‘Joker’ Is a Character Study that Doesn’t Understand Character

The best known villain in the realm of comics is Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker. The so-called Clown Prince of Gotham. The Jester of Genocide. The Ace of Knaves. Since his introduction in Batman #1 in 1940, the Joker has made an appearance in nearly every on-screen outing of the Caped Crusader, played so notably by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, voiced in animation by Mark Hamill and Zach Galifianakis, and now returning in the emaciated form of Joaquin Phoenix.

Director Todd Phillips re-imagines the notorious supervillain and gives him a new origin. One rooted in realism and set against the backdrop of a Gotham City that closely resembles New York circa 1981. The city is plagued with a garbage strike, rising unemployment, and a staggering crime wave. For Arthur Fleck, life is joyless and unfulfilling. He does his best to suppress the dark cloud that accompanies him, scribbling jokes into a battered notebook and making regular visits to a social worker for access to his collection of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. Arthur works as a clown for hire, one of Gotham’s most overlooked citizens.

Much has been made of Joaquin Phoenix and his physical transformation. While his appearance is striking, he is hardly the first actor to go to such lengths for a part. But his protruding ribs and sunken abdomen are flaunted ad nauseum to hide the reality that this is character as hollow as his cheeks. Sure, Phoenix has a lot of big moments. He gets to laugh a lot and very loudly, he commits horrific acts of violence and sings and dances at odd moments. Much like the Joker himself, Phoenix is a performance artist who uses audacity and shock as substitutes for depth. It is the type of character work that mesmerizes some and induces eye rolls in others. Neither side is necessarily wrong, but the problem with Arthur Fleck, and by extension Joker, is that he never stops talking while also not managing to say anything either.

Arthur’s version of Gotham City, Phillips wants us to understand, is a city in decay. Morally, physically, emotionally. It is a city on the brink of collapse, and the only one in a position to be a hero is billionaire businessman, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Wayne is treated like any other wealthy one percenter with political aspirations, though. We mostly only see him through television interviews, but it is clear there is no hero waiting in Gotham’s wings.

The script, co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, gives the illusion that it dives deeply into parallels between Gotham’s woes and ours, but it never really does. Through a series of incidents that could be real or could be in Arthur’s head, the story relies on gory violence, off-putting jokes, and glimpses into his mundane life. He goes to work, rides the grimy subway, takes care of his home-bound mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and dreams of a career in stand up comedy. Other than a disconnected series of voice overs, there is very little to connect us to Arthur’s life in a more than superficial ways. Everything that happens, from a brutal beating by a gang of sign stealing teenagers to his pharmaceutical access being eliminated by budget cuts, is supposed to lead us to understand how someone like him could become a ruthless supervillain. Perhaps that isn’t a stretch. But considering Phillips himself has insisted that this is not a film designed to elicit sympathy or empathy for the Joker is preposterous. His rise to evil is presented as a collection of wrongs that happen to him. It feels inevitable in the way that a perpetual victim will eventually fight back. And when that is the case, how is it not asking us, the audience, to sympathize with him?

Joker doesn’t work well as an origin story for a supervillain, but it does succeed in its craftsmanship. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography captures Michael Friedman’s design of a crumbling city’s neglected corners. Oscar winner Mark Bridges relishes in the drab color palette of the 1970s, giving it slight hints of a comic book spin, without crossing into overtly cartoonish style.

Music is the most impressive part of the production, with a score from Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir that is jarring and off-kilter, like the film’s main player. But unlike the Joker, Guðnadóttir’s score has a logic to it and a playfulness that makes it feel like it belongs.

With the exception of Frances Conroy as Arthur’s shut-in and possibly abusive mother, the rest of the supporting cast is mostly relegated to the background. Zazie Beetz could have had an interesting part in the narrative as Arthur’s neighbor, Sophie. But the story is so focused on him and his wants and desires that she does nothing more than take up space in his mind. Both women exist to serve different facets of Arthur’s psyche. In his version of the world, his mother is there to suppress his dreams while Sophie sets him free. These women are not treated as real people that live beyond Arthur’s fractured mind, which is in line with Phillips’ usual treatment of female characters. Look no further than the nagging wives and wild party girls of The Hangover films.

Joker is a frustrating mess of a story that uses all the conventional tropes and stereotypes of a sad guy with no opportunities to improve his life. He is the eventual nemesis to Batman, a man who also faced tragedy and trauma in his life, but who, through privilege and opportunity would eventually grow up to save the world. These two could be perfect foils of each other. But what Phillips and Silver give us merely blames mental illness and poverty. It could have been so much more, had the story been told by people that truly understood humanity. Instead, they give us a tale that is stripped of it.


