The year is 1981. Arthur Fleck is a party clown and a social outsider who aspires to become a stand-up comedian. He lives with his mother, Penny, in an apartment in Gotham City. The rigid class system in this society has resulted in large segments of the population unemployed, disenfranchised, and impoverished. Arthur himself has it worse than most due to his crippling mental disorders. Things reach their absolute nadir when a group of delinquents steal Arthur’s sign, attacking him as he catches up to them. Still, he holds out hope that one day, it will all work out.
How a superhero origin story typically panned out was common knowledge by 2019. The protagonist started off the film in a bad way. Perhaps they lost their parents. Maybe they’re considered a loser by everyone else. It could even be something as simple as the mundanity of everyday life weighing them down. Regardless of their background, they would then discover their powers at the end of the first act and learn of the great responsibility that comes with them as the second draws to a close. The third act would then culminate in one final battle against their archnemesis. As superhero films tend to be idealistic, the protagonist would invariably win, thus allowing them to use their abilities to help others wherever they may need it.
With Joker, Todd Philips takes the comic book film formula and smashes it into millions of pieces. Simply by virtue of placing a well-known supervillain in the lead role, you know the tragic ending of this film is a forgone conclusion. In fact, this is precisely what manages to make the film such a challenging watch. Arthur is forced to live in the absolute worst cesspool of crime, classism, and general human hostility and you know there is no light at the end of the tunnel for him. Indeed, even those who have never so much as touched a comic book in their lives know Arthur is destined to embrace the madness surrounding him, thus becoming its avatar. Because the manner in which the film is to end is painstakingly obvious, the mystery lies in the path it will take to get there.
The announcement of Joker was met with a certain amount of skepticism. The Joker is one of the most iconic villains in the history of fiction, yet ironically, very little is known about him. Several people attempted to give him an origin story in the decades since his debut in 1940. All of them are at least partially true, and it’s implied on multiple occasions that the Joker himself isn’t sure. This added to the character’s mystique. Most of the other members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery had a backstory, thus allowing the Dark Knight to understand them. The knowledge would allow him to emerge triumphant. The Joker, on the other hand, simply is. By having such a vague past, one questions if he exists or if he’s even human. His sheer insanity ensures that even DC villains with actual superpowers are afraid of him.
The very premise of Mr. Philips’s film thus seems entirely counterproductive. Presenting Arthur as a victim of circumstance completely goes against the Joker’s modus operandi of committing evil acts for their own sake. He and co-writer Scott Silver even go as far as explaining away the Joker’s iconic evil laugh. In this depiction, Arthur has a mental disorder brought on by an abusive childhood that occasionally results in bouts of uncontrollable laughter – a Pseudobulbar affect, to be precise. There is not an ounce of joy to be found in Arthur’s laughter, and in a realistic touch, he carries a card to give people that explains his behavior if it temporarily renders him inarticulate.
In less capable hands, the film would only succeed in dispelling the character’s mystique much like what happened to Darth Vader in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel films. Joker manages to avoid this problem by instead supplying its audience with a scathing satire of society and the media it consumes. Ever since he was a child, Arthur has idolized a talk show host named Murray Franklin, hoping to become as famous as him one day. This aspiration has been the single ray of hope in what is otherwise a dreary existence. He sees stand-up comedy as a way to achieve his goal. However, he begins laughing uncontrollably upon taking center stage. Murray then proceeds to use a clip of Arthur for the sole purpose of insulting him on national television. It’s a great way to demonstrate the extreme lack of empathy the media can have.
Indeed, the worst part about all of this is that Arthur’s environment only succeeds in hastening his decent. Gotham City as it is depicted in this film is mirrors the state of New York City throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This era was defined its anomalously severe crime waves. It was to the point where people could randomly find dead bodies in subway cars – though not all of them were murder victims. The film does an excellent job capturing what the city was like in that era. You see trash bags out in the open, flickering subway lights, and graffiti on the walls. As is often the case, the people’s sheer apathy of their surroundings results in worse attitudes overall. Why bother acting pleasant when nobody else cares?
The most significant turning point mirrors a real life incident often considered representative of how bad things became in New York City during this time. While traveling on a subway, Arthur is accosted by three inebriated businessmen from Wayne Enterprises. After harassing a female passenger, they set their sights on him due to having another one of his bouts while in clown makeup. Arthur, completely fed up with everything, pulls out a gun and fatally shoots the businessmen. Notably, he kills the last one while he was wounded and trying to escape.
