And welcome to review of Joker or my ramblings about the dangerous appeal of anti-heroes and the limits of empathy!
IMDb summary: In Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck is disregarded and mistreated by society. He then embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime. This path brings him face-to-face with his alter-ego: “The Joker”.
Joker was written by the director of the film Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Phillips is best known for writing and directing The Hangover trilogy as well as dark comedy War Dogs – however, Joker seems to be his darkest and most dramatic comedy yet. Silver has previously written the movie 8 Mile as well as sports dramas The Fighter and Bleed For This. Looking at the previous works of both of the screenwriters, it really seems that their collaboration should be the best of both worlds for Joker – comedic and dramatic in equal measure whilst grounded in gritty reality (though in the streets rather than a boxing ring). And there is certainly a lot to love in the writing for this film – if not to love than to hotly debate about.
I believe that the crucial topic of Joker is empathy, both within and outside the movie. The film seems to be suggesting that the lack of empathy from the people around him was the main reason for Joker’s turn to the dark side. Moreover, the film invites the viewers to be empathetic towards its main character. Should the viewer feel in such a way? Do we correct the mistake of the people within the film’s world by empathising with Joker? Or are we making a new mistake by doing so? Does Joker deserve empathy at any point of this movie? What is the breaking point after which empathy is no longer the desired response?
Related to the idea of empathy is the concept of agency. A lot has been said in the media about worry-some copycat behaviour that this movie might inspire. My initial thought was that such a narrative is problematic as I do believe that people have the agency as well as the cognitive tools to recognise right from wrong. And yet Joker seems to suggest that one cannot escape the environment one is exposed to: if Joker became Joker by seeing the world of abuse and hatred, it not might be that far-fetched to be fearing the effects that Joker might have on some people. Or maybe Joker is wrong by suggesting that one cannot escape a cycle of abuse and violence – maybe it underestimates the agency of individuals.
Not only does Joker have some interesting thematic concepts that raise a lot of questions (and this review is mostly just that – questions), it also has a fascinating relationship to the Batman mythos. While the film certainly does not feel like a comic-book movie in the typical sense, it is nevertheless rooted in a world of comic book origin. Joker’s father is positioned as a key issue for the character and the reveals and twists surrounding it will certainly get a response from comic book fans.
SPOILER in the next paragraph
Is there a familial relationship between Joker and Batman? Or was Joker truly adopted and abandoned? Neither of the sources in the film are really trustworthy, thus, leaving the question quite ambiguous. The movie’s decision to relate Joker to Batman’s parents’ murder is also interesting. While in the comics, Joker has sometimes been responsible for the murders of Thomas and Martha, the more accepted version is that the criminal Joe Chill did it. I feel like by positioning Joker as the one who created the conditions of chaos which inevitably led to the murders, the movie does justice to both versions of the story: it keeps Joker as separate yet involved with the inciting incident of his main enemy.
Not only are the sources within the story not trustworthy, but the way the whole narrative is framed by its ending scene calls into question the reliability of the entire thing. Was the whole movie and the sympathetic storyline just an imagined version by Joker himself? Is his origin story truly multiple choice? That would go in-line with Alan Moore’s as well as Christopher Nolan’s takes on the character.
Does this film have the potential for a sequel? It certainly does but I fear that a sequel would have to pit Batman against Joker and we have seen that done a l o t. And yet, I don’t really see how this franchise could move forward by not doing that, as, I have mentioned, even though Joker doesn’t feel like a comic book movie, it is still enmeshed in the comic book lore.
Todd Phillips showcases some great directing talent with Joker. The movie is gorgeously shot and feels very appropriately 80s. The pacing is lacking in some respect – the movie is a bit slow and doesn’t really have a strong third act – it builds to a very predictable moment. The usage of gory violence is also present in the film but not to the extent I was led to believe by a lot of the critics. It may be a personal thing, but I have seen films with way less justified usage of gory violence – and too way lesser effect too. The soundtrack is great though – it adds a lot to the feel of the picture.
Joaquin Phoenix is the undeniable star of this film. Everyone else truly fades into the background, including Deadpool’s Zazie Beetz and even Robert De Niro. Phoenix’s performance is praise-worthy though some of the media coverage regarding his preparations for the role leaves a lot to be desired. I guess it is easy to create clickbait stories about someone’s preparation to play such a psychologically challenged character. It’s Jared Leto-esque debacle all over again.
In short, Joker raises a plethora of questions and answers none of them. It might be one of those movies that is interesting to talk about rather than to watch.
Trailer: Joker trailer