  1. What a cliche. From the tiny photo I knew this pink haired “critic” would be a feminist. You are insufferable. You are not a film critic. You are a political agendist. There is no place for people like you in film criticism and that’s why true film criticism is dead. They let anyone be a critic these days and the lunatics have taken over the asylum. You don’t have the brain power to not force your own political agenda into everything. Not everything is an attack on you. What a sad life you must live that you can’t sit back and enjoy a work of art, without getting worked up with your own misconceived notions of how the film pertains to your feminist fundamentalist stronghold. Your review history is as predictable as the sun.

    The absolute low point of this “review”, was you actually had the audacity to try and dismiss one of the greatest actors alive’s, clear best actor performance. It’s not even up for discussion. I’ve read a lot of bad reviews of this movie and your are the only one to even try to make that claim. I bet you thought Brie Larson was good in Captain Marvel too. No honey, “others” are not “rolling their eyes” at his performance, as you said. Just you. Only you. You are alone. But you’re probably used to that.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I would like to respond to your comment below that was in reply to a comment of mine, but there is no reply option there. Perhaps you turned it off? So I’ll put it here.

        You and I both know “Nick” hasn’t seen the movie. If he had, he would have made a point. Instead, all he had was some base level name calling, the last bastion of someone with no grounds.

        I have responded to many male critics, but of course you think I’m attacking you because you’re a woman. I’m “attacking” because I think your review is crap, not because you’re a woman. No matter how much you want to believe that, it’s simply not true. Every feminist critic thinks if you disagree with them, you’re anti-woman. No, I’m anti-bad opinion. Again, not everything is a personal attack. And I’m not attacking anyone. If anything I’m counter-attacking. Your review is the attack.

        Yes, art is subjective, but the perception of it can still be 100% wrong if viewed from the wrong angle as you and many other critics have.

        The MacBook Pro/latte thing is what you fix on? That was filler. Come on. Taking that as a bias/stereotype? I have a MacBook Pro and drink lattes! Again, not everything is personal attack.

        Lastly, I have seen a growing number of “film critics” judging a film based on viewpoints that they bring into the film as a criteria checklist. Feminism, diversity, representation. That’s not film criticism. I don’t know what that is. Diversity judgement? So you’re a feminist judge to me, not a critic. And there’s many more of you and it maddening. When you go in to review a film, you should check everything you know and feel going into it at the door. Two objects floating in space, tethered by a string. That’s you and the subject. No outside noise. You may find, you like a lot more than you think.


      2. We haven’t turned anything off, comment-wise, so I don’t know why you aren’t able to access the reply button.

        The fact is, you came into this review with a pre-conceived notion of what I would write, based on an avatar in which I did have pink hair, and probably because the tagline for our site uses the word “feminism.” However, in my entire review of “Joker,” I only dedicate one paragraph to writing about what I perceive as being a problem with female characters, and Todd Phillips’ general handling of them. The bigger concern I wrote about, as I’m sure you noticed since you read it thoroughly, was more to do with the fact that Phillips has given us a Joker that demands sympathy or empathy, even though we are supposed to believe we aren’t supposed to feel such things about him.

        Also, as I’m sure you noticed, I praised the technical aspects of the film, because I was critiquing the entire work, not only a portion of it. That’s what good critics do.

        I can see no point in continuing this conversation. You did, in fact, come in here looking for a fight. By calling me (I assume a stranger since I only have a letter to go by for your identity) a political agendist, insufferable, and a “critic” with quotation marks, you are attacking me, regardless of how you try to claim otherwise. The fact that your attacks don’t bother me doesn’t make it any less of an attempt. It seems to me you would be much happier seeking out like-minded individuals and groups and relishing in your love of Joaquin Phoenix and Arthur Fleck and the film they have given you. I’m happy for you. I’m glad you like it. Regardless of how you have decided to interpret my intentions, I am not telling anyone not to see this film. Everyone has the right to make up their own mind and everyone should. This is simply one person’s feelings about it.

        And to respond to one your earlier comments, yes, I did enjoy Brie Larson in Captain Marvel. Almost as much as I liked Chris Hemsworth in the Thor films and Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man films and Chris Evans as Captain America. And I also liked Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Zachary Levi as Shazam.


