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.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Great review. You are my new go to reviewer. You handled the pros and cons so well without killing the future experience for me, whether good or bad. Thank you for being a straight up reviewer!

  2. Top notch review Courtney! I was thinking that this might be a portrait of a man turning into a monster, relevant to these young men who slowly become monsters themselves, and then mass shooters.. it sounds like I was kinda right

    Re- the mental illness aspect though, personally I think, if guns aren’t involved, it seems obvious to me that it’s be the main issue. Healthy people don’t act like that. I may have misinterpreted what you wrote tho… plus you’re the one who has seen the movie, not me! =]

    The one thing that bugged me though… while I understand why’d you say that it downplays that he always has a choice… the thing is, severely ill people like this don’t have a choice, at least not one based on any sort of logic/understanding of society/reality. If they are psychotically delusional, they are completely separated from reality, and often paranoid .

    I say this from past personal experience. Unfortunate people suffering like this don’t really have a choice, in the sense that, if they are delusional, then they are acting on beliefs that couldn’t be more detached from reality, the choices they do have are all based on said delusions – one example that is very common among people with bipolar is that they honestly believe they are some sort of messiah or god.

    I know that when I was in this state, I honestly believed I was a messiah of some kind and acted accordingly. Luckily I don’t have violent tendencies and nothing bad happened but it still scared the shit out of my parents. Other people I have spoke to about similar issues though did become violent when they become manic.

    Anyways, sorry for the wall of text, I know I haven’t even seen the movie yet. It was that the one point I ranted about just cos it bugged me a bit. But again, you saw the movie, not me.

    Other than what I ranted about tho, this review is great and has me more intrigued. I hate superhero movies, but I love The Joker. And I love Phoenix. And I loved the animated episode of Batman that this story is loosely based on. This should be perfect for me!

    PS – I know that you are super busy, but there will be an email in your inbox within the next few hours regarding a few reviews I’d like to contribute.

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