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.