    1. You said exactly what I feel about this “review”. It’s pathetic how many critics give negative reviews and how meaningless their opinions are. The world doesn’t need these trolls and sycophants. Thanks for your reply she is what’s wrong with the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My heavens, Steve, you are certainly most upset about a review that you think is meaningless. So upset that you’re using a lotta big words, there, Steve. Someone needs a better thesaurus, Steve.


    2. Lol. You say she has a sad life because of a negative review of a movie….what kind of life do you have then, having a full blown tantrum like a little baby? Lol. Normal people reading a review they don’t like would just forget about it and move on. You FREAKED out. But then accuse her of having a sad life. You’re very funny kiddo

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Kiddo”? Welcome to the discussion grandpa. Are you her father? Not important. I appreciate you calling up the grandkids to teach you the internets so I could take in this, (clearly, very well thought out), response. Lots of great material here to chew on.

        First, I know you haven’t seen the movie, so that kind of kills any value you may have in this discussion. As for what you call a “tantrum” (again, showing your age), you’ve confused that for passion. Yes I’m passionate about my favorite art, film. And I’m sick of no talent, hack “critics” giving a bad name to film criticism and affecting art and my potential future exposure to said art. You see, these movies are a business, and when these critics go on their beat up MacBook pros and leave unjustifiable negative reviews in between latte sips for great films that they either don’t understand or have just made up their mind that it’s bad because it doesn’t fit their own personal political agenda, that pisses me off. That’s not being professional. That affects the chances of a continuation of the story. It affects sequels. It affects future work for actors, directors, writers, etc. Thus it affects me, because I want that art. It gives me life. Surely you care about something, right, “Nick”? I mean, I know your “normal” and all, but normal people gotta care about something too, don’t they?

        Lastly, I thank you for insinuating that I am not normal. Again, showing your age for thinking that is an insult. Normal is a setting on the washing machine. Normal is plain, boring, simple, easily consumable, easily digestible, easily forgettable. Like a Marvel movie. I guess that was in style in the 50’s or whenever your from, but not anymore Pop’s. Human beings are inherently complex, so anyone worth talking to wouldn’t be considered “normal”.

        This film, for instance, is not “normal”. Thus, I would suggest you probably not watch it. It’s not for simple minds. As Arthur said with the last line of the film, “you wouldn’t get it.”

        The End. c


      2. Pretty funny that you accuse Nick of not watching the film when you got all up in arms about a review you clearly hadn’t read all the way through.

        How many male critics have you attacked for disliking the film? Because I’m sure someone as enlightened as yourself would never set out to simply try to tear down women with differing opinions. The very idea you foster, that art is objective and there is only one way to look at this or any film is actually in direct contradiction to this film itself. Perhaps you are the one who doesn’t get it.

        Also, I don’t have a MacBook and don’t drink lattes, so check your biases and stereotypes at the door before you come back.

        I’m sad for you, “C.” I have had really interesting, thoughtful conversations with colleagues who more closely align with your opinion of this film. Our conversations have been respectful and mutually enlightening. If you weren’t so bent on trying to attack dissenters, your message might be better received and you might actually have a shot at making the difference you are clearly so desperate to make.


  2. Thanks for talking about Beetz’s performance, which many critics have been overlooking. I was curious how she translated to the big screen.


  3. “His rise to evil is presented as a collection of wrongs that happen to him. It feels inevitable in the way that a perpetual victim will eventually fight back. And when that is the case, how is it not asking us, the audience, to sympathize with him?”

    Couldn’t one somewhat compare the Joker in the regard to what you said in the above quote from your review with Alex from Clockwork Orange? The loathsome lead character is offered some extra sympathy by grace of them being the main character and having seen them suffer on screen? I think there are certainly parallels in regards to societal, environmental and mental health cross over between the two films.



  4. It’s a joker movie…its about his world which is not sunshine and rainbows or politically correct…its horrific, unpredictable and shocking…historically he’s a lunatic…what was expected when the movie was released…a children’s comedy??? I think people who have limited knowledge on Batman lore doesn’t understand that it’s a joker film….traditionally Gotham City has to feel like a place that births lunatics…of course there’s no women in his world…hes a social outcast with extreme mental health issues…if he had love in his life he wouldn’t be the joker…. I’ma Batman fan so I knew what to expect walking in and the film exceeded my expectations…


    1. Batman is one of the only comics I’ve actually read, I’ve watched almost every version of the character, and my pet bunny is named Bruce Wayne. Please tell me more about things I don’t understand.


  5. >These women are not treated as real people that live beyond Arthur’s fractured mind, which is in line with Phillips’ usual treatment of female characters.

    Really? Grow up.


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