professional comedian, but he has three things going against him. First is his humor is simply not funny (he’s ends up being the joke) and often is hateful, he has a condition where he suffers fits of uncontrollable laughter when he’s anxious, and everything in his life either lets him down or outright brutalizes him.
As the harsh world slowly crushes him, Arthur finds release in going off his meds and eventually in violence. His fantasies degenerate from positive to negative into full-blown self-aggrandizing narcissism. The symbolism in the film plays along, such as repeat shots of him trudging up a long staircase as Arthur but dancing down it in costume as the reborn Joker, or the gnarled contortions of his body that gradually unfurls into an expressive if awkward dance. Also seemingly in reflection, one of his acts of violence is portrayed in the media as a political act against the rich, further fomenting unrest, and Thomas Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises, calls the average people of Gotham a “bunch of clowns,” a label they defiantly take on right down to wearing clown masks at demonstrations (a seeming nod to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment about right-wing Americans). The city becomes more violent as Arthur does as he transforms into the Joker, a man who has embraced his inner demons and increasingly gives in to his impulses of narcissistic rage.
The result is an engaging character study, though not particularly pleasant. It’s a very cynical film. At the end, I didn’t see reality shifting to glorify Joker as a leader but rather a deeply mentally ill man incorporating current events into his fantasies. As a result, nothing really elevates Joker except in his own mind, and he comes across far more as pitiful and pathetic than sympathetic and inspiring in any way. In this, JOKER shows up poorly compared to THE DARK KNIGHT, where the Joker was psychotic but had a clear philosophy that was engaging and thematically set up his battle with Batman (and the world) in a compelling way. So going into it, I was hoping for FIGHT CLUB but ended up with something far more like FALLING DOWN.
On its own terms, however, JOKER is remarkable, a brave reinvention of a classic comic supervillain and casting him in the real world. I loved it for its gall and artistry and grit. In the end, however, it was hard to shake the bad taste in my mouth. I am hoping for a sequel that will give Joker a little more of a guiding philosophy rather than a mentally ill man who wears a costume while he murders people out of narcissistic rage. The Joker is not supposed to be a good guy, but he is supposed to be cool, the philosophical antithesis of Batman who makes Batman all the greater for it.