Date Posted: 20/10/19
Joker is a stand-alone film that is not part of the DC Film Universe, honestly with Ben Affleck not playing Batman anymore and Henry Cavil also having hung up his cape, I'm not sure if there even still is a DC Extended Universe, but let's not get side tracked. This film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a down on his luck clown, and wanna-be stand-up comic who transforms into the monstrous Clown Prince of Crime.
It has to be said that this film had an uphill battle ahead of it; the Joker's origins have never been revealed and only hinted at. I saw The Killing Joke in
which it was implied that he might have once had a family but after a chemical bath and things going so south that they were in danger of burrowing through the Earth, he snapped becoming the Joker.
This version of the character is not based on a comic book story and is an original idea into the origins of one of the most famous villains in TV, Comic book and Movie history.
Before I grace you all with my opinions let me give you the low-down on what is happening...
The film is set in the 1980s during a time when Gotham City is buckling under the weight of amounting rubbish due to a strike. The likes of Thomas Wayne are seemingly trying to sort things out, but the under classes are getting increasingly frustrated with the rich being rich whilst most people languish in poverty. Arthur Fleck works as a Clown, and whilst dancing on the street to promote a store that is closing down has his sign stolen by a group of teenagers. He gives chase trying to get it back but is jumped and beaten up. In the aftermath of the attack one of Arthur’s co-workers gives him a gun as the streets are dangerous and he needs to be able to defend himself.
After interacting with a child on a bus, he breaks into hysterics, after the child's mother tells him to leave the boy alone. He passes her a card which informs her that he has a condition that means he cannot control when he laughs and the laughter does not reflect how he is feeling.
He returns home to his mother and settles down to watch a comedy show with Murray (Robert De Niro). Arthur remembers being on the show and Murray being nice to him, saying that he would be proud if Arthur was his own son. Arthur's Mother is awaiting a letter from Thomas Wayne, who she used to work for and someone she believes will help to get them out of the poverty they live in.
Whilst dancing at a children's hospital for terminally ill children the gun falls from Arthur’s pocket and he is subsequently fired. On his way home he has a laughing fit on the subway train and is attacked by three men, acting in self defence Arthur shoots two of the men dead, and chases down the third killing him too.
Panicking he races away and hides in a bathroom. But as he stares at his own reflection he begins to realise that he doesn't feel bad for killing the men, if anything he feels good.
After the killings the poor of Gotham begin to rally behind the Clown Vigilante that killed the three high flyers in Wayne's company, seemingly as a message to the higher ups that the people are sick of being the downtrodden.
A letter that his mother has written to Thomas Wayne is left out and Arthur reads it, the information contained within alters everything that Arthur thought he knew about himself. With the police closing in on the identity of the Clown Vigilante, Arthur struggling with his own sense of identity, his growing frustrations with the world around him, who to believe, and his own fracturing mind he starts to lose himself to a darker and twisted path...
First off I have to say that I think Joaquin Phoenix does do a phenomenal jobs here and one of the best aspects of his performance is his malnourished appearance. There are numerous occasions in which we see Arthur without his shirt on and the way his flesh seems to hang off his bones and his shoulder blades sticking out from under his skin gives him an almost alien like appearance. This is exaggerated when he dances to music I think he is just hears in his head. His movements are strange and his body twists to the beat he can hear which makes him seem other than human.
The supporting cast are also pretty decent with one highlight being name as Thomas Wayne. The father of Bruce Wayne who goes on to become Batman when his parents are murdered. He is running for Mayor and there is a subplot which heavily involves him which lead to a few quite interesting ideas and perhaps the fact that the seemingly perfect Wayne family might have some skeletons in their closet. I'll talk about one of those subplots in a bit but it contains spoilers hence why I won't do it now. It was also kind of fun to see a young Bruce Wayne at a time in his life when he has his parents were alive. Naturally the story is from Arthur's perspective so we don't see Bruce and his parents really together but it was cool to see the young Bruce Wayne rather than the brooding adult he will become.
Before I discuss any spoilers lets address the rather large elephant in the room, is this a Joker film or not?
