No villain rooted in the world of comic books has had so much media devoted to him or her than Batman’s most recognizable adversary, the Joker. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, he has been voted number one in Wizard magazine’s “100 Greatest Villains of All Time” and number two in IGN’s “Top 100 Comic Book Villains.” He has appeared in over 250 productions, including movies, television series, animation, books, and video games. Now, “Hangover” director Todd Philips has left the comedy world to bring a new take on the origins of the Clown Prince of Crime in “Joker.”
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man with a condition that forces him to laugh at odd times. He is living in Gotham City in 1981, as the city is going through a tense political upheaval. While taking care of his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy), he works as a party clown and a stand-up comic. Things fall apart after he is mugged one day. The social service institute where he gets his medication gets its funding cut and he is given a gun for his protection, leading to his firing after he drops it at a children’s hospital. On his way home, he is bullied by three wealthy men, whom he kills. To his surprise, mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) comments on the incident, calling him a “clown” and igniting a powder keg in the city, as protestors against the wealthy don clown masks. Everyone, including Fleck’s comedic hero and late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), shares an opinion about the tragic deaths. Fleck, once ostracized, finds that he has become a folk hero of sorts and that attention begins to fill him with true laughter.
This is truly one of the best films of this year, with Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck serving as the driving force of the film. The narrative is disjointed but, without someone as talented as Phoenix, it could have been a disaster. Todd Philips’ contribution of a noir-style tragedy was genius and it made the movie so much more enjoyable for the tone of the character arc.
Philips’ version of Gotham is a gritty, filthy city that is descending into chaos as negligence, greed, and ignorance take over. It reflects the conditions that create such a public outcry for help. Even as Thomas Wayne runs for the mayor’s office, promising to help the people, he is seen as an outsider who lives in a mansion and is oblivious to real-world troubles. It is a well-planned atmosphere for the fires that are setting around Gotham.
Of course, “Joker” faced a fabricated controversy, as woke critics tried to bring down the film over its realistic portrayal of violence and mental illness, claiming it could inspire real-life violence. But this is what the movie is, fundamentally, about. A man who is ostracized and abandoned by society finds solace in the violence that he accidentally inspired. For the first time in his life, Fleck feels that he “exists.” As it becomes apparent that his own life is full of lies, he finds a connection to the craziness of the protesters who are putting on clown masks. Before he did not belong anywhere, and now he finds himself belonging in a group that worships him — at least vicariously. The story is thus a parable on the dangers of abandoning people just because they are a little “odd.” Phoenix brought this story to life in an incredible way.
The Joker has never had a truly definite origin in the comic books, outside of falling into a vat of acid after a battle with Batman. This movie removes any sort of cliches about the story and, while it pays homage to his comic book connections, it crafts a narrative that, instead of focusing on Joker’s impact on society, focuses upon society’s impact on the Joker. This is a twist that was risky, but, ultimately, it paid off.