This is an overt reference to an incident in 1984 in which Bernhard Goetz shot and wounded four African-American gang members on a subway train. The shooter’s actions were exacerbated by several racially charged statements he later issued. Regardless, it is often thought of as the moment in which the citizens of New York City couldn’t bear the high crime rates for a second longer and made a unified effort to clamp down on the problems plaguing the community. Their efforts would show after 1990 when homicides dropped faster than they had risen, leaving experts baffled. By the late-2010s, New York City would be considered one of the safest major cities in the world.
For Gotham City, Arthur’s killing of the Wayne businessmen would also have a significant impact. Specifically, it inspires other disenfranchised people to begin a violent countercultural revolution, donning clown masks of their own. Indeed, Thomas Wayne, who is usually depicted as a benevolent philanthropist, is shown to be a textbook elitist. His attempts at making Gotham City a better place comes from a position that actively chooses not to understand why people are lashing out. If one didn’t know any better, one might get the impression this film was nothing but a hit piece on an otherwise upstanding citizen.
Interestingly, the film itself seems to subtly enforce this interpretation. In a move highly reminiscent of American Psycho, the narrative is presented from the point of view of a mentally ill individual. Arthur is shown to be highly delusional and is prone to daydreaming. As the film goes on, you begin to realize that things may not be as they seem. Arthur stalks a neighbor through the streets only for her to inexplicably start dating him and show support for the violent clowns’ movement. If you thought this to be highly unrealistic, you would be correct. A later scene shows her freaking out when he appears in her apartment. In other words, the relationship never happened. Later on, Arthur concludes that he is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne. Every interaction they have involves Thomas violently rebuffing Arthur, making you wonder if the former’s condescending attitude is purely a fabrication of the latter’s imagination.
Ultimately, the very reason this film shines is because it manages to be ambiguous about a lot of crucial details, and places the onus on the audience to figure things out. Is Arthur really Thomas’s son? Did the billionaire pull strings in order to get out of supporting him? Is Arthur, having been deprived of the several medications he needs to stay sane thanks to an uncaring system, concocting a fantasy to give his life meaning? You never know what is real in this film, which allows it to be a truly fascinating character study. It cannot be overstated that a filmmaker putting so much faith in their audience was extremely rare in the late-2010s, making Joker the breath of fresh air the industry desperately needed at the time.
While the premise of the rich getting their just desserts might bind the film to the 2010s permanently, it features a level of nuance contemporary works lack. While Arthur is put through the wringer, certain people do have a reason to be angry with him. Arthur’s boss is shown to lack empathy, but he does correctly call him out on bringing a gun to a children’s hospital. Even Thomas Wayne’s hostility towards him makes a lot of sense when you consider that Arthur stuck his fingers into the mouth of his son, Bruce, in an attempt to get him to smile. Anything less than unbridled rage would’ve been considered downright neglectful.
Things reach a boiling point when Arthur learns of his mother’s deceptions and smothers her with a pillow. Realizing at that exact moment his life is a comedy, he fully embraces the Joker persona given to him by the malcontents. Former co-workers Gary and Randall, hearing about the passing of Arthur’s mother, bring a cake in sympathy. For having supplied him with the gun that got him fired and later getting him in trouble for it, he brutally kills Randall using a pair of scissors. This is the single most nerve-wracking sense in the entire film. Everyone knows the extent of the Joker’s depravity, so the audience is fully expecting for Arthur to murder Gary for the fun of it. He allows Gary to leave due to being one of the few people who was genuinely kind to him. However, Gary, being a dwarf, can’t reach the chain lock. Arthur then takes a few steps to the door and removes the chain, fulfilling his promise.
The climax of the film occurs when Arthur accepts Murray’s invitation to his show. A far cry from the man who used to idolize Murray, Arthur significantly changes the mood of the show when he begins cracking morbid jokes. He then confesses to having killed the three businessmen, going on a rant about how society has failed him. He emphasizes his point by pulling out his gun and shooting Murray in the head.
This leads to my favorite moment in the entire film. Arthur walks to the camera and apes Murray’s sign-off catchphrase, but is suddenly interrupted by a “Technical Difficulties” card – “Spanish Flea” naturally plays in the background. This juxtaposition of silliness and a pitch-black nihilism was perfect. A touch I especially enjoyed is that the other news stations replay Arthur’s murder. The censors thought to bleep out his profane language, yet leave footage of the murder itself untouched. It’s an excellent commentary on the contradictory standards of network television; you can show extreme violence, but swearing is just plain wrong. Then again, there’s also the fact that one cameraman lingers before fleeing the studio. He is horrified at what he has just seen, yet cannot turn away. So dedicated are the executives to ratings that they demonstrate a willingness to throw their own star under the bus, showing his last moments of life because it makes for great television.