That may seem like a strange question but bear with me. If this is a new interpretation of the character's origins then does it fit in with the limited information we know about his past? I don't read the comics as you know so my knowledge of the Joker is limited to TV, film and video games and as far as I understand it, the Joker is something of an anomaly as his real name, date of birth, past, is all a mystery. Basically he just seemed to appear out of thin air once he started committing crimes and has told so many lies about his past that even he might not know the truth anymore. Here he has a name, address, date of birth and everything that most of you humans have. His past is no mystery so already that aspect of the character has been lost. Okay, so do we see how Arthur Fleck transforms to the Clown Prince of Crime?? Not really, there are moments when he seems to have become Joker but he then lapses back into being Arthur again. He doesn't seem to transform from one to the other and there are only really a couple of moments which I would describe as being quintessential to the character of the Joker
In the anime Batman: The Dark Knight Returns set after Bruce Wayne abandoned being Batman and is set decades later, the Joker has basically become comatose in Arkham Asylum never moving, never speaking and it is only after Batman returns that he wakes up. It is an interesting idea because it feeds into the idea that Joker needs Batman and without him Joker doesn't see any point in anything. Batman is order and control whilst the Joker is chaos and anarchy. The Joker wants to watch the world burn but he also wants Batman to see it too. Here there is no Batman, and no real focus as Arthur flits between lucidity, insanity, frustration, hope and anger
As a slight side note, it makes me wonder if the Joker only exists because of Batman, because the person the Joker used to be saw Batman as a symbol of hope and wanted to tear it down. Why he wants to is unimportant, it simply gives him an opponent to try and beat. Without Batman in this film, all you have is a guy that is slowly losing his grip on the world around him as things beyond his control start to weigh increasingly heavily upon him.
The film that Joker reminded me of when I was thinking about it later on was Falling Down in which Michael Douglas' character who is only known through the film as D-Fens tells his estranged wife that he is at the point of no return after he kills a Nazi store clerk. He describes that a point of no return means that there is no going back and he must continue onwards to see where he goes because there is no turning back. Arthur never really seems to have that moment. He crosses the line, then goes back, crosses it again, then goes back, he embraces his new persona but moments later he is back as Arthur again. There is no split personality thing going on, and even though it is outright said that he doesn't care about the bad things he's been doing, he still seems to spend a lot of his time wallowing in self pity.
Let’s look at the other side of the coin, if this is not the origin story of the Joker from TV, Comic, Film and Games then how does it stand-up alone?
Honestly the earlier comparison to Falling Down is more fitting the more I think about it. In that film D-Fens seemingly just snaps after sitting in his car, in gridlocked traffic, on the hottest day of the year in Los Angeles. His behaviour gets more extreme as he encounters more and more frustrations. He wants change for the phone but the store clerk where he asks for change won't give him any unless he buys something, but to buy something costs more than the call he wants to make. He goes to a fast food restaurant for breakfast but as it is 10.32am, and they stop serving breakfast at 10.30am they won't give him what he wants. He stops to mend his shoe in a park and some gang members try to mug him, and so it goes on. It is implied that D-Fens may have some mental health issues but it is never confirmed or denied either way, and that is what makes him more interesting, the idea that a normal person can just snap is far more frightening because society is made up of supposedly "normal" people
In Joker, Arthur has metal health issues...that's it.
He has a condition that means he laughs uncontrollably, as well as suffering from various other issues. It isn't stated exactly what but he is taken seven different types of medication so it must be pretty debilitating whatever it is. Then when the city cuts funding for his medication is when he starts to really loose the plot. This is such a tired explanation and clichéd reason for why someone might go off the deep end. Why did he kill the people on the subway? Self-defence then a moment of madness. Defence lawyers could probably get him off the hook by reason of temporary insanity, hell without his medications he is more likely to act out so they could make a case for the city being responsible rather than Arthur himself. In fact for anything that he does, that same case could be made. If a human suffering with depression or anxiety committed suicide after their meds were stopped, who do you think their families would blame?? It would be the institution that cut funding rather than the person them self. Likewise if someone's aggressive tendencies were being kept in check by medicine that was stopped and they attacked someone would they really be reasonable? If you open the door to a lion's cage you can't really be surprised if it gets out and attacks someone
If the film didn't have the word Joker on it and was just about a man who loses grip on reality then it might have been more interesting but as a kind-of/maybe origin story for the Joker, it falls rather short of expectations. I guess that the controversy surrounding clowns in the current climate might be a reason why the film would have the Joker's name assigned to it. After IT and a wave of weirdoes hanging around towns after dark scaring people (this is a thing that happens around the world) in frightening clown costumes making such a film would be seen in bad taste. However, stick Joker's name on it and it is a comic-book movie about an established character rather than suggesting that the guy who has been hired to come to a child's birthday party and entertain the children might actually be a psychopath
We have reached the part where this must be dropped...
In the letter that Arthur reads his mother tells Thomas Wayne that he needs to look after her and Thomas’ son, Arthur. Naturally this throws up massive questions for Arthur, not to mention the audience because this would mean that Joker and Batman are half-brothers. An interesting idea indeed. But when Arthur confronts Wayne about it, he is told that his mother is crazy and Arthur was adopted after being abandoned as a child. Wayne threatens Arthur and warns him to stay away.
