Joker (2019) – A Controversial Take

Okay so the title says it all. This is not an acceptable version of the Joker for me but I’ll get into that later. Of course MAJOR SPOILERS warning as I will be mentioning some content of the movie including plot twists and my general opinion. You have been warned!

 

*****Spoilers- Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie yet*****

 

The Good

Before I get into the reasons why this film isn’t for me, let me cover some of the positives. This is a great movie. In fact it’s probably the best movie I’ve seen this year. The pacing is a little slow but the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck is flawless. The camera never leaves Arthur as we’re brought along as passengers in each scene on his very dark descent. Every frame presented is meticulous, down to the color palettes and the framing of Arthur. The twists are a little predictable but satisfying and the film does a great job of keeping the viewer sympathetic towards Arthur even during acts of violence.

 

The Plot

The plot is also extremely clever. Borrowing heavily from the ideas presented in the graphic novel The Killing Joke, it explores the idea of descending into madness after having ‘a very bad day’. However it does expand upon this idea and crafts a new story making it much more of an acceptable homage than a rip off. Arthur is a true outsider, having no place in the world. Misunderstood by everyone he meets and treated with hostility at every turn. He is unloved but more than that…..he is unnoticed.

Arthur struggles to connect with anyone bar his Mother and seeks comfort in his favorite talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). He dreams up delusions where he successfully connects with Murray live on air and becomes a stand up comedian. Popularity, adoration and a connection to the world are what he longs for more than anything. However reality is far crueler and darker than Arthur’s visions. After being pushed to breaking point, Arthur fights back against the world and something strange happens……..the world notices him!

 

The Rise of Joker

The film ramps things up in the third act as Arthur discovers his warped place in the world. Gaining confidence and acceptance as Gotham begins to burn through class divide (ignited by Arthur’s first act of violence). Arthur cuts his last remaining link to his old self and becomes Joker. Again, each scene is expertly crafted and Phoenix deserves the highest praise for such a convincing portrayal on screen. His dance routine in front of a joker mob is truly breath taking. Both beautiful and horrifying in equal measures. Leaving the viewer conflicted over how to feel about Arthur.

 

Not My Joker – Not My Batman

Okay so I’ve spent the last few paragraphs gushing about this movie and with good reason. This is a great movie but for me it doesn’t fit into my version of Gotham or Batman or the Joker. I’m not a hardcore comic book nerd but I have read and seen a lot of different versions of Joker over the years. Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, Alan Moore, Bill Finger, Frank Miller, Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton and Troy Baker have all crafted or performed iterations of the Joker over the years (Yes I left Jared Leto out deliberately!) that I know and respect. My vision of the Joker is that he is deranged, a activist for anarchy, a counter part to Batman and ultimately a criminal genius who can usually outsmart the greatest detective in Gotham.

Arthur falls a little short for me. The links with Thomas Wayne and Bruce are strained and unnecessary to the plot. The fragile naive nature of Arthur’s character is a great hook to keep the viewer sympathetic but ultimately makes the leap to supervillian a little hard to swallow. This man has no understanding of the world around him and is definitely lacking in street smarts. You could argue that this is an origin story and therefor there is still room for growth of the character but I still find that hard to believe. Arthur isn’t going to suddenly gain intelligence or wisdom to make him a match for Batman.

The second argument that could be made is that perhaps most of this isn’t real. Arthur’s delusions are sprinkled throughout the movie and even though some of them are revealed, it’s clear the director wants to leave it ambiguous as to what is real and what is fiction. I do like this touch as it gives me a reason to discount this version of the Joker however, since sequels have already been greenlit…..It looks like we’ll soon see what the director considers canon!

 

Conclusion

This is a great movie. It’s perhaps a little too dark with no real balance making it a tough movie to re-watch. It offers a truly Oscar worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix and tackles mental health issues head on. My biggest complaint here is that it doesn’t need to be a Joker movie! The Gotham/Batman connections feel out of place in an otherwise grounded movie. I do love this film and would encourage everyone to watch it but I won’t be counting it as a DC comic book movie in my heart.

Ultimately for me, The Joker doesn’t need an origin story but if I really had to pick one….I’d read Detective Comics #168

What was your take on Joker? Is it film of the Year? Will it win big at the Oscars or is it too dark? Let me know in the comments below!

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