Even if jokes are peppered throughout to lighten the mood, there is no escaping the sheer enormity of the ending. Arthur is apparently broken out of a police car only to be worshiped by the malcontents as their leader. Although the scene is presented as a triumphant moment, it is about as far away from a happy ending as one can get. A once well-meaning person has now become the single greatest threat to the city and its citizens. Even if Arthur was hoping, in some twisted sense, people would finally accept him for who he is, he still doesn’t get that. It is clear the demonstrators merely adore him purely because he is a face for their cause. They don’t care about Arthur; they care about the Joker. If he didn’t line up with their beliefs, they would kick him around just like the degenerates who stole his sign. In the end, Arthur became a monster – and he learns to enjoy every second of it.
Just based off of this premise, one might assume Joker would get lost amongst the dime-a-dozen satirical works from the late 2010s that were more interested in reaffirming beliefs than telling a coherent story. However, this isn’t what happens. What I feel to be the film’s greatest strength is that it did not bend its knee to contemporary critical sensibilities – quite the opposite, in fact. What Joker managed to do was openly challenge contemporary critical sensibilities. There was a fair bit of cognitive dissonance in how critics and journalists would have empathy for certain groups of people who did horrible things, but not others. One got the impression they would often assume those who adopted destructive sets of beliefs did so because it was in their nature rather than examine the underlying problems. Joker tries its best to understand what breeds these monsters, and while it doesn’t – and couldn’t – provide a definitive answer, it did reveal a significant weakness in the zeitgeist of those whose words carried weight in the form of increasingly unchecked confirmation bias.
Relatedly, another significant weakness of professional critics at the time was their inability to take any kind of criticism themselves. It was therefore very unsurprising that Joker left them divided. As the 2010s drew to a close, critics began approaching their craft with a very hierarchal mindset. If the common theatergoer didn’t appreciate their sacred cows, you could count on countless editorials decrying their bad taste to surface within a week of the perceived slight. Much like how Joker doesn’t bend its knee to critics, the critics themselves became increasingly frustrated that their audience didn’t blindly and unquestionably accept their opinions. Consequently, it seemed fitting that Joker would end up being the first R-rated film to gross over one-billion dollars. The sheer amount of antipathy they expressed for Joker in response to both it and the incendiary comments issued by its director ensured its success story was written before it even premiered. Indeed, I myself ended up seeing it roughly one month into its run, and the theater was crowded – like a mid-tier effort on opening weekend. I suspect it was at that point the general audience realized they’d been had.
It’s also rather telling that while critics generally didn’t like Joker, artists loved it. The film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, and it had no shortage of big-name fans. Among those praising the film were Josh Brolin, Jessica Chastain, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Mark Hamill – the last of whom notably portrayed the Joker in the animated Batman series that ran from 1992 to 1995. It wasn’t just a hit amongst actors and actresses either; acclaimed filmmakers such as Michael Moore, Ana Lily Amirpour, Kelly Fremon Craig, Alex Ross Perry, and Guillermo del Toro had nothing but praise for it. Considering the most common argument against the film was that it wouldn’t be good for anything other than to inspire white men to commit mass shootings, this highly diverse fanbase completely renders such arguments null and void. It also suggests that, despite the critics’ insistence to the contrary, Joker did have a profound artistic statement to make. It is highly unlikely that many big-name filmmakers, actors, and actresses could be led astray.
On top of that, while critics considered Joker polarizing, audiences had no problems accepting it with many of them considering it one of the best films of the year and a great homage to the works of Martin Scorsese – particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. In this regard, Joker reminds me of the various successful indie video games in the latter half of the 2010s, which were often ignored by the press only to gain devoted followings. To put it another way, it was a case in which the common person proved they had better taste than those paid to pen their opinions.
What I feel ultimately allows Joker to triumph over the other satirical works of its day is one simple factor: applicability. Whether it was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, or Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, satires in the late-2010s left zero room for interpretation. The sheer amount of control they wielded ensured you had to leave the theater having appreciated the film entirely on their terms rather than your own. This resulted in a lot of works that became dated within seconds of their debuts. Joker doesn’t have that problem. Many people of differing viewpoints can sympathize with Arthur for various reasons, be they critical of society or simply empathetic to the mentally ill. Because of the many, many jabs Mr. Philips makes at the expense of the media and society, it’s ultimately left to the viewer as to what Joker symbolizes – an art long lost in filmmaking by 2019. For taking its audience seriously and openly challenging the countless unfortunate tendencies prevalent in those paid to voice their opinions at the time, Joker stands as one of the decade’s last standout efforts.
Final Score: 7/10