I’m not the biggest comic book nerd. Frankly, it would have been WAY too expensive of a hobby when I was a kid. But I’ve always had a fondness for certain members of the cape-and-mask set, particularly Batman. As an adult, I like him because he’s seemingly the only billionaire on Earth that uses his wealth to do good in the world, instead of being a miserly dick. As a kid, though, I was enamored with the villains. Not only was Gotham’s rogues gallery immensely creative and well-developed, but their designs were otherworldly to me, and not just because Michelle Pfeiffer played Catwoman just as my body started to change (animated Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn helped a lot, too).
And the pinnacle of villainy, not just in the Bat universe, but in all of comic-dom, is the Joker. He’s the most diabolical, the most batshit insane, and oddly enough at times, the most relatable of all the villains that inhabit Gotham City. Part of the glee I had with the character was that every actor who played him brought something new to the table, making him more malleable than pretty much any other baddie out there. And as I grew up, I also came to appreciate the creative freedom that writers and artists could give to Mr. J. because there was no official origin story. There have been several put out over the years, most famously Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (which was itself adapted into an animated film a few years ago), but part of the craziness of the character is that even he isn’t sure how he came to be, and it’s a delicious gag that keeps on delivering.
All of this is to say that the latest incarnation, Todd Phillips’ Joker, is yet another addition to the Clown Prince of Crime’s mystique. It’s a totally different origin than I’ve seen before, and like everyone who’s come before him, Joaquin Phoenix offers yet another compelling perspective on the character.
Phillips, who’s mostly known for his comedic work on films like Old School and the three Hangover movies, borrows a lot from Martin Scorsese in his grim motif of Gotham, with Phoenix plays the title character with elements inspired as much from Robert De Niro’s leading roles in The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver as they are from DC’s array of source material. Throw in a little Norman Bates for good measure, and you’ve got a surprisingly strong recipe for success. It also makes things a little bit meta when De Niro himself appears in the film, less as a Rupert Pupkin and more of a Jerry Langford, in the form of gatekeeping late night host Murray Franklin.
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a rental clown who is beyond down on his luck, getting shit on basically at every turn. The film opens with him holding a sign outside a store to attract shoppers, only to be robbed of the sign and beaten to bloody pulp with it when he tries to retrieve it, and then just to rub salt in he gets docked pay for the sign’s destruction in the process.
In Phillips’ version of Gotham, empathy is a luxury afforded to very few, with the elites hoarding all the resources for themselves while the rest of society crumbles. The wage gap increases at a frightening pace, unemployment is on the rise, people ignore societal ills taking place right in front of them, and social services are getting cut across the board. This features in another hurdle for Arthur, who can no longer see a counselor or afford his medications, which he needs to control a mental condition he’s had since his abusive childhood which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the most inopportune times.
Arthur lives in abject squalor with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy, sadly no relation to animated Batman Kevin Conroy, though she apparently went to Juilliard with him). The two spend their days caring way too creepily for each other and obsessively watching Murray Franklin. Penny also writes daily letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) – current CEO of Wayne Enterprises (where she used to work) and future corpse to launch Batman’s path of heroism forward – hoping in vain for financial assistance.
One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, in part because George Bailey is such a purely good person. While I’ll never agree with the idea of suicide being depicted as a noble option, for George Bailey, his despair was such that he had hit his breaking point, but had too much good graces in him to retaliate against those who wronged him, either by accident (Uncle Billy forgetfully losing the Building & Loan’s money) or through malice aforethought (Mr. Potter’s unending avarice and opportunism). He’d rather remove himself from the equation for his family’s benefit than punish those who’ve hurt him.
Phillips and Phoenix, on the other hand, offer a different take, and the slow burn of Arthur’s transformation makes for a masterful bit of world-building. Unlike the near-angelic George Bailey, Arthur is a man in the real, modern world. And for a lot of people in the real world, one has to wonder how much you can pile on them before they say enough is enough and fight back. Arthur is mocked and beaten in broad daylight for doing his job. He tries to entertain a child, only for the child’s mother to think he’s a creeper. His coworkers hate him because they perceive him as weird, to the point that one of his fellow clowns (Glenn Fleshler) gives Arthur a gun, then sees to it that Arthur gets fired for having a gun. I can certainly relate, not to the gun part of course, but I’ve definitely had my moments where people assumed the worst about me based on nothing but rumor and perception, and it led to a lot of dark times for yours truly. Thankfully, I was able to escape those situations, but Arthur cannot.
