Written by Tyrone Bruinsma
Okay, the entire controversy over this film is kind of stupid. It’s not a filmmaker’s responsibility to worry about the psychotic potential murderers out there. We shouldn’t police art because someone who doesn’t value human life wants to project their own twist ideology onto it. Catcher in the Rye didn’t say “Murder John Lennon”, Taxi Driver didn’t say “Murder a Politician” and The Dark Knight Rises didn’t say “Murder Innocent People”. And films/media are allowed to depict and explore horrible characters.
Taxi Driver, In a Lonely Place, Goodfellas, A Clockwork Orange, Breaking Bad, There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler, Avengers: Infinity War, Maniac, Silence of the Lambs, Dracula and more ALL made lead characters with human sides out of horrible people. I’d argue it’s better to explore evil characters than lionise characters like James Bond (because those movies make it clear he’s good but let him get away with some very unethical things).
Also depiction does not equal glorification (otherwise, how can you criticise?) and this is NOT a children’s film. We clear? Okay.
DC Comics after the poor responses to Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Justice League (though I liked the former 2) has been making moves to have a more unique catalogue. Aquaman was a fun, colourful and pulpy Flash Gordon style film, Shazam! was an 80’s/90’s superhero films for kids with enough edge, Birds of Prey looks like a fun and junkie crime film with mostly women, Wonder Woman 1984 looks like…I don’t know what that’s gonna be, but I’ll bet it’s great. And of course Joker, a one-shot (probably) dark, else world’s DC story in which DC can explore new versions of classic characters without ties to its pre-existing continuity. To be honest, I rather like the idea that DC will have multiple universes as to feel different to the tightly controlled MCU.
And despite all the controversy that didn’t pop until…I don’t know, political commentators ran out of things to complain with Disney supposedly controlling everything or It: Chapter 2’s overly loved villain being a villain-Joker is amazing. I know Todd Philips has been being somewhat childish in the press in stating “Joker is how you sneak a real film into the superhero Hollywood system” as a dismissive “Marvel superhero films suck” statement, but Joker is great and more so that it’s a big studio film actually making a film this depressing, violent and uncomfortable out of their popular license. Let’s not mince words people, The Joker is one of the defining on screen villains to rival Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter and Hans Gruber. So seeing a version without explosions, Batman or trying to be a Deadpool style comedy is refreshing. This might be one of the most shocking mainstream studio films that people will see, feeling akin to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant, Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
Speaking of Darren Aronofsky, if there’s one other filmmaker that Joker takes influence from besides Martin Scorsese (namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy), it’s Aronofsky. Scenes, environments and scenarios feel pulled straight out of Pi and Requiem for a Dream-with the vibe of the film feeling like the Batman Year One film Aronofsky almost made. The film doesn’t feel like any other superhero film, it’s directed for discomfort and exaggerated realism. The camera work and score create a sense of distancing from Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur/Joker as we’re afraid to get too close to this man.
And it needs to be made clear, Joaquin Phoenix is amazing here. I’m not gonna argue “who is the best Joker” between Jack Nicolson, Mark Hamill or Heath Ledger with Phoenix. All give their own unique spin and it works. Phoenix’s Joker obviously pulls from the depressing/one bad day side in The Killing Joke, but it takes elements we take for granted about the Joker and gives them true meaning. It makes his laugh little more than a sad, pathetic cry in response to abuse. His clowning nature comes from the mentality of making people smile. Even his use of violence came from a place of just wanting to protect himself. These of course humanise, but don’t glorify or endorse him. It’s clear that before the movie starts, he’s not ok. He’s already been in a mental establishment, is on WAY too many drugs and has a bad life. Unfortunately, he’s pushed by society and seeks no ‘real’ help for himself.
The film is almost a self prophecy for Joker to wear the dark cruelty and humor of the world. Society’s biased system broke and mocked him for being broken and so he lashes out. While not intending to be a political idol, Joker’s desire of being a comedian in the story is always about exposing the truths of society and making us laugh at them.
The question over Joker’s moral/political stance is a complex and nuanced answer. Joker shows the issues with systematic, classist oppression and also what happens when we decide to not help ourselves. The world of the Joker is that of a world built by the rich, to mock the poor. But Joker doesn’t seek to rise above, be a positive symbol or change things…he’s so mental broken that his lashing out almost justifies the system he hates. It’s a really unique dynamic for any film, let alone a mainstream comic book adaptation to question. One that says it’s not just everyone or just an individual – it’s a feedback loop.
Ultimately, I loved the film’s dark angle in exploring and examining these subjects. I think people need to not view it as a black or white film, but one that you discuss for hours to try and understand.
On the base level: its performances by the supporting cast (especially Zazie Beets and Robert De Niro) are great, the storytelling is well done, its score is really chilling, the cinematography and colours by Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is excellent and it overall was a film I loved.
There’s a few connections to the extended DC universe in that Thomas Wayne is a prominent character and Bruce shows up for two scenes (in a plot point I think was a dig at films like Spectre) and only the second instance being rather egregious, but does show the feedback loop theme what would make Arthur into Joker and Bruce into Batman. There’s also (possibly) a reference to The Ratcatcher, but I don’t think so.
The main dislike is while the final scene is effective and disturbing, I wish the film had ended in the prior scene.
My main talking point about the film’s willingness to go violent, go disturbing in terms of a more mainstream film. I’m used to it from the niche, off-beat genre entries…but it’s so shocking coming from a studio feature with this much money and licensing involved. It’s not Deadpool levels of gore, but it’s the restraint kept mostly throughout that gives the punches their impact.
I highly recommend seeking this out.