One of the most beloved comic book villains off all-time, The Joker has always been the chaos to Batman’s skewed vigilante vision of order. A symbol of anarchy, the character works best when, like Heath Ledger’s rendition, the his origins remain a mystery. However, Todd Phillips’ Joker offers a new take on The Clown Prince of Crime, one that unapologetically holds up a mirror in our divided modern times.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner who has dreams of being a successful stand-up comedian. Living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), and harassed while working as a rental clown, life is literally beating Arthur down. The only glimmers of light are from a chance meeting with neighbour Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), and a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) show. However, when an act of violence awakens something within him, and a long-standing family secret surfaces, Arthur spirals down a rabbit whole that will change his life and the city of Gotham forever.
Tapping into the political and ideological divides that are seemingly tearing the world apart, Phillips’ film shows that ”Jokers” are already walking among us. They are the mass shooters who walk into schools with automatic rifles, the individuals online who fan the flames of controversy for fame, and the sexually repressed men who claim to be the forgotten despite living a life of privilege.
While Joker does not condone its protagonist’s actions, it does not dissolve the responsibility of society at large either. Everyone from governments, who cut funding to services that help those with mental health issue, to the 1% who refuse to help the disadvantaged, to those who fail to see the humanity in others also carry some of the blame.
Of course, this does not let Phillps’ film off the hook either. In using mental health issues as a key element of the psychopath’s origin, Joker inadvertently swims in the same unhealthy messaging that it claims to be making a statement about. Phillips uses mental health as a catch all, downplaying the fact that Arthur always has a choice. For all its dark and disturbing moments, the film still plays into that “lone wolf” and “good boy who is just a bit weird” narratives that the media often uses to justify white perpetrators of violence, but rarely affords to minorities in the same circumstance.
A visually captivating film, where Gotham is both luminous and grimy with equal measure, Phillips paints a vibrant cinematic portrait of a world falling apart at the seams. While the cracks in society have been building for years, it is Phoenix’s phenomenal performance as Arthur that provides the sledgehammer that makes the structure tumble. Phoenix brings a disturbing mixture of sadness and insanity to the role. Like a ballerina dancing on a stage of rubble, his Joker is gracefully sinister. A narcissist who cares little for the anarchy he creates but takes in pride in the fame that comes with it.
Though one did not need to see the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents for the umpteenth time, the film thankfully feels like its own unique entity free from the restrictive burdens of the DC Extended Universe. Closer to The King of Comedy than The Dark Knight, Joker is a dark portrait of society’s worst impulses manifested. Despite being a cautionary tale about the ills of a divided society, Joker will surely divide audiences, which is fitting as it is he who stirs the pot of chaos that has the last laugh.