It all comes to a head on a subway train, when three rich trouser stains sexually harass a woman, then beat Arthur senseless for his untimely laughter. Rather than take his beating and end up in hospital again, Arthur shoots them. With no witnesses, he simply flees the train, and allows the chaos to ensue in the aftermath. Police know someone dressed like a clown was spotted after the incident, and Thomas Wayne vows to get justice for his employees, deciding to run for mayor to keep the rabble in line. But the three murders (really self-defense for two of them) become a catalyst for the city. The masses, tired of being ignored and kicked around, use the “clown” as a rallying cry, a symbol of revolution and fighting back at those who treat them as a joke. The city is a powder keg. The clown is simply the match.
All the while, Arthur tries to lead a normal life, forging a romantic relationship with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz, who seems to be in just about everything these days, not that that’s a bad thing), and finally gaining the confidence to try his hand at standup comedy, something he’s always wanted to do. It’s only when reality sets back in and the world once again comes crashing down on him that he reaches the point of no return.
Every major actor who’s portrayed the Joker has brought something unique and positive to the character. Yes, even Jared Leto. The campy Batman TV show and movie from the 60s saw Caesar Romero lean in to the comedic side of the character, his face piled high with pancake makeup that still couldn’t hide his mustache. Jack Nicholson was arguably the most criminal of the bunch, going from pure gangster to scarred gangster using his injury as part of a gimmick. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his take on the character in The Dark Knight, a pure sociopathic agent of chaos who wanted to watch the world burn just to prove there was no morality left in the world. Jared Leto was the kingpin, a true underworld ruler who could bask in his empire. And perhaps greater than them all, the animated Joker of TV and video games, voiced by Mark Hamill, gave the character his most definitive features, from the voice to the character design to the nihilistic joie de vivre that truly makes him Batman’s #1 arch nemesis.
But for all the great things those previous players have done, they’ve all dealt with a version of the Joker that was already crazy, in one form or another. Phoenix’s challenge was to show us how someone like the Joker can be driven crazy in the first place. And he’s more than up to the task, to the point that an Oscar nomination would not be a surprise. He also nods back to his predecessors, incorporating some of each actor’s contribution into his own. His involuntary cackle would make Hamill proud. When his transformation is complete, his triumphant glow could put Leto to shame. His dad jokes would make Romero blush. The buildup to his denouement screams, “Wait’ll they get a load of me” in the same voice as Nicholson. The cesspool of apathy and lack of empathy throughout Gotham would give Ledger even more scars. In one singular performance, Phoenix shows how every other major incarnation of the Joker could have come to be, and it’s deliriously brilliant.
There’s only one major problem with the film, and really it’s more about what the film doesn’t say than what it does. Sadly, we live in a society where social media dictates perception, and perception can dictate reality. It is way, way, WAY too easy to read between lines in this film and use it towards your own political ends. Sometimes it’s warranted, but here it’s not. This film is not a political statement. When the trailers came out and Phillips and Phoenix were somewhat aloof or confrontational during the press junket, it led the wokest of the woke to declare the film an anthem for “incels,” a warning of the effects of toxic masculinity. When Thomas Wayne runs for mayor, he declares himself to be Gotham’s savior, the only one who can fix all the problems. I know I was thinking it, but someone behind me in the theatre actually whispered it. “A rich man announcing that only he can fix everything? Fuck you, Trump.”
Most importantly, it’s very easy to get tricked into thinking that the mentally ill are as dangerous as someone like the Joker. He has his cackle due to a brain injury, and a fair few characters dismiss him because of it, and diminish him as a person, which plays a part in his future transformation. My girlfriend, who suffered a traumatic brain injury a few years ago, saw this as an attack, and it’s easy to see why. Arthur suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, and so did she, which can make it very easy to misconstrue if you’re looking for a cheap “deeper meaning.” If you see this movie and think for a second that Arthur Fleck is emblematic of people with mental injuries, don’t. It’s not true, and it shouldn’t be interpreted that way. And I say this knowing full well that the woman who willingly has sex with me will read this and withhold based on what I say here. So don’t do it, people! Just don’t do it!
Rather, enjoy this film for what it really is, a fun, thoughtful, and surprisingly graphic “possible” origin story for one of the greatest villains in entertainment history. Don’t read into it any further than that. Todd Phillips doesn’t want you to, Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t want you to, and my girlfriend doesn’t want you to, which means I don’t want you to, either.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite Batman villain? How on the nose is using “Send in the Clowns” as part of the ambient score? Let me know!