Confused and angry, Arthur manages to track down records which show his mother was institutionalised, and according to her paperwork, Wayne was right and Arthur was adopted. There is also evidence in the records that she allowed a former boyfriend to beat Arthur as a child causing brain damage, which may very well be the reason that he has his uncontrollable laugh.
It all goes together to create so much confusion that we don’t know if Arthur’s mother is truly crazy and if she is then nothing she has ever told Arthur is accurate. Later Arthur finds a photo of his mother as a younger woman with the initials T.W on the back which implies that maybe Wayne used his connections to have Arthur’s mother institutionalised to cover up the fact that Arthur is indeed his. However, is it not equally possible that those initials could be for someone else and in his mother's twisted mind she has assigned them to Thomas Wayne?? They could easily be for Tim Wilson, Ted Winters, Tobias Winslow...there are surely going to be plenty of people out there who have the same initials. Is it possible that the ex-boyfriend who abused Arthur had those initials and the message is from him?? It is supposed to be a curve ball designed to confuse both Arthur and audience but there is a rational explanation for the initials on the photo if you think about it.
As it is Arthur is confused, he is angry, and he feels betrayed by the people that should be looking after him, his mother, and his real father.
Taken as a whole these ideas could very well be the reason why Arthur snaps, until we learn that there are whole sequences in the film that didn’t really happen and was just in Arthur’s head. Did Arthur actually go to see Murray’s show or was that another fantasy as well?? This just throws up so many questions and if anything takes away from the story rather than adding to it. After all, we know that Arthur is crazy already so what do these moments show us other than confirmation that yes, he is indeed crazy, which we already knew.
The ending itself has more than an air of the unreliable narrator about it, meaning that potentially none of what we’d just seen was the truth. I remember someone telling me once that in the comics Batman asked the Joker where he got his smile scars and is told that the Joker has lied so many times about their origins that even he doesn’t know the truth anymore. That might work when someone’s back story is a mystery but did any of what we have just witnessed actually happen or was that simply the Joker telling a version of it? If that is the case when what purpose does the film serve?
If we ignore that rather massive point for a minute let’s have a look at the moment that featured very heavily in the trailer, Murray taking the piss out of Arthur’s stand-up routine, and Joker appearing on the Murray show. By this point in the film Arthur has gone off the deep end and we know that so much of what we have been watching is delusion. When he appears on the Murray show, he seems to have embraced this new “Joker” identity, he dances onto the stage and kisses one of the guests. Things quickly descend back into him being Arthur and raging at society which was not very interesting to see.
Look, we have no Joker gas that makes people laugh till they die, and he hasn’t got a flower on his suit that sprays acid, fine, this film is going for a more serious tone. But wouldn’t it have been more fitting to this character if he held Murray or the guests hostage, retold his stand-up routine which Murray made fun of, and forced the audience to laugh or he’d execute hostages?? The tag lines for this film include: “Put on a Happy Face” and Arthur repeatedly says that his mother always told him “[his] purpose in life is to spread joy and laughter to those around [him]”. Forcing an audience to laugh to his crap stand-up routine would seemingly be doing that even though it is being done through fear.
As it is we get a story about a man somehow becoming the figure for the downtrodden and an ending which inplies that what we have just seen might be another made up story. Riots break out over the city after Joker appears on the Murray show and he is hailed as somekind of saviour, which he relishes in. But he is not making people smile and that is the Joker’s whole warped thing. He slices people’s faces to give them a smile, who could forget Heath Ledger’s Joker asking “Why so serious?”. If fact that line could probably sum-up this entire film.
Plus as a side point the riots lead to the Wayne’s being murdered and so Joker is indirectly responsible for the event that led to the creation of Batman.
All in all I wouldn’t say that Joker is a bad film, but in my opinion it is not being especially clear regarding what it wants to be. If it a stand-alone story then why have links to the Wayne family at all? Why does it need to be set in Gotham? If it is supposed to be a reimagining of the Joker’s origin then why have we fallen back into the classic, he’s got mental health problems?? If Arthur’s coping mechanism for bad things happening was to laugh then that may have carried more weight rather than him having an uncontrollable condition.
I will give the film a Thumbs Up because I did enjoy it, however, I was sitting there with my critic hat on all the way through, and if I’m doing that then I’m not just sitting back to enjoy the journey the film is taking me on.
7/10 – Answer this question: What is Joker about?? Personally I’m not really sure because the ending suggests it might be made-up anyway, and if bits of it are but bits aren’t then how does it add to the lore when we already know that Joker makes up lies about his past??