Let’s get one thing straight – Joker is not a superhero movie.
Don’t expect maniacal masked henchmen or balloons as biological weapons. And don’t expect Batman to swoop in and save anyone. Gotham here isn’t a colourful comic book metropolis – in fact, it could be any large city marred by violence, poverty, and inequality – and there are no heroes here.
But it isn’t some sick joke or a cynical Alan Moore pastiche either. Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker is a disturbing character study of a deeply troubled man, in the same vein as Taxi Driver or Falling Down – one that uses superhero stories as its mythological basis in the same way that other modern stories have mined Shakespeare and Greek myths.
Arthur Fleck (a virtuosic performance by Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up comedian struggling with mental illness, while caring for his disturbed mother in a poverty-ridden Gotham City. His mother spends her time watching late night talk shows and writing desperate letters to billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, who she worked for decades ago and believes will help her family now.
Throughout the movie, events are set in motion that fuel Arthur’s desperation and delusions of grandeur. After a co-worker unwisely hands him a gun, he commits an act of violence that sends shockwaves across the city – and unwittingly starts a movement, as anti-poverty activists don clown masks to protest Wayne’s callous comments condemning the crime.
Our Joker takes no satisfaction from this – the extent of his political engagement is watching talk show host Murray Franklin rattle off canned one-liners on nighttime TV. Franklin, played with a folksy, false warmth by Robert DeNiro (an obvious nod to Scorsese), is Arthur’s comedy hero – a man he becomes dangerously obsessed with.
Phillips’ film was (ridiculously) savaged pre-release due to speculation that it would glamourize the deplorable “Incel” movement or promote violence. I tend to think those types of accusations are ridiculous, no matter what the politics of the film, but the claims were particularly groundless in this case: unlike some of his cinematic predecessors, there’s nothing glamourous or aspirational about the Joker character here. Phoenix’s Joker is less reminiscent of Ledger’s punk rock portrayal than Taxi Driver anti-hero Travis Bickle. (Bickle at his most pathetic, that is; watching Arthur floundering through life, I found myself frequently reminded of that scene where Travis somehow lands a date, and inexplicably takes her to a porno theatre.)
In Scorsese’s film, Travis Bickle eventually gets his moment of glory, as his bullets meant for a hated politician are instead turned towards a den of human traffickers. Here, Arthur’s descent into violence is simply tragic. There’s nothing at all cathartic, for instance, in a scene where Arthur guns down a group of intoxicated Wayne Enterprises employees who attack him on the subway; your heart sinks as you realize that our protagonist – a victim himself, who never wanted to hurt anyone – has passed the point of no return.
It only gets worse from there. This is a bleak movie – albeit one with a surprising amount of empathy for its subject.
A review in The Economist noted that the movie shows “nothing that really explains how a frail, bullied loner could blossom into a charismatic criminal mastermind.” But that’s not the point: I don’t think this iteration of the Joker (who exists in a separate universe from the current slate of DC heroes and villains flooding megaplexes) was ever intended to become the supervillain we know and love. I don’t think he has much of a future at all. Arthur’s saga is not an origin story.
As others have pointed out, Joker isn’t not the most original of films (in many ways it does feel like a remake of Taxi Driver) but I was impressed by the intimacy and sincerity of the storytelling nonetheless. It’s the type of character-driven movie we need more of.
There’s also something revolutionary in the way it does something truly new with the iconic DC character, without being shackled to the canon of the wider “DC Universe.” I’m not a comic book movie cynic (I love comics, which often contain richer and weirder narratives than ever make it to the big screen), but I take would more stuff like this over another formulaic blockbuster any day.
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver